Most optometrists spend the majority or even entirety of their career in clinical practice. As that is what we trained for in optometry school, it is the most natural career path for most of us . . . but it is not the only career path for us. A number of ODs at some point in their lives opt to step away from clinical practice and transition to a non-clinical career
If you have found yourself wondering what other career options are out there, yearning to transition away from clinical practice
, or simply wanting to add a side gig—and a new stream of income—to your current practice, you are not alone, and we’re here to help.
There is a spectrum of non-clinical career choices; the key is finding the one that allows you to best leverage your medical training and healthcare experience while highlighting other strengths and skills you possess. This article will help you identify the most fitting non-clinical career for you.
Capitalize on your education and skills
Different educational backgrounds and skill sets can open doors to different careers outside patient care.
While we are optometrists, many of us have other degrees as well
. Many students complete dual degrees when in optometry school, such as a PhD or MS in Vision Science. These additional academic achievements can go a long way in securing non-clinical careers. Many of us are also scientists who have obtained a degree in some type of environmental science concentration or engineering field, which opens doors in pharmaceuticals, research, and product development. Others, who have completed undergraduate degrees in concentrations of business or psychology are ideal administration or consulting candidates.
When seeking a non-clinical job, take into account your entire educational background, including your undergraduate degree, your master’s degree, and any other specific training you might have. In other words, make use of all of your schooling, even undergraduate work.
Factor in your extracurricular activities and hobbies as well. A background in theatre or public speaking translates to teaching, sales, or lobbying. A love of reading and research aligns with product development and medical writing. If you take pride in being a computer geek, IT consulting or EHR management could be right up your alley. On the other hand, if meeting new people and seeing new places is a passion, international public health advocacy or lecturing both lend themselves to travel. Take a thorough inventory of all you bring to the table.
Skills to showcase for non-clinical careers
- Advanced degree in another academic area: PhD, MS, MBA, etc.
- Completion of a residency
- Experience working in a hospital setting
- Owning a private practice
- Research experience
- Extensive networks and relationships with individuals currently working in industry
- Skills in computer programming, coding, and design
- Passion for writing and or speaking
- Flexibility to relocate, earn less initially, and work in a corporate setting
Becoming a KOL is key
One way to set yourself up for a successful transition is to establish yourself as a key opinion leader (KOL). In optometry, a KOL is a doctor who has established themselves as respected, trusted, innovative, and influential. They serve as a bellwether for others in the field. Of course, this doesn’t happen overnight, but there are steps you can take and moves you can make.1
Ways to emerge as a KOL1
- Establish a niche; focus on a specialty, such as dry eye, and become an authority.
- Speak at conferences or events.
- Publish articles and research in medical publications and journals.
- Participate in high profile clinical trials.
- Take a position on the board of a respected organization.
- Develop new treatments or protocols that improve the patient experience.
- Build a reliable brand and strong social media presence.
Non-clinical careers for optometrists
Each of the non-clinical careers listed below puts healthcare knowledge and clinical skills to excellent use in a unique and non-clinical way.
Working in healthcare administration allows you to make a large impact on quality of care by bridging gaps between administration and staff. This is a good fit for healthcare professionals because they have an interest in advocating for both parties to achieve better outcomes for patients and improved working conditions for providers.2
By definition, healthcare administration involves ensuring the delivery of healthcare within institutions through the management of public health systems, including hospitals, healthcare centers, and healthcare professionals. Positions such as clinical directors, compliance officers, or program directors all work to ensure the organization meets its goals for the business, the staff, and the patients.2
Though experience working and managing hospitals, medical practices, or other healthcare systems is typically necessary, if you bring experience working as chief of staff in a large facility, such a VA hospital or clinic
, that would be comparable. Experience in the business aspects of healthcare, including finance and accounting, will also up your viability.
Also, consider acquiring a master’s or doctorate in healthcare administration.
Advertising, marketing, and public relations
Healthcare marketing manager
We may hesitate to admit it, but healthcare is a business and in order to flourish it needs customers. Attracting customers requires, at least, some level of marketing and advertising. If you are a creative type who can craft effective emails, slogans, and brochures; have a knack for web design; enjoy engaging on social media platforms; and have a good understanding of public needs and what the company has to offer, this could be the perfect next career for you.3
Marketing can also encompass community outreach, content management, social media management, and public relations positions.
Medical science liaison
Optometrists in this role help bridge the gap between clinicians and healthcare companies that focus on pharmaceuticals, medical devices, biotechnologies, or other related fields. This career can be very fulfilling as you are on the forefront of the latest technology and you are able to see the positive effects of the products on patient care. This job entails building solid relationships with fellow doctors and ensuring they are using the company’s products effectively.
There are a few core qualities companies look for in an optometric medical science liaison:
- An optometry degree and strong clinical knowledge base
- Several years of experience, especially in a medical model practice.
- Reputation as key opinion leader (KOL) in the industry
- Strong communication and presentation skills
- Comfort with sales and marketing collaboration
- Public speaking
- Ability to travel frequently—if you don’t like flying, this may not be the job for you!
You will also have an advantage if you specialize in a specific area of optometry. For example, if you have expertise in dry eye management, this will give you an obvious advantage when you are applying to a pharmaceutical company that manufactures dry eye products.
Medical science liaison positions are often not posted online and are instead spread by word of mouth through company employees. That’s why networking is very important; build your relationship with your pharmaceutical and medical device reps and attend conferences as frequently as possible in order to network with more companies and other medical science liaisons.
Some companies that hire optometric medical science liaisons include Alcon, Novartis, Bausch Health, Johnson & Johnson, Alimera Sciences, Sun Pharmaceutical, and Shire.
As an expert in the field of optometry, you may choose to share this expertise with individuals, practices, or businesses as a consultant. Consultants offer advice—based on their education and experience—on internal processes and systems, existing problems, implementing new services/technologies, or filling another gap in knowledge. Consultants often work on a contract basis or project basis for either a single or multiple companies at a time.4
Practice management consultant
If you run a successful private practice and have the business savvy to help others, you might consider starting a practice management consulting business. Practice management consultants utilize the knowledge they learned building and operating their own successful private practices, to help new practitioners flourish and achieve their own practice goals.
This can include advice in billing and coding, staff training, workflow, insurance submissions, optical design, office layout, implementing new technologies, and digital marketing to help practices improve their online presence through their websites and social media accounts. The ultimate goal is to improve management protocols and implement programs that increase efficiency and profitability.
Though not required, this role would be bolstered by a bachelor’s degree in finance, business administration, or accounting or a MBA.
Accomplished individuals with years of clinical experience can often find themselves working as consultants to pharmaceutical companies in some sort of capacity. To develop new medications, pharmaceutical companies assemble a diverse team of doctors, scientists, and business consultants. As an optometrist you bring first-hand knowledge from clinical practice and patient care to the table to help guide the company in developing new drugs as well as assessing the current clinical data for accuracy. Based on their medical experience, pharma consultants aid in improving efficacy, delivery systems, response, contraindications, and the marketing of new ophthalmological drugs.
Billing and coding or medical insurance consultant
In this role, you will assist practices by ensuring they are utilizing the best billing and coding practices
and assuring accuracy and efficiency of claims, contracts, and payments with regard to the plethora of insurance providers
. Along with performing records audits for offices, a consultant of this nature often educates doctors and staff on coding and billing changes and commonly made mistakes.
Often, groups or hospitals will also hire consultants to review guidelines for managed care contracts, assess compliance across departments, and determine whether proper documentation and testing protocols are in place.2
You may opt to become a Certified Professional Coder and a Certified Ophthalmology Professional Coder.
If you are technologically savvy, you may want to look into the tech or IT field. With trends toward electronic health records (EHR)
, cloud computing, 3D printing, practice management platforms, and advanced imaging devices, you may be able to combine your computer skills with your experience in optometry to help improve these systems.
When it comes to EHRs, each specialty and allied-health field has different needs in a record system. Who better to evaluate and streamline these systems for viability than the providers themselves?
I recently spoke to a pharmacist who works for a large technology company helping develop EHRs used within pharmacies. The same opportunities can be found in the ophthalmic industry as well, as EHRs are becoming more of a requirement these days, and this sector is packed with competitors attempting to make the "perfect" system. There are also some technology companies in the ophthalmic realm that seek ODs for consulting purposes.
Practitioners can work for an EHR company as developers or as liaisons between the company and the practices. This may entail training other providers on the system and troubleshooting during integration.2 To work in this area you need a computer informatics background or interest in coding.5 Having work experience in the area makes you more capable of understanding the logistical needs of the user within the system.3
Telehealth uses technology to improve efficiency and accessibility of medical care. With the pandemic, more and more optometrists and ophthalmologists have incorporated telemedicine into their practices
. If you have implemented it successfully and have expertise to share on the topic, you can parlay that into helping other practitioners. You must keep abreast of the newest technological advances and platforms, but latest laws, regulations, HIPPA compliance, and coding and billing requirements.2,7
How to get started as an optometry consultant
You may be wondering how to get a consulting business off the ground
. Sharing your knowledge is a great place to start. Start your own website and write a few articles on your area of expertise. You can then promote your services on your website so visitors will see what you offer.
Or, you can reach out to other businesses and publications to create content and share your knowledge on their platform, which is a great way to get your name out there.
You will also want to have accounts on platforms like LinkedIn and Facebook where you can network with others in your field and join communities where your potential customers may be hanging out. If you offer helpful advice to people, they will see that you have valuable information that can improve their business. So when you actually start to market to them, they already trust you and will be willing to pay for your consulting services!
Communications and media
Medical/health freelance writer
In the age of technology and social media, there is no shortage of online resources including blogs, publications, and academic journals. There are also traditionally published magazines, textbooks, and other educational and medical marketing materials. Authors can also be involved in preparing research grants and writing or editing research papers.
There is a growing need for expert writers. So, if you have a passion for writing, this is a great opportunity to share your knowledge and expertise with your colleagues and the general public alike. Being able to provide lucid and basic explanations of complex topics for an audience without medical expertise is a talent in and of itself.9
Many medical writing positions are on a per assignment or per diem basis.
How to get started as a medical writer
Often publications will ask for a pitch of the article you would like to write or request a sample of your writing. To this purpose, first figure out what subjects you’re most interested in. Do you want to write about practice management and marketing? Maybe you’re passionate about natural eye care and nutrition. Or perhaps you are experienced in managing glaucoma and want to educate other optometrists.
Make a list of different areas of optometry you’re interested in, then see if you can come up with some topics to write about. This will help when you market your writing services as a way to target a specific type of publication or website.
The most important part is to start writing and practice as much as you can. Write a couple of articles you may want to pitch later and create a website to showcase your writing portfolio and services. If you aren’t published yet, just post a few samples of your writing on your website until you get some published articles under your belt.
Once you feel ready, you can get in touch with publications, blogs, or other companies and pitch your ideas. This can be the most daunting part for many people. You may need to send many pitches before you hear a positive response, but don’t give up. Just view it as practice for the next time you pitch. Be confident and put yourself out there.
There's no time like the present! Interested in writing for Eyes On Eyecare? Start the process to write for us!
Blogging is not just a hobby you do in your spare time anymore. There are real ways to monetize blogs! Before you get to that point though, you must first decide on a niche to write about.
There are so many niches available in the blogging community; there’s a place for everybody. Optometry is a great niche because you can cover medicine, fashion, and many other topics in between. You can appeal to a wide variety of audiences this way. If you like the medicine route, you can educate your audience about eye health or discuss the latest contact lens technologies. If you love fashion, you can showcase the latest frame styles and suggest outfit pairings to match, or teach your audience which eye makeup and creams are better to use.
Once you figure out a niche, you can get your blog set up and start creating posts. There are many free tutorials
you can find online, and the cost to set up a self-hosted blog is pretty low. You will want to set up a self-hosted blog as opposed to using a free blog host because it’s not only more professional, but you won’t be able to monetize a free blog in the same way.
Then, you can read about how to monetize your blog using affiliate links, sponsored posts, advertising (like Google AdSense), email marketing, and many other ways. Again, there is a myriad of free information you can find online about this.
Blogging is definitely not a quick way to make money, since it will take a long time before you see much of a return, but if you keep at it, it’s possible to make a very significant income! If anything, there is very little risk involved in starting a blog, so give it a try and see if you enjoy it.
Social media influencer
Many of you might associate social media with those influencers we see lounging on a tropical island or a fancy penthouse rooftop and seem to have thousands of other influencers trying to copy them. Don’t let that turn you off from social media—there is a place for your unique perspective. Think of something fresh you can offer, whether it’s sharing unique optometric cases
you come across or documenting your travels when you go on fun continuing education trips. (Isn’t there that one conference in the Caribbean?!)
Next, figure out what platform you want to focus on. Instagram
, Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, and TikTok are all popular options and will allow you to grow a following. Which you choose depends on whether you are more visual, with an eye for aesthetics and strong photography; a wordsmith who can craft an entertaining and educational post in 280 characters; or a performer who is comfortable speaking in front of the camera.
Having a clear message or topic will help keep you focused. If your social media posts are all over the place, your followers won’t have a clear idea of what you’re about. So if you want to grow your following, focus on attracting specific types of followers, as opposed to trying to attract every single person that visits your account.
Once you figure out who you want to attract, focus on building a relationship with your audience. Add personal details to your posts so they can relate to you. Give them helpful advice so they will want to come back for more. The most important part is to figure out what your audience wants, so you can provide that to them!
There are tons of fantastic people in the community who you can use for inspiration!
After you start to accumulate followers, you can reach out to relevant brands and other companies to see if they would like to work with you and have you promote their products. You can get paid for sponsored posts, affiliate marketing, becoming a brand ambassador, and a number of other ways
Don’t forget to network with other influencers to get your name out there! Collaborating with others is a great way to increase your audience and your chances of success. There are many influencer networks you can look for that are communities in which you can meet other like-minded people in your niche.
If you enjoy academia and lecturing
, sharing your knowledge with optometry students can provide you with a great opportunity. Most healthcare professionals develop high-level communication skills during training and patient care. With extensive experience explaining medical information clearly and concisely to patients, care providers inadvertently become teachers.
To get hired as a professor, residency training may be required but not in all cases. Don’t be discouraged if you didn’t do a residency. Teaching experience, clinical experience, and research experience are other factors that will be considered when you apply for this position.
Many teaching opportunities for optometrists are limited to optometry schools
(which will place geographic restrictions on you); however, there are some institutions (universities, medical centers, and medical schools) that actively seek optometrists to educate students, residents, and staff, primarily in topics of contact lenses and low vision.
And, though you may be an expert in your given field, you are not limited to teaching within professional schools. Consider teaching healthcare topics, or even basic sciences at a college or university. Depending on your background, healthcare business management or administration topics may be relevant as well.
One pitfall to pursuing this area is a lack of full-time employment opportunities. Professional schools generally require a mix of clinical and didactic requirements, so if your ultimate goal is to relinquish yourself from clinical care, this may be difficult.
If you are interested, a good place to start is to check an optometry school’s website to see if there are job openings for professors. You may see jobs listed as “assistant professor” or “associate professor” or “lecturer”. You can also check ASCO’s website
for job openings. Don’t forget local universities and community colleges who may be seeking science instructors. In addition, medical schools sometimes hire optometrists to teach students and staff on optometric topics.
Even if you do not see any job openings, it won’t hurt to contact the school and ask if they are interested in hiring guest lecturers in the future. It may not lead to a full-time gig, but guest lecturing can be a great way to go if you want to balance teaching with clinical practice.
As a bonus, if you become a professor, you may also become eligible for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness
program. This is an attractive benefit if you owe a lot of student loans
If you prefer to educate other professionals, enjoy public speaking and are passionate about advancing your profession, consider teaching continuing education (CE) programs
Continuing education is a massive industry and a requirement for licensure renewal. If you have a passion for teaching and lecturing, you may be able to develop presentations and academic lesson plans to share at various continuing education conferences. Obviously, being considered an "expert" in a particular field will go a long way in gaining credibility. More importantly, there are rigorous accreditation requirements that must be met.
Courses can be written in professional publications, published online, or given as live lectures. National professional meetings are a hub for CE and would be a great place to take advantage of lecture opportunities; this may lend itself to your lifestyle especially if you enjoy traveling. If you prefer to stay at home, there are a growing number of states allowing many CE requirements to be met through online education.
Each health profession and each state has different CE requirements. Research the professional credentialing board to obtain the respective guidelines. (Page, Leigh) CE programs are usually paid on a per-diem basis.
Eyes On Eyecare offers several virtual events throughout the year where eyecare professionals can improve their clinical skills, get a first-hand look at the latest products and innovations, and gain FREE CE from top lecturers in the field.
Healthcare financial analyst
Positions for large health organizations in risk management or financial analysis require formal finance or accounting training along with a thorough understanding of healthcare procedures. Analysts can monitor trends in medical costs, profit and loss statements, and organizational budgeting and advise companies to act accordingly.2
As investing in venture capitalism opportunities related to the biomedical field can be of interest to medical professionals, corporations and individuals may look to a financial analyst to assess risk, predict performance, and offer guidance.
Relevant degrees for this position are bachelors in finance, business administration, accounting, or MBA.
Government policy and law
Government plays a significant role in how healthcare providers practice. Medical professionals, who have increased awareness of current issues requiring attention, are a valuable resource for lawmakers.
Public health advocate
This career entails improving public awareness of medical conditions and access to healthcare on a global scale and often requires a Masters in Public Health (MPH).
The most well known organizations for public health are the Center for Disease Control (CDC), National Institute of Health (NIH) and World Health Organization (WHO). Organizations such as the American Cancer Society and American Red Cross work to promote preventative medicine.
Other companies, like the Food and Drug Administration, provide quality control for medications and medical devices and improve health-care standards.6,8 There are also opportunities as coordinators for non-profit organizations providing medical mission trips to underserved regions of the world.
Working for professional advocacy groups to lobby for healthcare laws and legislation
is crucial to advancing any profession. In optometry, an advocate may speak on behalf of a company, group, or organization before the local, state, or federal legislation to rally support for bills and laws that affect patient care, scope of practice
, and insurance. A large part of this job is to educate lawmakers as to the needs of optometrists, staff, and patients.
Do you have a special interest in malpractice, patient’s rights, insurance fraud, or contracts? Then you may consider taking on the dual role of doctor and lawyer. There are also programs, such as MD/JD, which allow for the combined practice of medicine and law. Healthcare lawyers can work for providers or hospitals, on healthcare contracts, patent law, healthcare legislation or medical licensing committees.
Medical lawyers advise clients on their legal rights regarding medical care, review/interpret medical documents, keep evidence (defective equipment/medications), perform legal research for medical claims, help facilities understand and uphold medical standards and guidelines. (LaMance)
With a Juris Doctor (JD) degree alongside your OD degree, you can enter this highly specialized field.
Former health professionals can also go on to work in government positions and be involved in government-funded healthcare programs and agencies, many under the blanket of Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), such as Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, National Institutes of Health, Food and Drug Administration (FDA and Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ).6
For development of new medications and medical devices, companies employ physicians to organize and participate in trials to determine safety and efficacy. Once a product is developed, a plan to educate providers and market it to the target demographic needs to be composed and executed. This can overlap with providing continuing education lectures and medical writing as companies sponsor such to promote products.2
You can also take the independent route toward becoming a product developer. If you enjoy thinking of new ways of doing something or dreaming up prototypes for new inventions, consider creating your own product to sell. First, think of a problem you want to solve or a need you want to fulfill. You can start with your optometry practice. Think of concerns that come up during patient care, or issues you often discuss with your colleagues.
Then go online and do some research to see if there is a demand for your product idea. This part is very important. Don’t just assume people will want your product. Do some market research to find out for sure! Otherwise you may end up with something no one wants to buy.
Maybe you want to design a product to make sitting at the slit lamp more comfortable for heavyset patients, but first make sure that your product will have a market. Check out online forums, Facebook groups, relevant websites or blogs, basically anywhere your target customer may be hanging out virtually. Don’t be afraid to ask people for their opinion!
If you’re ready to move forward and start developing your product prototype
, it’s good to do some research and get an idea of all the upfront costs you will need to invest. Seems like too much money? Well, your product doesn’t necessarily have to be a physical product.
Creating an online course, app, or e-book may require less time and money up front. If you love to cook and want to help your diabetic patients take care of their health, you might compile an e-book of healthy recipes. If you are tech savvy, perhaps you can create an app for patients to schedule appointments and communicate with your office more easily.
If these ideas sound appealing but you have no idea where to start, consider taking an online course first. Udemy
, for example, offers many low-priced courses where you can learn how to become an app creator, an online course creator, and just about everything in between.
Positions in research and development can be difficult to obtain; often marked experience in clinical trial development and clinical research is required. However, having an advanced degree can go a long way to getting your foot in the door. Consider completing a master’s or doctorate (biology, chemistry, biotechnology, pharmacology).10
If you are personable, have an extensive contact network and enjoy helping others succeed you should consider a recruiting job.2 Becoming a matchmaker for employers and potential employees, you can help fill placements for a broad spectrum of companies and positions. This role usually combines talent acquisition and forming long-term relationships with employers.
Since much of this work takes place over the phone, excellent communication and listening skills are critical to facilitate good matches. This also means most recruiting can be done remotely. Keep in mind, the hours are usually outside the typical work hours because that is when employers and potential employees will have availability to communicate.
Also, a certain level of resilience after rejection is necessary; this is not a job where every effort will land a successful match but persistence and understanding the needs of others will lead to great success.11
Recruiters can work for a variety of different healthcare entities, including recruiting firms, hospitals, large private practices, and corporate optometry.
I know a colleague who works as a recruiter for a company placing ODs in nursing homes across several states on the east coast. His particular role is to find ODs to fill open positions and then educate them on how to succeed in these particular situations.
Ready to embark on a non-clinical optometry career?
In summary, there are countless non-clinical careers for optometrists. The challenge is cultivating the necessary attributes to secure these opportunities and then finding the one that is right for you. While many of us have undergone similar professional training as our healthcare colleagues, every one of us has unique qualifications beyond that degree. The key to a successful transition is bringing the unique combination of your strengths, interests and values along with your optometry education and experience to this next career.
In this video, learn how Dr. Holly Swain's non-clinical endeavors helped her to grow in the optometry field.
Though it may not be easy to break into the consulting world or land a job working as an advocate, if your passion is propelling you beyond clinical practice, you are probably up to the challenge and ready for the reward.
And, remember, if none of the above jobs seem like the right fit, you can always create your own opportunity and start your own business
—perhaps a combo coffee cafe and eyewear emporium.
Part of the beauty of optometry
is it affords so many possibilities. Here's to finding the perfect path to success for you!