Write now: the key to (my) career success in the operatory and beyond.Picture this: You have been happily practicing clinical dental hygiene for years only to be laid off or suffer an injury. Or you are a new graduate and cannot find work. Or you have been in private practice and it is not what you had hoped it would be. Regardless of your situation, it is time to examine your options.
Like the majority of licensed dental hygienists in the United States, I completed close to four years of college to receive my associate degree in dental hygiene from a community college, in my case, Sacramento City College. I visualized myself remaining in clinical dental hygiene indefinitely, happy and content. Immediately following graduation, to preserve my amazing new profession, I became involved in my local component (Northern Nevada Dental Hygienists' Association) through committee work, service as the local president, and eventually being elected as president of the Nevada Dental Hygienists' Association. Serving in these capacities allowed me to offer professional advice and to observe how language was used in a number of ways: to communicate with the public about what exactly a dental hygienist is, to communicate with colleagues to attain consensus and disseminate information about organizational goals and objectives, and to collaborate with other health professionals to present legislation increasing access to care. Over time, I wrote a large number of reports, letters, speeches and articles for the local press.
When my tenure as state president ended, I decided I wanted to further my formal education. I believed education would be rewarding to me personally, because I wanted an academic degree that more accurately reflected the number of credits I had completed, as well as possibly enabling me to contribute more fully to the dental hygiene profession. I believed that dental hygienists with the more advanced degrees received more appointments and were in a better position to effect change. When I returned to college to complete my bachelor's degree through the University of St. Francis, I found that my writing skills were strong. I credit my writing not only to my personal interest in language, but also to my organizational experience. With encouragement from my professors, I entered graduate school specializing in English rhetoric and composition. Concurrent with my graduate education, I became involved in publishing for professional journals and teaching, both for English and dental hygiene; for example, my monthly "Perspective" column in RDH magazine.
As I completed my doctoral education at the University of Nevada Reno, I found myself at the interface of writing and dental hygiene. While teaching prospective dental hygienists, I wondered how I might effectively incorporate writing into their coursework. How could I empower not only college students who enjoy clinical dental hygiene, but also those who might aspire to use their dental hygiene education as a catalyst for other roles and activities? While teaching college composition, I wondered how I might most effectively reach students who plan careers in health care, science or technical fields. My combination of interests--composition/rhetoric and dental hygiene--is no doubt unusual, and I find the two fields inseparable. I structured my doctoral dissertation, which addressed the role of writing in the careers of prominent dental hygienists, to capitalize on both fields. My hope is that my research raised awareness of how dental hygienists communicate in writing.
Immediately following the completion of my dissertation, because of my licensure as a RDH and my newly earned PhD, I had the good fortune of teaching upper-division writing courses designed specifically for college juniors and seniors who were pursuing careers in health care, science, technology and publication at the University of California Santa Barbara. Students learned of the different forms of writing their future jobs entailed: charts and notes (of course), emails, formal letters, memos, instructions, proposals, websites, blogs, personal statements, resumes, articles, research and more. Students also learned of their different audiences: patients (children and adults), colleagues, employers, attorneys, vendors, the public, legislators, editors, professors and so forth. I had the opportunity to remind students that one never knows where one's career will lead. After all, my career, which began in clinical dental hygiene, led me to become a change agent, writer, speaker and educator all through my interest in writing and language. When I received my associate degree in dental hygiene, I certainly did not see myself as involved in dental hygiene as I had become, let alone an English professor.
My doctoral degree has obviously opened many doors and opportunities that would not have presented themselves had I not continued my education. I believe it is, at least partially, because I have those initials after my name (both the RDH and the PhD) that I am able to write as much as I do, that I taught university-level composition--to eventually teach dental hygiene at my alma mater, serve as interim director and achieve tenure--to eventually return to teaching college composition. Obviously, those initials alone would not have worked had I not had terrific mentors and colleagues, a solid network developed through years of service, some level of skill and talent, and perhaps a dash of luck and timing.
View these challenging economic times as a gift, allowing us momentary pause to reflect on possibilities beyond the operatory and to take stock in our interests. Having a degree in dental hygiene and honing the skills developed though clinical practice and patient care affords us many transferrable skills: time management, negotiation, interpersonal communication, record keeping, math and, yes, writing to name just a few. Although the transferable skills might be all that is needed to take advantage of some ventures, more than likely it will be necessary to have some additional specialized training. This might be as simple as a weekend class, a week-or month-long workshop, or a year or more of formal education. Regardless, it is essential that we all examine our possibilities, be willing to do what is necessary to move towards our goals, and broaden our horizons. What is achieved may surprise and delight.
By Heidi Emmerling Munoz, RDH, PhD, FAADH
Heidi Emmerling Munoz, RDH, PhD, FAADH is a professor at Sacramento City College, former interim director, and a CODA site consultant. She is also owner of Writing Cures (www.writingcures.com), a writing and editing service. Dr. Munoz is co-author of The Purple Guide: Paper Persona and creator of the Career Development Center for Friends of Hu-Friedy. A recipient of many professional awards and distinguished recognition, she is a former columnist and con-suiting editor for RDH Magazine, co-founder of The Radical Hygienist, and has written articles and columns for a variety of publications. Dr. Munoz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.