One of the most important items on the How to Get into Optometry School Checklist is shadowing. Shadowing is when you spend time observing an optometrist as he or she works through a typical day. All health professions schools strongly recommend, require really, applicants to shadow. The point is threefold: to gain a real-world understanding of what people in the profession actually do, to ensure it’s what you want to do, and to help you prepare for the admissions interview, during which you’ll definitely be asked to explain why you want a career in the field.
Not every school or college of optometry mandates a certain number of shadowing experiences or hours (although some do), but all of them consider it best that you shadow several optometrists who are practicing in different settings. This gives you a wider view of the many different ways it’s possible to practice optometry.
How to Arrange to Shadow Optometrists
There are several ways to pursue shadowing experiences. Some schools and colleges of optometry and some undergraduate institutions (often via pre-optometry clubs) have formal or semi-formal programs through which they can connect you with alumni and/or local optometrists who are willing to be shadowed. In some cases, you can observe for several days. In others, you may be able to do more than observe, perhaps performing office tasks or working on your technical skills as part of patient care, almost like a mini-internship. Whether you have single or multiple visits with each optometrist, keep track of your shadowing locations and times. You’ll be required to provide varying levels of detail about them as part of your optometry school applications.
It’s also possible to find optometrists to shadow on your own. “You just have to be willing to pick up the phone or walk into the office and ask,” says Kelsey Connelly, a second-year student at Inter American University of Puerto Rico School of Optometry. She shadowed in two private optometric practices and one optometry/ophthalmology private practice for a few full days each. Annie Lee, a second-year student at the University of California – Berkeley School of Optometry, and Kristin Schwab, a second-year student at Pennsylvania College of Optometry at Salus University, also successfully used various resources to find shadowing opportunities. Among the options they utilized were contacting local doctors listed in the phone book or online, those they learned about through friends who had positive shadowing experiences, the family optometrist or doctors involved with a pre-optometry club. In addition to shadowing an ophthalmologist, an optometrist at a VA site and an optometrist in solo private practice, Annie worked at the UC-Berkeley School of Optometry’s Clinical Research Center as a Berkeley undergrad, which she says “gave me exposure to yet another mode of practice.”
Elizabeth Brubaker, a member of The Ohio State University College of Optometry class of 2017, shadowed six different doctors in different practice settings — a Walmart location, several private practices in a large city, a private practice in a rural town, an ophthalmology practice in a large city, a vision therapy practice, a pediatric practice and a clinic at a homeless shelter — prior to her admissions interviews. “This was very beneficial because no two optometrists do everything the same way,” she notes. She requested shadowing sessions via e-mail whenever possible or by leaving a phone message with office staff. She also made connections at the Ohio Optometric Association’s EastWest Eye Conference. “During one session, a doctor in the audience asked a question and said where he was from,” Elizabeth recounts. “It happened to be a town where I’d really like to work, so I introduced myself to him after the talk. We exchanged contact information and have been in contact several times since.” Attending the 2014 Optometry’s Meeting in Philadelphia was helpful as well. “It’s all about asking questions and making connections with doctors who will let you shadow them or direct you to another optometrist who specializes in your field of interest,” she says.
Scoping Out Your Career in the Optometric Profession
Kristin shadowed four optometrists in four settings: an optometry/ophthalmology group practice, an optometric group practice, a solo practice and a corporate practice. “I was more confident that optometry was the right profession for me after I shadowed several optometrists,” she says. “I better understood what the daily routine of an optometrist is, and what the differences between optometrists, ophthalmologists and opticians are. I was a senior in high school when I shadowed my family optometrist, so I think this showed the admissions committee that I had a longstanding interest in the profession. The earlier you can start shadowing, the better!”
If you were to ask Elizabeth for her advice on shadowing, she would say to not be afraid to ask questions. “Optometrists are generally very happy and helpful people,” she points out. She gained lots of insights by asking the doctors questions such as whether they like their job, if they think pursuing a residency is a good idea (e.g., if they were to hire another doctor, would they be looking for someone with residency training?) and if they specialize in a certain area, what got them interested in it. “With every opportunity I took advantage of, I seemed to have another door opened to me,” she continues. “I would make another valuable connection with another optometrist or I was inspired by a patient interaction. I walked away even more enthusiastic about the field of optometry than I had ever imagined. Shadowing was also useful because it gave me many ideas and stories to talk about in my application to optometry school. Because I had so many positive experiences while shadowing, it was easy to explain to the interview committee the many reasons why I wanted to become an optometrist.”