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Confessions of a dental gypsy: Work as a temp hygienist can make you a well-rounded clinician

Dec. 4, 2017
Lauren Hapeman, RDH, explores the pros and cons of being a temporary dental hygienist.

By Lauren Hapeman, RDH, BSDH

Admittedly, upon graduating from a dental hygiene program, I never intended to become addicted to the adventure of working as a full-time temp. The concept of temping evokes an idea of impermanence and, I naively thought, meant that one wasn’t capable of holding a permanent, professional position within a practice. While on the verge of graduating, many of my teachers cautioned our class about the dwindling job opportunities in our area (Philadelphia, where at least four dental hygiene programs are clustered within a fifty-mile radius).

Nevertheless, the pressure to “fake it ‘til you make it” and secure permanent employment remained a pressing priority among most graduates. After passing the national board exams and receiving official licensure, I was strangely transported back to the idea of temping as a viable career option. I navigated a flyer from the day when the owner of a nearby temping agency delivered a lecture at my school. She emphatically gave a presentation about the value of temping as a new graduate, passed out templates for résumés, and conducted mock job interviews with us in a matronly manner that suggested her extensive experience in the field. She answered questions and patiently offered sage advice about the intricacies of interactions between doctors, administrative staff, and clinical auxiliary personnel. She was the first person that I contacted when I received my license.

After three years of (paradoxically) working as a full-time temporary hygienist, my appreciation for this facet of dental hygiene practice grows daily. I’ve come to the realization that, as with any type of employment, the reality of temping can be broken up into categories: the bad, the good, and the misunderstood.

The Bad:
Negative stereotypes and unpredictable hours

While this article is mostly about the virtues of temping, it would be unfair to entirely omit the challenging or stress-inducing aspects of this career option. Temping can be hard on your psyche, your body, and, when positions are sparse, your bank account. First, let’s look closely at the ways that working for a temp agency can be draining emotionally.

Working as a temp often means that you will form an attachment to patients, staff members, and the protocol within a practice. Unlike conventional employment, the frequency with which you visit and work in a specific site can vary from “once” and “never again” to several weeks in a row, or even ongoing and monthly. In fact, it is common to have ongoing relationships with specific practices, but it is difficult to accept the unpredictability of an arrangement.

Additionally, temping often feels like an endless series of job interviews where the chemistry between you and the office that contracts you is unpredictable before your arrival. While many offices treat temporary hygienists with respect and gratitude, there will always be the employer who, almost on principle, treats a substitute as less-knowledgable, less qualified, and more desperate for work than their permanent counterparts. Many practices simply have a difficult time understanding why one would choose to be an independent contractor. That said, understanding the vast variation between dental offices and learning not to take these stereotypes to heart can make one more patient when working with others.

While permanent positions frequently guarantee a set schedule and hourly rate, these items are always variable when working through a temp agency (for example, different offices have a “cap” on how much they are willing to compensate a temp, and hourly wages can differ from practice to practice). There is also no way to ensure that the offices where one works are within close proximity to one’s home. For this reason, access to a car or public transportation is a necessity when working in contrasting locations.

Lastly, while some seasons seem to present with an endless amount of work (read: summer), it is more challenging to find consistent work during other months. Being both patient and able to independently manage one’s finances, maintain an organized calendar, and budget for slow times are necessary skills.

The Good:
Relationship-building and a sense that ‘the learning never stops”

Whether one temps in multiple practices consistently or, alternately, on a more short-term basis, working in a variety of settings can improve both clinical and communication skills at an exponential rate. Learning to arrive on time and offer an attitude of service and helpfulness to new offices often leads to long-term relationships with practices that value your work. This also helps one to find their own unique niche as a professional rather than immediately adopting the conventions of a specific office.

Rotating between offices can mean learning to utilize skills with contrasting patient populations (for example, working in a pediatric practice one day and for a periodontal specialist the next day) and a variety of software systems. Being up for the challenge of trying something new or different means that you will inevitably have exercised and sharpened skills that would otherwise go unused. Forming close connections with nearby offices can make it easier to customize and build a temping schedule in the long-term, and being an “employee” with less attachment makes it easier to avoid conflict in the workplace.

Similarly, building a schedule as a temp comes with the advantage of being able to carve out needed time to attend appointments, take vacations, and care for family members. In a culture where the concept of work/life balance (defined by Greenhaus as “satisfaction and good functioning at work and at home with a minimum of role conflict”) has garnered increasing attention, choosing how often one will work and being able to anticipate days off without negatively impacting an employer is of extreme value (Delecta, 2011).

As a temp, I was able to decline the work that was offered to me in advance, and I was also able to anticipate my weekly schedule days to weeks (to sometimes months) in advance. This ultimately enhanced my ability to live in the present moment, allowed me to prioritize my time more effectively, and gave me the flexibility to attend school part time while earning a living. It should also be said that the option to temp prevents many hygienists from physical burnout, should they choose to work part time.

As dental hygienists, the notion that learning should be a life-long process is something that is ingrained in us. We are taught that, even though we’ve met the minimum criteria to practice, we should be passionate about keeping up with new research, products, technologies, and current events within the profession.

To date, I have seen no better way to stay current and to get an accurate read on clinical dental hygiene practice than by temping. While working in different offices, I have seen variations in levels of workplace empowerment, type of equipment used, allotted time per patient, attention given to periodontal therapy, morale, company culture, uniform protocols, instruments ordered, sterilization methods, appointment sequencing, and communication between staff members.

I have learned to use adjunctive therapies that I was never taught in school. I was encouraged to invest in equipment that would make me a better clinician. I was required to learn how to chart with a variety of software systems and radiography devices. I made use of a translator via phone one day, and I treated members of my own community the next day.

I relish in the opportunity to work in such a limitless profession.

The Misunderstood:
An opportunity to connect and acquire new skills

To date, when colleagues inquire about my time working (almost exclusively) as a temp, my knee-jerk reaction is that it is one of the best career decisions that I have ever made.

They (understandably) meet my enthusiasm with a healthy dose of skepticism. Reactions such as, “But doesn’t learning a new room stress you out?” dominate the conversation until I explain myself. Yes, there is a momentary feeling of panic when faced with a new operatory, a new team, and a new set of conventions to learn and execute within a (very) short time frame.

However, there is also the invaluable reward that comes from communicating effectively, learning to organize and prioritize, and realizing that there is no “one” way to work in clinical practice. There is the satisfaction of a job well done, and of new and helpful tips and tricks learned from co-professionals that one may not have otherwise encountered.

Ultimately, there is the gratification of knowing that you are becoming more adaptable, well-rounded, and current as you encounter new technologies, workplace dynamics, and patient populations. Working as a temporary dental professional may not be for everyone, but I’ve found that choosing to intentionally temp for several years expanded my curiosity, made me better at my job, and helped me to learn and cultivate new skills at an accelerated rate.

Like the agency owner who left a permanent impression on me, I would strongly encourage new graduates to consider temping as a way to become comfortable and familiar with working in an office, and if ever afforded an extra day here or there, I am always up for the adventure of going into “uncharted” territory.

Lauren Hapeman, RDH, BSDH, is a clinical dental hygienist in Philadelphia, PA. She currently works in private practice four days per week and utilizes a public health dental hygiene practitioner license to work in non-traditional settings. Her professional interests include increasing access to care in urban communities, culturally competent communication, periodontal therapy, and establishing standards for ethical dental hygiene practice. She can be reached via e-mail at: [email protected]


1. Delecta, P. (2011). Work Life Balance. International Journal of Current Research, 33 (4) pp.186-189.