With at least half a decade studying optometry behind them, young optometrists are compelled to make long lasting decisions about how they want to shape their professional career. But what do they see? A narrow fork in the road? Corporate versus independent practice? Is clinical practice their only choice? mivision spoke to some recent graduates to find out about the choices they made and the approaches they’ve taken.
Coming out of university three years ago, Rebecca Pyne was adamant she would work in an independent optometry practice in the Sydney metropolitan area. Despite being recognised with several prizes from University of New South Wales School of Vision Science (UNSW SOVS), she said it wasn’t as easy as she’d expected to find her role of choice. “There was an expectation that there’d be plenty of jobs – everyone would find work in Sydney. In fact, there were only five to ten independent practices across Sydney looking to hire. A lot of people from my graduate cohort went to the country where there were more opportunities for work.
“In the end I was choosing between two jobs, so I wasn’t concerned about not being employed, it was more a case of working out the best place to start my career.”
Rebecca chose a role in a Leichhardt Sydney practice, where she had the freedom to pursue her interest in paediatric optometry. Three years on, she moved to a practice south of Sydney so that she could work closer to home.
It’s been a steep learning curve but really satisfying to see the difference it makes to the patient
Kate Hegarty graduated back in 2009. A Perth girl, she studied in Queensland before moving back home to be close to her family. Kate has had a few jobs since commencing her career, the first of which was with the Luxottica business Laubman & Pank, which she said was a great start. “Laubman & Pank were good to work with because they encourage their young optometrists to gain different experiences. The city optometrists do country relief – so every so often I’d spend a week or two in regional Western Australia.”
At the time, Kate didn’t realise, but that experience was invaluable – she has since established her own Specsavers practice in Albany, a coastal town five hours south of Perth. Before doing so, she spent a year as a fly in fly out optometrist travelling from Perth to the mining town of Port Hedland, and a few years with Specialeyes, an independent practice in the CBD suburbs of Subiaco and Cottesloe.
Making the transition
Kate said she found studying optometry was interesting but challenging, however, when she graduated and started working full time, work was harder than expected. “I had always wanted to work with people but being in a clinic and seeing so many people, doing so many eye tests every day, was taxing. During those first consults I was so busy concentrating on what I was doing that I couldn’t take the time to get to know the patient. The longer you do this job the easier it gets, you can relax and chat and enjoy the people.
Janelle Tong, another high achieving, award winning student from the UNSW SOVS class of 2015 found her first few months working in practice in the Sydney suburb of Rockdale equally daunting. “Whereas previously I’d had lots of colleagues and supervisors peeking over my shoulder I was suddenly on my own and taking full responsibility for my patients’ eye health. I’ve been out for six months now and I’m quite comfortable.”
She said her first six months had exposed her to challenges she hadn’t expected from a metro practice. “I’ve had a lot more exposure to different pathologies than I expected and I’ve been working with rigid contact lenses for patients with orthokeratology, neither of which I’d had much experience of at University. It’s been a steep learning curve but really satisfying to see the difference it makes to the patient.”
Of course as we get older, those fresh out of university tend to look younger, which can make it hard to establish credibility – and so it has been for a fresh-faced Rebecca Pyne.
“Because I look so young, I have found that people instantly judge me and are concerned that I don’t know what I’m doing. One lovely elderly woman assumed I was a student and asked when I would be qualified – I’d been out for three years!”
She says it was important to take control of consultations and, in an effort to gain the confidence of patients, to work and communicate with confidence right from the start.
“As an optometrist, right from the start, I put high expectations on myself – I’d practice as I always intended and the way I would like to be treated as a patient. So I start the process by putting in the foundations – building a good rapport with my patients, being approachable, and at the end of each consultation making sure they leave feeling they’ve been listened to and that I’ve done my best in the time. If they appreciate you’ve done everything you can, they’ll listen to your advice and importantly for ongoing business, they’ll recommend you.”
Life is not always all roses and Rebecca says already, she has learnt to be resilient in the face of more challenging customers.
“Every practice has its difficult patients. There are some that are not going to listen or follow your advice, no matter how hard you try – it’s the character of the patient and not the way you practise.”
A Passion for Rural Optometry
While Kate Hegarty had no intention of setting up a practice in country WA, she said it turned out to be a great decision. “I had an apartment in South Perth and was loving my job with Specialeyes. Albany ‘happened’ when my fiancé decided to establish a business here.
“I decided to contact Specsavers to see whether they would consider a practice in Albany and six months later here we are. It was fitted out with nice new equipment and I got working on the business with my retail partner Johann Leroux.
“Specsavers made setting up my own practice so easy. I enjoy having the freedom to work to my own hours and I enjoy my work. In the country people have more time, they’re easy going, friendly, and they appreciate all we can do. Now I probably enjoy it more here than I did in the city,” said Kate.
Wilson Luu, the 2015 President of the UNSW Optometry Society and a serial UNSW SOVS prize winner, has enjoyed a similar experience. Keen to experience work and life in the country he gained a job in Rutherford, regional NSW straight out of university.
“I wanted to gain experience in a rural/regional setting to further develop and refine my skills in optometry. I wanted to be in a place where eye care isn’t always the priority in terms of problems, but rather part of the problem. I wanted to be in a place that has a community feeling… I also wanted to help change and improve the level of understanding of eye health and health in general. I wanted to be in a place where people truly need your care,” Wilson said.
Wilson has found settling into a country practice has been rewarding. “Working as an optometrist is enjoyable. I feel like I’ve connected with a lot of my patients, which I’m very happy with – especially since I’m new in town, they’ve been very receiving of me. I feel like I’ve become a geriatrics specialist in the short period I’ve been working full time. The people are absolutely lovely and there are plenty of characters in town. Every day is different and you do not know what to expect so it is actually quite exciting.”
The Things That Matter
Each of these young optometrists is carving out a career in their own way, but all agree: communication, networking and dedication is the way forward.
“Communication is super-duper important. It doesn’t matter how smart or not smart you are, if you can’t effectively communicate your idea or message across, you won’t get anywhere,” said Wilson. “I think being genuine is also a very important attribute. If you truly care, you will put the effort in. You also need to start networking. There are so many attributes that can help you get ahead in anything, but I think those are the main three that come to mind.”
Speaking from a great deal of experience over a small number of years, Kate Hegarty says, “I think getting to know other optometrists in your area is essential because it is possible to get stuck in your own world. Keep up with your CPD, get involved with the community, the profession and the Association as well… and try to be the best optometrist you can be.”
We’ll leave the final word to Wilson: “Passion is the most important attribute for getting ahead. If you lose your passion, you lose your drive and you won’t get anywhere. I think it’s very important to know why you’re doing what you’re doing. Never forget that why. How you will get there, I don’t know. But you will figure out how because you know why.”
Planning the Future
Dr. Amira Howari
I have never considered optometry to be conservative or limiting. Quite the contrary. What I love most about our profession is its diversity. There are just so many sectors and avenues for optometrists to explore, develop and use to expand their scope of practice. Some of you may not agree but let me unpack this.
Over the past 12 years, I have had the opportunity to work in independent and corporate settings; consulted, developed projects, managed an ophthalmology company where I founded PEACE – one of Sydney’s largest optometry conferences and represented my colleagues as a councillor with Optometry Australia (NSW/ACT). I have been a clinical supervisor at the University of New South Wales and worked as Professional Affairs Associate (AUS/NZ) at Alcon, had my own eye health radio segment, published articles in local newspapers, initiated school vision screening programs and worked directly with not-for-profit eyesight groups. To keep up, I also completed my Masters in Optometry and the ocular therapeutics program at UNSW. Amidst this crazy rollercoaster, I married in my final year at university and now have two beautiful boys who are nine and four-years old.
To say the last 12 years was full on is an understatement. So where am I going with this?
Quite simply, there are many diverse avenues optometrists can explore and they’re all out there to be taken.
When establishing yourself, and throughout your career, it is important to define your professional goals in detail, and the steps you need to take to reach them. Along the way, take note of the aspects of optometry you most enjoy and the areas of practice you want to learn more about. Regularly reflect on your goals to analyse how you are tracking and whether you need to do something purposeful to get back on track. Of course goals shift with time and experience and while it’s important to stick to the plan, it’s equally important to be flexible, to acknowledge when something is not working for you, and when you need to make new goals for the future.
Identify your Passion
The question I often hear is “what if I don’t have a niche or a particular passion?”
Rarely are we ‘born’ with a passion. It is more often developed over time and experience – what once was curiosity or interest becomes a deep fascination and then a passion.
That passion does not need to be contained within a clinical specialty. It can be an aspect of business, communication, law or even media that you can tie back to optometry.
Once you’ve identified an area of interest, start reading and learning more about it… then work in it, study it further… network with relevant colleagues and mentors so that you can also learn from them. Before you know it, you will develop a deep understanding of the area and your interest will become your passion.
We have all heard the phrase, “if opportunity doesn’t come knocking on your door, build a door”. One way to do this is to network with other colleagues and organisations involved in your area of speciality or expertise.
If your specialty is contact lenses, reach out to the current contact lens gurus in your field. Attend their lectures, ask them those silly burning questions – they’ve all been where you are and they will be more than happy to help.
Consider writing to the major contact lens companies to introduce yourself, join contact lens practitioner groups on social media and regularly post contact lens cases. Sharing information, learning from colleagues and being introduced to like-minded professionals will build your professional profile and provide you with greater job satisfaction as you start to experience a sense of belonging with colleagues who share similar interests.
Discover your Mentors
Do you find them… do they find you? The answer is often a bit of both.
Reflecting back, my mentors came about after having proposed a project or an idea to them. Some were successful projects and some were not. But in both cases my mentors could see the spark, the potential in me, and they took me on. My mentors believed in me, challenged me and developed me in areas I needed to build on.
The key is to believe in and work hard on your ideas, projects or proposals, then on delivery, to watch and listen carefully. You will most often instantly pick out your potential mentor. The best way to acquire a mentor, if they haven’t already offered, is to ask them. It is an honour to mentor driven individuals. Just make sure you know what you want out of your mentor: what is your goal: where are you now and where do you want them to help you get to.
Many big companies do this as they know the value it has in the eye of the customer. However for us professionally this is all about gratitude and genuinely wanting to give back to the community. The result is a feeling of being grounded and having a deep appreciation of being able to help others through your area of expertise. With that, your passion will naturally grow and flourish.
So the question is, what’s your intention?
This is by far the most crucial ingredient. Sometimes we need to stop and reassess. What attitude am I entering with? Is it optimistic? Has it been influenced by other people’s unsuccessful experiences or doubts? Does my attitude radiate commitment and perseverance? Because this is what you need to discover and develop a passion that will last.
Life is a Journey
The lessons you hear about living a happy personal life also apply to your work life. Happiness at work is not a destination, it is a journey. So enjoy the journey of learning, progressing, getting knocked down and getting back up. And remember: ‘If you do not change direction, you will end up where you are heading’ (Lao Tzu).