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The unending wondering: How personal growth fuels dental hygiene career choices

June 29, 2017
Andrea Kowalczyk, RDH, notes that dental hygiene professionals spend much time wondering about their career choice.

“Just when I think I have learned the way to live, life changes,” said Hugh Prather, an American self-help writer in the 1970s.

This quote resonates with me right now in a powerful way. I find myself, after over 22 years in the dental field, transitioning once again. Not necessarily out of it. Some days I move deeper into this field I chose practically living, breathing, and identifying my very sense of self with it, tooth-shaped key chain and all.

In the words of Malala Yousafzai, the Palestinian activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize, “I tell my story not because I am unique, but because I am not.” As a dental hygienist who has mentored, coached, and interviewed numerous other hygienists over the years, one of the threads I see running through many of us is this always omnipresent wondering about our careers.

Wondering if we chose the right field, the right office, the right degree plan, the right hours, the right patient population. To every commonality, there are those for whom it does not apply. Of course, there are many among us who have found their niche and never looked back. For the rest of us, though, dental hygiene is a field marked by vacillation.

As someone who recruits and interviews hygienists, I sometimes hear this wondering in their voice when it is time for them to decide to accept an offered position. “Should I commit to this?” This is rarely talked about but it’s important we drag it into the sunlight, try to understand it, and certainly not be ashamed of it.

The arduous sacrifice

Admittedly a first world problem, the suffering that true indecision can cause is real. This uncertainty can lead to cheating ourselves out of the very satisfaction that we seek. Most of us consider hygiene school something we worked so arduously to complete that we want to honor that sacrifice by being blissfully happy on the other side of it. I know I did.

In some areas of the country, some hygiene graduates are content just to find a job, any job, in their chosen profession and are disillusioned when they see the utter lack of opportunities available to them. These folks are shattered when their only option is to take what they can get, and some choose to leave the field entirely, virtually starting over at a time when they were sure they’d be settled. This type of forced change can literally feel like a crisis.

Some of us have the good fortune to have the choice of multiple job offers, working in all different sorts of practice settings. Then there are those who can choose to work part time, full time, or as a temp. The downside to this is that these “lucky” folks may experience choice overload, such as when one enters a store with a limited amount to spend and becomes overwhelmed by the vast array of products. When given a plethora of options, the likelihood of regretting a decision increases. I know from experience that having too many choices can feel like no less a quandary than not having enough of them.

A desire evolution

But let’s be clear for a moment. The aforementioned scenarios are purely logistical. What happens when your wondering has little to do with the realities of the employment market or your bills but more to do with your always changing, always evolving self? Noted spiritual guru Michael A. Singer said, “The life journey is one of constant transformation. In order to grow, you must give up the struggle to remain the same, and learn to embrace change at all times.”

My career evolved in a way was almost entirely unintentional, with zigs and zags I never could have predicted the day I graduated from hygiene school. I was one of those people who went into hygiene steadfastly dreaming of the three-day workweek at an office within 10 miles of my house.

What the universe ultimately had in mind for me was a full time, all-in, high-pressure career that had me traveling the country, mentoring and training hygienists, and writing and speaking. The confounding part? I loved it. I never imagined I could love it, could never have imagined this evolution at all. When presented with opportunities along the way, I made commitments that felt right at the time.

Today, I work as a hygiene recruiter, and I enjoy it more than anything I’ve done yet. I don’t think that is by accident, and perhaps I would not have chosen recruiting 10 years ago. It’s likely I would not have been ready. I think that sometimes, almost unconsciously, we seek out a career simply because of an evolution or change within ourselves.

Weathering the changes

This is just my story. For all those who have left clinical practice, there are likely many more that tried the corporate, academic, or other hygiene career routes, and found that they deeply missed seeing patients—that clinical practice was their passion and true calling. Many others, who never felt a need to change anything career-wise, may have recently faced other life-altering evolutions that leave them wondering about their job. The big events of life—the marriages, divorces, babies, moves, illnesses—all threaten to change our opinion on our current career situation at a moment’s notice.

The folks who weather changes well are those who have someone to talk to. Having a mentor to discuss your career with helps, if for no other reason than to confirm you are exactly where you need to be.

Most of do not spring from bed one day knowing we have developed into someone new. Personal growth usually emerges over a period of years, almost imperceptibly. Some of us remember our former selves so fondly that we refuse to even accept that we no longer resemble that person. The slow rate of personal growth along with our instinct to cling to what we know makes embracing our current selves unsettling sometimes. But embrace it we must, or we risk stagnation.

I wish I had some silver bullet of reassurance to spew forth that would put an end to our wondering about our careers. While I don’t have that golden nugget of advice, I take some comfort thinking that maybe there is no unequivocal knowing.

I do know that change is the very essence of life, in all of nature, including and maybe especially, in humans. I also know that personal growth is the opposite of plain old wishy-washy behavior. Growth is natural and positive, while the inability to make and keep real commitments is crippling and based on fear. I’m only just learning that my changing (and aging) self is something to embrace, not to deny is happening because I fear what that means for me.

Wondering is defined as “being curious to know something.” Maybe we aren’t wondering about our current job situation as much as we are wondering about ourselves? And isn’t that what grows us, and, makes us better for our patients, coworkers, and families? If that is so, then perhaps wondering isn’t such a bad thing after all.

I’d love to hear your stories of personal career growth, change, or questioning. Email me at [email protected].

Editor's note: This article first appeared in RDH eVillage. Click here to subscribe.

Andrea Kowalczyk, RDH, BS, is a national hygiene recruiter for a large dental group. She is a published author, speaker, coach and winner of the “2011 National Dental Hygiene Leader of the Year” at American Dental Partners. She can be reached at [email protected].

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