Article Date: 10/1/2008

It's All About the Experience
Street Smarts

It's All About the Experience

Hands on learning offers more benefits than taking an observer's approach to optometry.

By Dan Beck, OD
Leland, N.C.

EXPERIENCE. I've been hearing that word thrown around quite a bit lately. Does he have enough experience to lead? They have experienced the devastation of the hurricane. You have no experience in the true horrors of war. So how does the word affect new and future optometrists?

What is Experience?

Webster's defines experience as: 1) what happens to a person or 2) knowledge or skill gained by seeing, doing or living through. While the seeing and living through aspects help set the foundation, it's the "doing" that ultimately defines competency. This is the reason why properly choosing internship sites, residency sites and your first real job are so important.

Learn by Doing

I was very lucky to have chosen the internship sites I did. This, however, was not a result of any diligent research done on my part. I chose one in Salt Lake City for the great skiing and another in Fort Lauderdale for the wonderful beaches. Laugh if you want, but we all know social benefits play a large role in site selection. Fortunately for me, both of those sites fully embraced the concept of baptism by fire. For those unfamiliar with the phrase, it means learn by doing — not watching.

Although I didn't appreciate it at the time, being thrown into tough situations forced me to learn quickly. I made my fair share of mistakes and received many reprimands, but I made sure I did everything I could to avoid making the same mistakes in the future. Simply watching a doctor "do" would have set me up for more errors. I actually thought I perforated a patient's globe the first time I tried to remove a conjunctival foreign body, but I've gotten better at it over the years.

After graduating, I had a couple months free before I could take the North Carolina board and then another 6 weeks to wait to learn if I'd passed. In 1993, North Carolina had, quite possibly, the most expansive scope of practice laws for optometrists. I knew I wanted to make a career there, but I took a job at a Wal-Mart in Fredericksburg, Va., to get my feet wet while I waited.

The Wal-Mart practice was leased to an optometrist whose primary practice was more than an hour and a half away. The place was so tiny that the visual field machine was in the same room as the waiting area and the receptionist's desk. Certainly, it was a one-man operation.

From the first day, I was alone and on my own. The leasing doctor would call me a few times a week but that was the extent of his involvement with me. I had no choice but to provide eye care without his help. I was there about 6 months, and those months were critical because I was forced to develop my craft and learn to trust my own instincts and decisions. That trial by fire gave me the experience I needed to move forward professionally.

Jump in With Both Feet

As you go out and seek your first internship, residency or job, try to remember that learning by doing is by far the best way to prepare yourself and advance your career. Hopefully, you can score a location that's near a snow-packed ski mountain or a white, sandy beach. nOD

A true believer in the benefits of baptism by fire and hands-on training, Dr. Beck is a 1993 graduate of Pennsylvania College of Optometry. You can reach him at

Optometric Management, Issue: October 2008