Article Date: 4/1/2004

Tracking the Tides
A new survey from the Southern California College of Optometry casts light on how the SCCO classes of 1997 through 2000 are faring.
By Chad M. Swanson and Scott C. Neuman,
Fullerton, Calif.

Here we are, poised on the cusp of graduation from optometry school replete with the skills and knowledge we need to practice our chosen profession. Still, some unsettling questions remain.

Will the day-to-day practice of optometry be satisfying personally and professionally? Will it live up to our expectations? How will we enjoy dealing with a public that ranges from appreciative to sullen? Will the paycheck make it all worthwhile?

These questions will remain unanswered until after we've entered the fray. Meantime, you may be interested in learning how those who've gone before us have fared and how they view their progress and disparate struggles.

To that end, we surveyed 219 graduates of the 1997­ 2000 classes of the Southern California College of Optometry (SCCO) -- an exercise SCCO students perform every few years -- asking about demographics, mode of practice, income and career satisfaction. Their responses offer a snapshot of today's new O.D.s as they negotiate the challenges of early practice. Adding to the survey's value is the chance to compare the experiences and attitudes of recent graduates with those of their earlier counterparts.


If satisfaction is where expectations intersect with reality, the SCCO classes of 1997­ 2000 have seen mixed results.

Take income. Overall, incomes ranged from meager (less than $15,000) to prosperous (greater than $105,000). The most prevalent income range -- noted by 21.9% (n = 47) of respondents -- was $75,000 to $84,999. The next most-common segment were the 41 (19.1%) respondents whose incomes exceed $105,000.

A plurality (35.8%) of respondents said they'd expected during their school days to be earning more by now. Another 30.7% said their incomes match their expectations, while 31.1% are pleased to be outpacing what they'd envisioned earlier.

Interestingly, those working in small towns top the list of high-income O.D.s. But curiously, small-town optometrists also represent the lowest earners.

A sizable gender gap remains in optometry. Men enjoy a median income ranging from $85,000 to $95,000, while for women it's $75,000 to $85,000. Men represent a far higher percentage of those making more than $105,000 (27.7%) compared with women (15.3%).

Why? Is it because most men are solo private practitioners (24.6%), while most women are employed by another practitioner (33.3%)? Lending credence to this interpretation is the fact that, of the 41 people in the highest income bracket, most (48.8%) were solo private practitioners. Also, women are more likely to work in a traditionally lower-paying commercial setting (14.7%) vs. men (10.8%).

Maybe it's also partly because men on average work slightly more hours per week (41.1 hours) than women do (37.2). In any event, a definitive rationale for a gender-based income gap that mirrors that of earlier surveys remains elusive.


Here's a simple question. Are you satisfied with what you're doing and where you're doing it? The O.D.s who responded to our survey overwhelmingly said yes. Some 81.9% (n = 176) were satisfied or very satisfied with their current mode of practice. Another 14.7% were ambivalent, while 3.2% admitted they were downright unsatisfied or even very unsatisfied.

Solo practitioners represented the largest group (34.7%) of O.D.s who are very satisfied with their current practice mode. In fact, none of the self-employed practitioners expressed dissatisfaction.

At the other end of the spectrum are those working in a commercial setting, none of whom claimed to be very satisfied with their situation. Many may harbor mixed feelings. A sizable number of new O.D.s work two jobs, one in a private practice and another in a commercial mode.

Looking at the broader picture, we asked the new O.D.s whether they were satisfied that they chose optometry in the first place. Here, the responses were mixed. Fewer respondents claimed to be very satisfied (37.2%) than those who were merely satisfied (43.7%). The ambivalent accounted for 11.6% of the sample, while 6.0% (n = 13) were unsatisfied with their career choice. None claimed to be very unsatisfied.

Why did those surveyed choose a particular practice mode? Some 35% were seeking a "rewarding experience." Others cited family considerations (22.8%), income (21.9%) and location (21.4%).


Perhaps the best news to come out of this study is that incomes are on the rise for both men and women. Another great piece of news is the high levels of satisfaction reported by these SCCO grads; the vast majority are either very satisfied or satisfied with their decision to practice optometry.

We look forward to seeing where these trends stand next time this type of survey is conducted.

Chad Swanson, SCCO class of 2004, plans to enter private practice. Scott Neuman is finishing an internship at Indian Health Hospital in Rapid City, S.D. He will enter private practice in Wyoming. This survey was funded by a grant from Essilor of America.



Now and Then

Chad M. Swanson's and Scott C. Neuman's survey of the Southern California College of Optometry (SSCO) classes of 1997­2000 mirrors earlier ones by Emily Henricks and Joyce Spiry (who in 1996 surveyed the SCCO classes of 1988­1992) and Carl Cottrell and Harvey Ledesma (who in 1998 surveyed the SCCO classes of 1993­1996). Comparing the three surveys offers some interesting observations of optometry's evolution over the last 13 years.

One noteworthy trend involves the size of populations among which the SCCO graduates choose to practice. Compared with Henricks's and Spiry's findings, Cottrell and Ledesma discovered that both men and women from the 1993­1996 classes tended to shift away from urban areas and into small towns and rural settings. Swanson's and Neuman's 2004 survey subsequently found that women are moving from small towns and rural settings into suburban areas. The recent study also found that men from the 1997­2000 SCCO classes are practicing more in urban settings than before and less in suburbs, small towns and rural outposts.

Modes of practice likewise have changed over the years. Henricks and Spiry noted that 64.1% of the men and 30.4% of the women from the 1988­1992 classes worked in private practice. Two years later, Cottrell and Ledesma unveiled a major shift, reporting that 39.5% of men from the 1993­1996 classes worked in private practice while the percentage of women in private practice remained fairly constant. Swanson and Neuman now report that 50.8% of men and 38.0% of women work in private practice.

Further inferences may be drawn from the number of employed O.D.s. Henricks's and Spiry's study of the 1988­1992 SCCO classes found that 20.9% of men were employed by O.D.s, M.D.s, HMOs and commercial outlets, while 39.6% of women practiced in such settings. Both of those figures increased in Cottrell's and Ledesmas's survey of the 1993­1996 classes, with 54.0% of men and 57.7% of women employed in such a manner. The rate of employed women later shot up (74.7%) in Swanson's and Neuman's survey of the 1997­2000 classes, while the share of employed men eased slightly (50.8%). Many of these respondents indicated that they worked in more than one practice mode, which is why the numbers exceed 100%.

Finally, it's worth noting that Swanson's and Neuman's survey of the 1997­2000 SCCO classes found a significant increase in the income levels of both men and women. Henricks and Spiry surveying the 1988­1992 SCCO classes discovered a median salary range for men of $55,000­$65,000 and for women $45,000­$55,000. Cottrell and Ledesma noted an equal median range for both men and women from the 1993­1996 SCCS classes of $55,000­$65,000 -- stagnant for the men but an increase for the women. Swanson's and Neuman's survey of the 1997­2000 classes showed higher incomes for both men ($85,000­$95,000) and women ($75,000­$85,000). The statistical modes have climbed over the years as well, reaching $105,000 for men and $75,000­$85,000 for women in the most recent survey.

--Chad M. Swanson and Scott C. Neuman

Happy in Helena

Helena, Mont., optometrist Bill Hasquet, O.D., enjoyed a cardinal advantage over many of his Southern California College of Optometry classmates. Long before he graduated in 1997, he knew exactly what he wanted to do and where he wanted to do it.

Dr. Hasquet, now 33, had a 2-year associateship leading to a partnership already set up for him in a thriving three-O.D. practice where two of the partners were soon to retire. He'd abandoned plans to become an accountant during his undergraduate years after talking with optometrists in his hometown of Shelby, Mont. (pop. 3,500), a small town that's produced more than 20 O.D.s in the last 40 years. Their advice guided him to health care -- an inspired career choice.

"I wanted to go into a profession where I'd deal with people one-on-one," says Dr. Hasquet, a former college football player and now the married father of two small children. "I really enjoy interacting with patients and making a difference in their lives. That's probably the most rewarding aspect of this profession."

Optometry has brought Dr. Hasquet financial rewards as well. His two-partner practice, of which he owns a 50% share, grosses $1.8 million yearly. "My partner and I are proactive and creative enough to remain competitive in a continually changing healthcare market. The income is one of the pleasant surprises about private practice," he says.

Dr. Hasquet's equanimity over carrying a hefty debt to buy into his practice comes by example from his father, a farmer and rancher who raised 15 children while "in debt up to his eyeballs," Dr. Hasquet recalls. "He was always investing in his own abilities and his work ethic. I guess when you do that, you're pretty much confident that you're going to do whatever you want."

Already planning long-range career goals, Dr. Hasquet envisions setting up satellite clinics in rural areas throughout Montana, aiming to give young O.D.s a chance to get a fresh start. Such a move comes as no surprise. It's just the kind of small-town, civic-minded support that got Dr. Hasquet established in the first place.


Optometric Management, Issue: April 2004