Article Date: 9/1/2010

10 Early Career Tips to Follow

10 Early Career Tips to Follow

With 20/20 hindsight, an experienced OD offers advice on starting a rewarding life and career.

By Pamela J. Miller, OD, FAAO, JD, DPNAP

You're starting out in optometry, making choices and pursuing options that will help shape your career and your life. How will it turn out? In my experience, it takes quite a few years to be able to look back objectively at your career and point to the things you did well or the things you wish you'd done differently. I'm at a stage where I have most of the things in place that will shape the remainder of my professional career and my life. But, if I look back at myself when I was just starting out in my early 20s, I remember how the world seemed wide open. I had plenty of time, health and energy to do everything I wanted. I did well academically. I was a high-achieving type-A personality driven to succeed with my degree and my license … the smartest, best trained and most prepared a person could be to practice my chosen profession.

The bad news is that you may have less time and energy than you think. You lack experience and business knowledge. You're probably unprepared to deal with staffing issues, and you have yet to develop a comfortable but effective bedside manner.

Years from now, what will you look back on with pride? What will you wish you could change? I want your answer to the first question to be much longer than your answer to the second one, and I think that means not only making money, but also having a happy life. Know what success means to you and what will make you feel good about yourself. These things are rarely measured in terms of money, but instead are often intangible. Know what they are, and keep them in mind as you read this list of 10 things that many doctors agree are key to long-term success and happiness in optometric practice.

1 Lay out your goals. Where do you want to be in 1 year? How about in 5 or 10 years? If your goal, for example, is to open your own practice, then you need preparation, skill and knowledge that you don't get in optometry school. Learn and get encouragement from other practitioners. Devise a game plan now. If you want to be an associate, plan ways to make yourself valuable to potential employers. Talk to your colleagues to get a realistic set of expectations, based on a solid foundation and knowledge. Start right away.

2 If you have a dream, pursue it now. If your goals include dreaming big — earning another degree, doing research, getting on faculty at an institution, or sailing around the world — then approach your dream today while you have time, energy and health. Unforeseen things will happen. You'll get married, have children, build more debt, have to care for your parents, develop a health problem, or experience some other mystery that the future holds.

The worst words are "I could have" or "I should have," so make sure you never have to say them. Don't wait to follow your heart's desire until you're financially stable or retired. Begin today.

3 Find a mentor. You can't base a career on what other grads say or even on articles like this one. You'll feel much more confident in your decisions if you have a mentor. Everyone needs a mentor, someone who has more experience and knowledge and has already reached a state of security and success. Look for someone who shares easily, encourages you and also keeps your confidences.

4 Go where you want to live. When you're starting your career, move to the location where you want to spend a significant portion of your life. Once you start to develop friendships and community ties, it's very hard to move and start over, so do it right the first time, if possible.

5 Get out there. Get involved in your profession and your community from the start. It's fun and you'll help grow the practice by networking with other professionals and raising your profile and ability to draw new patients into the practice.

6 Develop a rapport with patients. Empathy and good bedside manners don't come naturally. They're learned traits that play a key role in determining your success or failure. You've had patient care experience in school, and you're about to get more. My advice for beginners: Learn how to listen and then react. You'll learn a lot, including what patients expect you to do and how you can remedy their problems.

Patients won't just talk to you about their eyes. Get comfortable with some routine responses to their comments. For example, if a patient says, "You don't look old enough to be a doctor," don't get defensive and recite your age, years of experience and so on. Instead, try saying, "Thank you, what a nice thing to say. I'm lucky. Everyone in my family looks young." By the same token, avoid the pitfall of citing your experience — it takes 10 years or so before a phrase like "In my experience…" carries any weight with patients.

7 Learn about business. You must be able to hold your own in the business world. When you start out, consider taking some basic courses, such as business accounting, tax preparation or basic contract law. With a base of business knowledge, you should be able to speak knowledgably with professional advisors. Without that knowledge, people with more experience and savvy may take advantage of you.

You simply don't get this education in optometry school, but these classes are essential to building a successful career when you enter the business world. If you're in an optometry practice or you want to break out on your own, then you're in business. And no matter how excellent you are as a practitioner, if you fail in business, you fail in optometry.

8 Plan ahead for lean times. Even established practices don't profit uniformly year-round and new practices are even more erratic. But you must be able to pay your bills on time every month. For example, people don't generally think about spending money at the doctor's office in December (unless they're using up their medical savings accounts). To make matters worse, employee taxes, insurance, annual taxes, property taxes and so on are due in November and December. When there's a lot going out and not enough coming in, you still need to pay the mortgage, so budget your income to last all year.

9 Make a flexible schedule from the start. Work no more than 4 days a week. Even if the office is open additional days for other practitioners, schedule your patients together, a year in advance. Why? Things happen. You may not realize it right away, but when other ventures arise in your life, like family functions and other obligations, you'll be glad your schedule is flexible enough to accommodate life outside the office.

10 Don't just be an OD. Optometry school is over but you should never stop learning. Try new things, tackle new challenges and most of all, have fun. Life is too short to be miserable. Life experiences benefit you and your patient care, because you'll become a more complete, happy person.

Everyone is different, and your school colleagues will take off in many different directions after school. Don't worry about who has a larger practice or more money or a better professorship. Be yourself. Years from now, you'll have a rewarding life if you find out now what makes you happy and whole and go after it! nOD

Dr. Miller graduated from Southern California College of Optometry and opened a solo practice in Highland, Calif. She holds a doctorate in Jurisprudence and is a Fellow in the American Academy of Optometry, a Distinguished Practitioner in the National Academies of Practice, and President of the American Optometric Society. In addition, she publishes and lectures extensively and has served on the California Optometric Association Board of Trustees and the California State Board of Optometry. E-mail her at

Optometric Management, Issue: September 2010