If this isn’t your first time reading ASCO’s Eye on Optometry blog, you know about the variety and versatility a career in optometry has to offer. The list of potential positions and practice settings is quite long. In just one of the possible settings, academia, which is the focus of this post, a future optometrist has multiple roles to aspire to. For example, faculty members at schools and colleges of optometry include basic science and clinical science professors or instructors. Optometrists teaching in any of these positions may also conduct research or supervise optometry students or residents as they see patients as part of their Doctor of Optometry degree program or residency. Some optometrists work part-time as clinical faculty members while working in another practice setting outside academia. Optometrists may also teach in departments of ophthalmology at medical schools or work with departments of ophthalmology in a hospital setting. In addition, some U.S. Veterans Health Administration hospitals are affiliated with academic institutions, which allows optometrists who are employed there to maintain faculty appointments. Leadership roles, which are often part of a school, college or university administration, are also available to optometrists in academia. Types of positions in this category include Dean of Students, Director of Admissions, Vice President for Student, Alumni and College Development, Vice President for Research, Dean of Academic Affairs, and Director of Internship Programs.
If You’re Interested in an Academic Optometry Career, Completing a Residency is a Smart Move
Most academic institutions require optometrists to have a minimum number of years of experience (often five years) or to have completed a residency or earned a master’s or doctoral degree in addition to the optometry degree in order to qualify for a faculty position. Completing a residency can also be a preview of academia that can help you decide whether an academic career is right for you. During residency, new ODs have opportunities to lecture as well as oversee students in clinics and labs. “I can’t emphasize this enough: Students who want to pursue an academic career should do a residency,” says Robert Chun, OD, FAAO, Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology at the Wilmer Eye Institute of Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Chun continues, “If you’re going to recognize a drive and excitement for all of the factors associated with working in an academic institution, the best way to experience this is through a residency.”
It was during her residency that Vinita Allee Henry, OD, FAAO, Clinical Professor and Director of Clinical Operations at the University of Missouri-St. Louis College of Optometry, realized how much she enjoys working in clinic and labs with students. “I discovered I had a passion for the variety of academia, be it teaching, research, writing, speaking or patient care,” she says. Dr. Henry, a co-author of several contact lens-related books, has also held several administrative/leadership roles, including her current one, which she credits to having “some natural leadership characteristics and organizational skills, which made me a good fit.” Dr. Chun had a similar experience, realizing during his low vision residency and research fellowship (with the Pangere Center for Inherited Retinal Diseases) that he wanted to pursue a career in academia. As he explains, “I liked the fact that I could take advantage of all the resources of an academic institution, such as high-quality imaging tools, research funding and the opportunity to collaborate with other experts. In addition, I was very excited by the idea of producing research that could potentially change the way care was delivered in my field. Ultimately, it was the variety of opportunities available and the potential to directly impact the lives of my patients that convinced me to continue on the academic path.”
Do You Picture Yourself in the Field of Optometric Education?
While residency is a time when a career in academic optometry begins to appeal to many future faculty members, others take different routes to the same endpoint. As a seventh-grader, Iris R. Cabello, OD, Assistant Professor and Dean of Students at Inter American University of Puerto Rico School of Optometry, began tutoring another girl in English and knew right away that she loved teaching. In college, she was known to organize tutoring sessions for some of the classes she was taking. When she finished optometry school, she entered private practice, but also served as a part-time clinical faculty member. She changed course when she realized she would rather spend all of her time teaching optometry. “I felt it was extremely rewarding for me to be able to practice my profession but at the same time see students develop into professionals knowing that somehow I contributed to that,” she says. Subsequently, prior to stepping into her current position as Dean for Student Affairs, Dr. Cabello was offered the position of Director of Patient Care. “I accepted because I thought it would be a great opportunity to try to make improvements and be part of positive change,” she says.
How will you know if you’re cut out to be an academic optometrist? Drs. Cabello and Henry suggest it may help to ask yourself:
Do I see myself as a teacher?
Do others see me as someone who can help them understand concepts or lead tutoring sessions? Do people seek me out for help?
Have I demonstrated in the past a desire to teach even if it was in undergraduate school or another field?
Have I done anything similar to teaching in the past, such as tutoring other students or helping them in a lab, and how did I feel about it?
Do I have the patience to explain a subject or concept more than once?
Am I emotionally intelligent? (Do I even know what that is?)
Do I want to provide patient care only on my own, or would I like to see patients with student interns?
Set Yourself Up for Success
If your goal is to land a job in academia, Dr. Chun recommends that you “Start forming a circle of mentors who will support your personal and professional goals. Keep in touch with them. Pick their brains for advice and guidance. They have been through most of the same challenges you will face.” It’s also important, he notes, with regard to the many academic career options, to “Find the right fit based on how you want to practice, and find the institution where your values align well with the culture of the institution.”
Dr. Henry agrees about the importance of mentors, and suggests students in pursuit of an academic optometric career should ensure they have a good reputation with faculty members who are teaching them and any others they encounter, as they are ideal sources for letters of recommendation during the job search. Once you’re hired, she advocates being willing to put in additional effort to establish yourself. “Be active in optometric organizations such as the AAO and AOA as well as educational groups,” she says. “Take advantage of programs for new faculty development that may be offered through optometric organizations or your university, which allows you to learn new skills and network. Be eager to take on new roles that may be difficult at first, but that you can accomplish and will aid in making you a valued team member. Share your ideas with your new faculty colleagues, and ask them what you can do to have an active role.”
To continue to make an impact in her position, Dr. Cabello always keeps two things in mind. “One, be empathetic and respect your students. Never forget your own struggles, long nights, occasional frustrations and sweaty palms while you were studying,” she says. And, two, speaking like a true academic optometrist, she adds, “Never stop learning.”