Article Date: 9/1/2012

Finding Your Optometric Niche

Finding Your Optometric Niche

Explore your true self to help guide your decision.

“WHAT WILL SET me apart?” is optometry's version of the popular yet futile “fountain of youth” question. The new generation of ODs wonders how to stand out in the dizzying whirlpool of experienced optometrists.

These timeless questions have something in common: the ever-elusive answer. And just like many of life's complexities, we pay no attention to the solution right under our noses.

Before a wave of stress threatens to swallow you up, take a moment to stop and smell … well, forget the roses. Smell your favorite flowers, cookies, brand-new notebooks — whatever it is you love.

When planning your future goals, don't neglect your past and remember to consider passions outside of your profession. These can easily translate into your best-fit optometric niche.

Accompanied by your built-in enthusiasm in this area, your optometric niche can keep you afloat and give each day purpose as you finish school, rock a residency or filter into the optometric workforce. Working within your niche can transform the beginning of your career from a boggle into a puzzle that boasts all of the pieces falling into place.

Helping to Discover Your Niche

With all of the possible optometric avenues, some sincere, yet light-hearted, internal reflection can reveal your best-fit niche. Putting the serious thoughts of school demands and career plans aside, what do you love? Not the serious, doctor, cream-of-the-crop version of you. Ask the real you these questions:

What did you love as a child? Think back to the pure, innocent you of yesteryear. What did you love and could not live without? What was your go-to activity when you were with your friends? Who is the real you?

American Optometric Association President Ronald L. Hopping, OD, MPH, jokingly reminisces about being “this nerdy kid who picked out a model of an eyeball” when the rest of his Boy Scout troop chose models of planes, trains and cars to build.

He remembers being inquisitive and constantly wanting to learn. While juggling lacrosse and soccer as an undergrad at Kenyon College in Ohio, Hopping's curiosity led him to write a paper on the effects of hard contact lenses on the cornea's physiology, exceeding all expectations for the assignment and earning him the second highest award for contact lens research.

Acting on his innate inquisitiveness opened the door for Hopping to become an AOA Diplomat in cornea and contact lenses, one of many accomplishments in his eclectic resume. He holds a medical degree in public health, specializes in therapeutics and glaucoma, has served on national legislative, sports vision, contact lens and practice management committees and worked with the Sports Vision Section to evaluate Olympic athletes before competing in the 1988 Games.

“I enjoy the variety,” Hopping says. His advice to maintain a happier, healthier life: “Variety and you have to keep your energy level up.”

Is it any surprise the AOA's immediate past president Dori Carlson, OD, was student body president at her Minnesota high school? Fast forward a few years, and this post-optometry school grad and natural-born leader's niche in optometric politics officially began — having been asked to serve on the North Dakota Optometric Association Coding Committee. Although she never actively sought a high position, the gumption to take the reigns stayed with her through the years.

“If you have the qualities to push yourself, go out and lead,” Carlson says. Her ascent felt like “one thing after another in little, baby steps,” she says. Remember your roots and follow Carlson's advice to “step outside your comfort zone and just be a leader.” These steps can help you recognize where your personality and capabilities might take you.

Have you discovered an unfulfilled need in your community? “I thought I'd do something no one else could,” says Dawn DeCarlo, OD, the AOA's Vision Rehabilitation Section chair and Center for Low Vision Rehabilitation director at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.

During a residency heavy in ocular disease, DeCarlo noticed many optometrists treating diseases but few focusing on low vision. She says it's difficult to find people involved in low vision, especially those in research. Knowing she didn't want to fill her days with the business side of private practice, DeCarlo's puzzle pieces landed her in the academic realm, teaching at her alma mater, UAB, and at Nova Southeastern University. But she owes finding her optometric niche to her residency, especially the two days every week spent in the Blind Rehabilitation Center.

According to DeCarlo, to make a residency worthwhile, it must be somewhere different from where you completed your first 4 years of optometry school. Once out of the UAB arena and onto her Chicago residency, she was able to “see new perspectives.” Her residency could “challenge [her] in different ways” and opened her eyes to a national need. “One of the best things I ever did,” DeCarlo says. She said her residency was like “someone having your back. It gave me one more year to feel totally confident.”

Explore Your Options

You've put in the effort and deep thought, and you have a hunch about a niche or two you think might be deserving of your time and energy. You might catch yourself daydreaming about what your day would be like and how you would look while serving your chosen optometric specialty. If you're guilty of enjoying a blissful daydream and all the warm fuzzies it brings, then take it as a sign. Don't wait for a better time. Go explore.

“Be a self-starter,” says Carlson. “Too many people wait for others to ask them to do something.”

You can get involved by simply approaching someone “in the know” and expressing your interest, Carlson says.

The AOA provides many avenues for those willing to reach out and grab the resources it offers. There are AOA sections devoted to Contact Lens and Cornea, Sports Vision and Vision Rehabilitation. As a member of the AOA, optometrists, residents and students are automatically members of their section of interest, and there's no invitation or permission required to contact seasoned optometrists to ask about becoming more involved in a certain area.

Maintaining a balance of what Hopping calls “a combination of what you enjoy and your skill set” results in passion and will be recognized by your patients and peers. That sincere enthusiasm will lead to that elusive, personal happiness and success everyone keeps talking about. Your spark is the difference and is where the magic lives — setting yourself apart in a crowd of white coats.

“Push yourself outside your comfort zone,” says Carlson. “You never know where you'll end up.” nOD

Kim Hunt is a third-year at the Indiana University School of Optometry, where she hones her special niche, sports vision. This Southern belle loves football and can be caught rooting for her alma mater, the University of South Carolina Gamecocks.

Optometric Management, Volume: , Issue: September 2012, page(s): 58 59