Article Date: 3/1/2004

Get an Early Start on Your Career
A new grad offers some eye-opening strategies.
By Kevin L. Gee, O.D., F.A.A.O.,
Temple, Texas

Are you preparing for the future? No, not tomorrow or next week. I mean the future, as in your career in optometry. I know you don't have any time, but I'm here to help.

Too often, in school we're so engulfed with studies, we lose sight of our goals and end up taking a "job" after graduation. Preparation can save you a lot of stress and help you find the opportunity you want rather than settling for what's left.

The day you proudly append O.D. to your name, you will have worked diligently for 4 years. You deserve to have exactly what you want. Whether you're just starting optometry school or in the last semester, you still have time to prepare. Here are a few tips.

1st YEAR

Congratulations, you've made it into optometry school! Now, study your schedule, figure out how much time you have to spare and contact local optometrists. Practicing optometrists realize that you are the future of optometry and most are willing to let you observe or volunteer. Some may even offer you part-time employment.

Realistically, it may be difficult to find employment that fits your limited time, but if you do land a position, you can take the opportunity to build vital time-management skills. You'll be exposed to real-world optometry, and you'll begin to form ideas of what you want to do when you're finally out of school.

How do you find these local O.D.s? Contact your state optometric association. Some state associations have mentoring programs; others may be able to put you in touch with optometrists who welcome students to observe their practices. And stay alert for networking opportunities.

As for me, I started working in the summer of my first year. I met a doctor at a dinner meeting sponsored by a contact lens company, and we really hit it off. He invited me to work in his practice. I feel fortunate to have met a doctor who was so flexible and understanding of my study schedule.

At first, I worked on Saturdays, helping with filing and appointment scheduling. Gradually, the doctor gave me more responsibilities, such as teaching contact lens application and removal, optical sales, edging and dispensing spectacle lenses and conducting preliminary work-ups. He gave me the opportunity to turn my lessons into practical experience.

2nd YEAR

You often hear practicing optometrists talk about needing a business background to manage a practice. Before I continue -- and before you skip this paragraph -- I'm not just talking about O.D.s who own private practices. Management skills are invaluable in any practice setting.

For example, I practice in a hospital where I don't necessarily have to be concerned with managing finances to make ends meet. But I do supervise technicians, set up my clinic schedule and develop efficient protocols, all of which require management skills.

The point is, if you can find the time, take a business management course. If your undergraduate curriculum included business courses, you're ahead of the game. Too many of us have to learn these skills the hard way -- on our own.

If you don't have time for a formal class, at least check out some books that can put you on the right track. Some of the best are written by practicing O.D.s:

3rd YEAR

This is really when the rubber hits the road. No pressure, but right about now you should have some idea of the type of practice you'd like to pursue. Notice I said "pursue," not "lock in an offer." I think it's premature (and you'd be hard-pressed to find someone to commit) to accept an offer for a practice opportunity 2 years from graduation. Circumstances change. Better offers may come your way. But now's the time to consider seriously what type of optometry you want to practice.

One way to explore you options is to choose your external rotations wisely. While some of your classmates are planning 3-month "vacations" to exotic places to do their rotations, you may have to "sacrifice" getting a great tan in favor of learning what you want to do with the rest of your life. Here's what to think about when researching your external rotation opportunities:

1. If you already know what type practice you'd like to get into, choose a relevant externship site. If you prefer a multidisciplinary setting, look for an ophthalmology group or a hospital.

2. If you're still undecided, your externships will help you narrow your career choices.

3. If you know where you'd like to practice, do a rotation in that area.

This is the time to start preparing your curriculum vitae (CV). You'll need it as you enter your last year of school and begin your rotations. A CV is a resume that describes your education, work experience in the field, association memberships, licensure, honors, achievements and publications relevant to the profession.

4th YEAR

You've made it through your classes, and now it's time to show your stuff at your external rotations. Here are some tips to make the most of your experience:

1. Observe as many surgeries as possible. You'll be much more fluent when explaining procedures to your patients, and your patients will feel more at ease knowing that you're conversant with the procedure for which you're referring them. Do this now. When you start practicing, it's much more difficult to break away to observe surgeries.

2. If you're rotating with an optometrist, observe his practice habits, business decisions, and how he handles patient care and patient flow. Also, try to schedule some time to visit other practices and referral sources. You'll definitely observe different methods for managing a practice. Use this knowledge to formulate your own management style.

3. If your rotation is near where you'd like to settle, get to know the referral sources (the good ones and the bad ones) in that area. Investigate the optometric climate. Learn which ophthalmologists are "O.D.-friendly." Find out if that corner you have your heart set on for your practice has six other optometrists within a half-mile radius. Figure out what the opinion of the community is toward optometrists. And get involved with the local optometric society. Stay alert for great networking opportunities that could help you further your career.


All this said, I understand the prospect of looking for employment can seem overwhelming in a competitive and somewhat saturated market. Some experts advise promoting a quality that sets you apart from others, but it's equally -- if not more -- important to start early and gain an advantage by preparing for the challenges ahead.

Believe me, I didn't have it all together when I started school. I was relieved that I was accepted into optometry school, and I had to feel my way through the process that I've shared with you. These tips aren't hard-and-fast but just a guide to get you started and thinking.

If you take anything away from this article, I encourage you not to settle for a "job." When you can wake up in the morning and look forward to the day to come, that's not work, it's not a job, it's fulfillment for all you've achieved through your schooling. You've worked hard. You deserve it. Settle for nothing less!

A 2002 graduate of University of Houston College of Optometry, Dr. Gee is an assistant clinical professor of surgery for the Texas A&M University System Health Science Center and on staff in the Department of Ophthalmology at Scott & White Memorial Hospital in Temple, Texas.



Make the Most of Your Externship

Entering my third year of optometry school, I pictured myself practicing in a metropolitan area, in a private practice, employed by a senior optometrist. When it came to selecting externship sites, I thought I'd go to San Diego for the summer and Albuquerque, N.M., for the spring. I had visions of playing volleyball on the beach, spending weekends in Los Angeles in the summer and enjoying hot-air balloon rides in the spring. So much for daydreaming.

I now practice in a multidisciplinary/hospital setting with 10 ophthalmologists and two other optometrists in a city with a population of 55,000. I completed both of my externships in Austin, Texas, 60 miles south of where I now practice. Although my initial selections are good educational sites for some, I didn't choose my externships very wisely for myself. I made some changes that I now count as invaluable.

I ended up doing my first externship with a private ophthalmology group that had its own surgery center. I observed cataract, glaucoma and retina surgery. I also followed these patients with the ophthalmologists during their postoperative visits, which helped me learn what to expect and what to look for postoperatively. This practice had two of the area's best-known LASIK surgeons with different philosophies and techniques. Some might say that once you've seen one LASIK procedure, you've seen them all, but there always seemed to be something interesting or an unexpected turn of events.

My role at this site was mostly as an observer; I didn't get my hands on many patients. Some sites are often overlooked because we're looking for "practice" in our final year of school. Even so, this observation helped me formulate treatment regimens in my mind and compare them to what the ophthalmologists were doing. I did feel it necessary to work on Saturdays with an optometrist who let me see patients and keep my skills polished.

My second externship was with a fairly affluent private optometric practice. My preceptor was plugged into the O.D. community and set up times for me to visit with other optometrists, sometimes just 1 day and sometimes weeks at a time. Also, I visited with all of the referral sources this optometrist used. I spent time observing oculoplastic and pediatric surgeries.

I often find myself thinking about what I learned in my externships. I feel fortunate to have observed so many surgeries and visited so many different optometrists. I understand that my experience is somewhat unique. Some sites are better than others and some will suit you better than they will another classmate, but in the end, you really determine how much you can get out of your externships.




Optometric Management, Issue: March 2004