Optometrists today have many unique and different career paths available to them. In this article series, we’ll be engaging with optometrists from various common (and not-so-common) practice modalities to get a firsthand perspective on what optometry is like in their setting.
Today, we’re interviewing two optometrists working in academia: Stephanie Adams, OD, PhD, and Jamy Borbidge, OD. Dr. Adams is an assistant professor at Illinois College of Optometry and Dr. Borbidge is an assistant professor and community outreach director at Pacific University College of Optometry.
What advice would you offer newly graduated optometrists considering a career path in academia?
Dr. Adams: If you value lifetime learning, enjoy teaching others, and want to focus on medical-based optometry, academia is a great path to choose. Your priorities will be largely shared between teaching and patient care. An academic setting makes it easy to stay up to date on new knowledge as your students and patients look to you for your professional opinion.
My advice would be to utilize networking both inside and outside your current institution. Many students transition from student to resident to faculty member all within their alma mater. This is probably the easiest to accomplish within your own optometry school as you are familiar with the faculty, patient population, and all didactic courses. I was motivated for a change in environment after spending many years in Boston, and made new contacts through a networking event at the American Academy of Optometry meeting. This networking event led me to my current position at ICO.
Dr. Borbidge: Do a residency! Not only is it generally required for most academic positions, but you will learn so much and it will give you extra experience to draw from as you teach or research. Also, reach out to people you may know who are affiliated with different institutions. Each academic institution is unique and finding the environment and culture that best suits your interests is important.
What is the most rewarding aspect of working with students in an academic setting?
Dr. Adams: The most worthwhile aspect of teaching is having a positive impact on your students’ development as eye doctors. Hearing their excitement as your clinical pearl, modified examination technique, or a technical explanation has finally helped them master a challenging skill is very rewarding. Clinical experience is an invaluable resource that is slowly acquired over time. Sharing pieces of your best practice methods with students adds to their clinical repertoire and may impact the way they practice. They will be a better optometrist because of your help, which is a great feeling.
Dr. Borbidge: Teaching is hands down the most rewarding because you get to help students grow so much as clinicians and people during their four years of school. It is also really fulfilling to give back to the profession by researching areas of interest.
What is the biggest challenge working in an academic setting like an optometry college?
Dr. Adams: The biggest challenge in academia is finding a balance between allowing your student independence and providing the right amount of guidance. I think students learn the most when they make mistakes. It is tempting to take over an exam and have your student operate as a very talented technician. I try to always let my students develop their own assessment and plan before I tell them my thoughts. This also means remaining composed and pragmatic discussing their mistakes.
Dr. Borbidge: Juggling a lot of different responsibilities at once. Depending on your position, you may be responsible for some classroom and clinic teaching, research, service and some administrative duties. This, however, is also what I love about being in academics. Your job will never feel routine and each day of the week will look very different.
Is further education required for optometrists to successfully work in academia? Would you recommend residency training or pursuing a masters or PhD degree in addition to becoming a Doctor of Optometry?
Dr. Adams: For graduating clinicians interested in a career in academia, completing a residency or the equivalent in years of clinical practice is essential. Either of these options would give you the experience required to teach optometric practice. A PhD or masters degree is not required, but would be very useful. The skills of writing and publishing a journal article are important for advancement in academia, as you will need to continually publish in your career. I would highly recommend a residency and some research experience, whether conferred in a formal degree or not.
Dr. Borbidge: Additional training is generally required. The types of additional training that are preferred depends on your desired role within an academic institution. For more clinical positions, a residency will likely be required and for more research based positions, additional science degrees such as a master’s or PhD may be preferred.
How is your time allocated at the college? Can you walk us through a “day in the life” of your typical work routine?
Dr. Adams: My time at ICO is split about 50/50 between precepting students in clinic and teaching in a lab setting. I have been fortunate to work alongside our anatomy course instructors in human, ocular, and neuroanatomy labs. We use real and fabricated anatomical models, histology sections on the light microscope, and even have plastinated brain slices for the students to study.
For patient care, I work in the primary care clinic with second and third year students, and sporadically work in other specialty clinics, such as pediatrics or contact lens, as needed. Our patients are generally very appreciative and value the thorough assessment and attention given to their health. I also have weekly development time to pursue future projects or complete current tasks.
Overall, I enjoy going to work every day and interacting with incredibly smart and supportive faculty, staff, and students.
Dr. Borbidge: It’s really hard to have a “day in the life” because every day is so different, which is what I love! I run a community outreach program at an optometry college so I spend a lot of my time either coordinating vision screenings with our community partners or actually participating in the vision screenings with our optometry students. I also teach a couple courses so my day could be filled with preparing lecture material and/or working with students. I’m just starting to explore some research opportunities related to our community outreach program so I do spend some time on this. In addition, I am on a few different committees within the College and larger University so I often have weekly meetings where I have the opportunity to collaborate with different members within our academic institution. As you might imagine, no day is ever the same.
Optometrists interested in academia can network with peers and colleagues at conferences, as well as contact the faculty at their particular institution of interest to find out more of what a position there would look like. Most optometry college websites will have faculty contact information listed to the public. A career path in academia can offer both new and seasoned ODs a fulfilling and rewarding experience, one that they may not have initially envisioned themselves having.