Article Date: 4/1/2006

If I Had to Do It Over
Don't Get Locked Onto One Track

During residency, this optometrist changed her career goal from private practice to academia. You can make a switch, too — at any time.

By Kelly K. Nichols, O.D., M.P.H, Ph.D.

WHEN I LEFT MY HOME in Reno, Nev., for college, I always expected to return and join a private practice after graduating from optometry school. I was attracted to private practice because it's an excellent setting for women and offers a comfortable income and lifestyle. Surprisingly, these same advantages prompted me to change my plans and pursue an academic career. Here's my journey.

Changing Course in Mid-stride

When I graduated from the School of Optometry at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1995, my clinical experience at a large ophthalmology referral center piqued my interest in researching dry eye disease. My plans for private practice were put on hold when I joined a graduate program at The Ohio State University (OSU) College of Optometry in Columbus. Here, I decided academia was the career path for me.

In 2000, after I earned a combined master's degree in public health and a Ph.D., I joined the faculty at OSU. Today, my research focus is dry eye in postmenopausal women.

In retrospect, I realize the quality of instruction I received at Berkeley and OSU influenced my decision to work in academia. I saw how optometrists took time away from their practices to teach a few days a week, and I understood firsthand how their passion and love of the profession energized future optometrists. 

Is Academia for You?

If you're inquisitive and have a desire to learn and teach, I encourage you to consider an academic career. Teaching is rarely presented to students as a career option, but the need for optometry school faculty will increase as more professors retire in the near future.

Some students may see income as a major obstacle to an academic career. Teachers don't make as much money as private practitioners, but we do benefit from less tangible rewards such as work-related travel, a flexible schedule and the opportunity to work with bright, talented people. You always can supplement your income with lectures and consulting.

Never Too Late

You don't have to decide if you want an academic career today. Just remember, you can always revisit this option and make a change at any point in your career. In fact, some of the best optometry professors worked in private practice or industry for years before becoming teachers.

Whatever career path you choose, your first decision doesn't have to be your last. Often you discover your passion during the course of you career. Once you make a contribution and spend time in the field, your opportunities will expand along with your experience.

Dr. Nichols is an associate professor at The Ohio State University College of Optometryin Columbus.

Optometric Management, Issue: April 2006