As a 2021 optometry school graduate, I can say from experience that launching your career during a pandemic is no easy task. Although it may even seem overwhelming at first, the transition from optometry student to doctor gives rise to new and exciting challenges that can be rewarding to overcome.
Utilizing the insight I’ve gained from my first year of navigating the workforce, I’ve come up with a few strategies for growth and success.
Focus on your strengths
Needless to say, I don’t have decades of experience like my established colleagues. What I can offer is a new graduate’s perspective on eyecare. I am the youngest practicing optometrist in my region. As a Sikh female with a bachelor's degree in psychology—and one who received optometrist training in a Spanish-speaking town in Puerto Rico—my unique experiences allow me to relate to people from different walks of life.
A huge advantage of being fresh out of school is being trained in some of the latest therapeutic advancements in optometry. For example, I was able to introduce a myopia management contact lens program to my practice. This brought in a new stream of revenue, added a distinctive value to the business, and proved to be beneficial for my patient population.
In my free time, I like to research a variety of topics that pique my interest. I’m currently learning about techniques to optimize productivity by “hacking” our neurobiology, the shocking (and underreported) influence of the beauty industry on women’s eye health, and strategies to harness blockchain technology to revolutionize healthcare.
“To provide a diverse approach to patient care, I find myself pulling from different hats of knowledge I’ve acquired along my journey.”
Leaning into both my strengths and my interests empowered me to expand the scope of an existing practice by offering a specialty service as well as allowing me to explore different avenues of eyecare to better inform my clinical practices. My advice would be to avoid underestimating the unique and dynamic perspectives you can offer to improve traditional optometry practices.
Find your niche
Upon graduation, I began my career in private practice to specialize in different areas of patient care while maintaining work-life balance. The best part about private practice modality is the freedom to tailor your patient base to your preference.
I treat patients ages 5 and up for comprehensive eye examinations, dry eye, myopia control, and refractive surgery co-management; these are only a few of the 16+ subspecialties within optometry. To avoid spreading myself out too thin, I honed in on these three areas of interest that excited me the most.
This requires a time-intensive research and thoughtful conversations with your experienced colleagues. Luckily, genuine passion and interest will help this process feel exciting rather than burdensome.
“If you believe that the work you do provides true value, there's a good chance it will prove to be lucrative long-term.”
Don’t be afraid to try new things outside of your comfort zone. Continuously work on adding clinical skills to your arsenal and diversifying your toolkit when possible. We all have our preferences, but stay curious about advancements in all areas of eyecare and refer for higher level management when appropriate.
Saying “yes” to the one
I started the long-awaited job hunt after completing my board certifications during my last semester of optometry school. If I could go back, I would reassure myself that it's okay to pass up on the first few job offers that aren’t a good fit. Look at each prospective opportunity from a holistic lens, evaluating the contract from different angles before committing. Don’t settle for the sake of securing a job, but prioritize your growth trajectory.
“Visualize the end goal and work backwards. Your first job may not be your dream job, but it should get you one step closer to it.”
Besides salary, important aspects of a job offer to place into careful consideration are: bonus structure, benefits, patient demographic, tech support, patient load, diagnostic tools, specialty equipment, and opportunity for supported learning. I cannot recall how many times I’ve gotten a second opinion or reassurance from my boss (sometimes multiple times a day), which reinforced a smooth transition into my first real-world job.
There's a lot of great career opportunities out there, you are bound to find one that's right for you!
Know your blind spots
Whether or not you completed a residency, the learning never stops. In fact, it often feels like it's just really starting. The more you encounter head-scratching cases, the more chances you have to broaden your knowledge.
It's important to continuously update your knowledge so that your clinical decisions reflect the latest peer viewed, evidence-based research. It is imperative to practice by the newest standard of care to fulfill our professional duty as healthcare providers.
Luckily for us, results from some of the most recent and appealing optometry studies are easily accessible—even from social media!
An easy way to stay up to date on the latest advancements in optometry is to listen to optometry podcasts during your commute and include content-rich social media in your daily scrolling. It also helps to build a healthy connection with industry representatives to facilitate a working understanding of the latest contact lens designs, pharmaceuticals, in-office treatments and technologies on the market.
The nature of our profession requires constant learning. Or, for a better term, rethinking. Early into our careers, we have an opportunity to create habits and protocols that can easily be adjusted to incorporate new therapies and technologies.
As optometrists, we possess the mental flexibility required to rethink outdated beliefs and swiftly implement change where it’s needed. It's also wildly beneficial to become highly trainable in different EHR systems as well as utilizing a wide array of diagnostic tools. Being open and receptive to learning new skills and to feedback from patients, employers and staff alike can make your first practice experience beneficial for both you and your patients.
Set targets and track progress
I am a huge proponent of regular self reflection. In addition to checking in with your employers, periodically assessing your overall career and life satisfaction will give you key indicators on what areas to improve, maintain, implement change.
Keep track of your income and define your financial and professional goals in detail. After the initial transition period into real-world optometry, you will form a general idea about how to leverage your chair time, establish productivity goals, and refine the profitable services you provide.
Outside of the exam room, think about more ways you can start adding compensated value to the business—here's your chance to get creative! Social media literacy and content creation, for example, can be a highly marketable skill to small business owners.
Your career goals will naturally evolve as you learn more about yourself through the transformational transition from student to provider. It’s important to remain flexible while striving towards progress. The aim is not to maintain restrictive rigidity to one set of goals or ideas, but to encourage execution. You will always learn more by doing.
Avoiding burnout: routine check in
Patient care is gratifying, and if you enjoy connecting with other people, chances are you will love it too. Making a positive difference, big or small, is a huge win. Finally being compensated for hard work is deeply rewarding.
However, it’s wise to avoid the seductive trap of hustle culture. Overworking leads to decreased production value and mental burnout which can take several months to fully recover from.
Brainstorm ways to acquire passive income on your own terms. Relying solely on income generated by physical time and labor will put you on the fast track to burnout. The more control you have, the more likely it is that you’ll achieve your desired work-life balance.
Just like every other human, you need rest to function optimally. Unless you have your hands on some undiscovered infinite energy source, it is by law of nature that every living thing decreases in entropy over a function of time, leading to a gradual decline into disorder. In other words, life without rest is naturally unsustainable.
To build a sustainable work ethic, tune into your body’s biochemical responses that signal when it’s time to rest and recharge. Manage your time and energy to account for your personal relationships and non-work related goals. We’re playing the long game, so make sure your focus is on optimizing consistency while staying within your window of tolerance.
Check in with yourself
Just like it's important to ask the right questions to dissect the patient's chief complaint, put yourself in observer mode and ask yourself these questions for a deeper assessment.
Evaluate how you feel - do you still have energy at the end of the work day? What's your energy and happiness level at work? How is the company culture treating you? Do you feel valued? Did you hit a plateau? What's on the back burner right now?
“Work doesn’t have to be draining, and happiness shouldn’t be a luxury.”
It's important to maintain a clear vision of workable milestones built into bite-sized chunks to support an upward trajectory in your career, and equally important to assess your level of satisfaction along the way. It's easy to get lost in the rat race. Are you ultimately working to live or living to work?
Network, network, network
I can attribute a large factor of my success in my first year of practice to my incredibly supportive and encouraging employers. Their belief in me is the reason why I am able to practice to the extent of my abilities. In addition to that, they have introduced me to an entire community of ODs and industry experts that offer meaningful support and guidance.
“Being in the company of those who are already living out your career dreams is incredibly powerful.”
Get in touch with your local ODs and OMDs regularly. Establishing quality connections is important if you plan on growing roots.
In addition to discussing everything eyecare, find your support system outside of work and lean onto them. Patient care is mostly great, but venting to a fellow OD about that one multifocal contact fitting is sometimes what gets you through the day.
It's important to remember that you are always marketing yourself. From the way you communicate with your coworkers, to the quality of patient care you provide, your holistic work ethic is a direct reflection of your values.
Keep a positive attitude and learn from those around you. When an optical is involved, collaborate with opticians to enhance the entire patient experience. The goal is to boost the morale of your clinic while operating on reliable productivity and efficiency.
Your first job may initially seem like a stepping stone, but the more energy you invest into the clinic, you will gain that much more in return. Look for opportunities for growth while building a solid foundation. You have come so far and will continue to grow into a highly competent and skilled optometrist!
Congratulations to the Class of 2022!