A great way ODs can set themselves up for specialty care is by completing an optometry residency. Learn about some of the different specialty practice options with Drs. Patricia Fulmer, OD, Calista Ming, OD, and Sloan Rajadhyksha, OD!
Why should you specialize?
One of the most valuable and rewarding aspects of finding your niche is being able to provide your patients with services that other doctors cannot. Dr. Ming says that she loves working with her patients and getting to hear them say “I’ve not been able to see this well in years,” after receiving treatment.
The bottom line when choosing a specialty, if you decide to pursue one, should be a passion for the subject matter. Dr. Rajadhyksha heard a great deal about specialties and residency programs as a student, and she was able to take her passion for binocular vision and carry it into a vision therapy residency.
Learning in a classroom and learning in a clinic are two dramatically different experiences, but her interest in the subject only continued to grow, and she was able to carry that forward into her career after school.
How do you know if a specialty is right for you?
Being passionate about your work is clearly important if you want to pursue even further education, but how do you choose a focus if, for example, you don’t yet know what you’re interested in? Dr. Rajadhyksha had the opportunity to speak to a mentor who asked her to “think about the patients that keep you up at night.” By approaching subjects that challenge you and of interest to you, you can focus your decision-making process.
Is a residency for everyone?
If every optometrist opted to pursue a residency, we would be significantly lacking in access to primary care, but Dr. Rajadhyksha believes that the residency experience is one that every OD should have the opportunity to experience. The “amount that you learn and the exponential growth in residency is not comparable…” She says. There is even opportunity to pursue a primary care residency to embrace that extended education and give those that are still undecided about a specialty or focus time to find what works.
Dr. Fulmer echoes this and sees optometry residency as a chance for new grads to bridge the time between school and diving into working as a practicing OD, regardless of setting. A residency provides the chance to develop a patient base and function as an OD but you can remain in a space where you have explicit mentorship relationships!
It’s clear from even brief conversation with a wide range of ODs that no two optometrists are the same. From differences in education to differences in mentorship opportunities and even networking at conferences, every OD has the chance to speak with other professionals and learn more about the industry.
You can take these times to reach out to ODs that are practicing in a specialty you are interested in or are already working in to learn more; on the other hand, you can speak with folks in other areas of focus that can help you to round out your clinical skillset and possibly open you up to even more experiences.
Can I become a specialist without a residency?
The short answer is: yes! Even two, three, four, ten years into your career as an OD you can pursue new forms of continuing education that can open the door to new specialty practice techniques.
Dr. Rajahdyksha mentions both COVD and NORA as conferences that bring focus to binocular vision treatment, and Dr. Ming recommends smaller scope conferences and workshops that are offered by the Scleral Lens Society and other organizations to expand ODs familiarity with specialty contact lenses.
Once you have the specialist designation under your belt, you can also serve as a great referral source for folks that aren’t specialists themselves. Referrals don’t have to exclusively go to ophthalmologists. As a specialty OD, you can help. Make partnerships and expand your treatment network.
What can you do as a student to learn more?
Attend lots of conferences! Going to conferences and meeting with other ODs can help to rejuvenate your interests in optometry across the board. You get the chance to hear great, diverse success stories from folks in all areas of the profession! Not only can you speak with folks who have done residencies themselves, but you can meet with others that may have even gone straight into cold starting their own practice!
Even if conferences aren’t immediately accessible to you, get out there and network as a student! You can go to local, city, or county meetups. Even taking the time to go to events on your campus can lead to some amazing relationships. Speak to your peers and professors.
Tap into your school’s resources. “Getting involved” doesn’t have to mean diving into association meetings! Interacting with other ODs and students helped Dr. Ming decide that she did not want to pursue Vision therapy.
Do you have to be a specialist to be a successful optometrist?
Specialties do not dictate whether or not you can be a successful OD, but pursuing a residency can still offer you an amazing experience that can dramatically improve your clinical confidence quickly. Both Drs. Ming and Rajadhyksha agree that a residency can build your confidence to a point that is nearly on par with ODs who have practiced for five years! It also helps to differentiate you from other practitioners.
That said, no matter where you are in your career, adding a specialty to your repertoire can be a game-changer. If you're still a student, strongly consider pursuing a residency opportunity! (You can even follow along with Dr. Rajadhyksha's Guide to Optometry Residency Preparation!) Even if you pursue a residency in primary care, it can open up a lot of doors and give you a unique experience that can kickstart your career.
Beyond residency, beyond specialties, just get out there. Network and speak with you fellow ODs and your peers in optometry school. Never stop learning. Every year the newest batch of eyecare professionals learn more in school than their predecessors. You can offer so much to the industry, with or without a residency!