After graduating university happy to see her studies finally come to an end, Janelle Tong surprised herself when her interest in research led to a PhD.
If you had asked me at the end of my undergraduate studies whether I had any plans to pursue a PhD, my answer would almost certainly have been ‘no way!’. After all, who could think about returning to university after spending five years jumping between long hours of lectures, clinical training, assignments and exams?
where I was previously dabbling in several areas as a research optometrist, glaucoma is now my day-to-day
I started my optometry career eager to practise in primary care. My journey began in a family-owned practice in metropolitan Sydney, specialising in behavioural optometry. I thought it would be a unique opportunity to learn more about a niche area that we had gained little exposure to during our university days, and my mentor at the time was kind to share their years earnt wisdom. What I had not expected was the variety of optometric care I was exposed to, from rigid contact lens fits to management of ocular disease. I am grateful for these experiences as they helped me to develop clinical skills in that critical post-graduation period. In particular, my mentor noted my willingness to take on patients requiring therapeutic management, and I quickly became the go-to for patients complaining of a red eye or the like.
It was a coincidence that at the time my first job was wrapping-up, an advert for the Centre for Eye Health (CFEH) arrived in my inbox. CFEH is a joint initiative between Guide Dogs NSW/ACT and University of New South Wales (UNSW), providing ocular imaging services to aid detection of suspected ocular pathology. While the opening was for a clinical position, I asked a few too many questions about research during the interview, and was fortunate to obtain a position as a clinical and research optometrist.
The clinical aspect of my position includes managing patients suspected of a variety of ocular pathologies, including, but not limited to, glaucoma, macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy, and supervising final year optometry students on placement. My research role has morphed from helping more senior researchers with small tasks, to driving my own research projects under supervision. The latter has culminated in several publications in peer-reviewed journals and presentations at international conferences such as the Association for Research in Vision Science and Ophthalmology (ARVO) and the American Academy of Optometry (AAO). In pre-COVID times, I even travelled to Vancouver, Canada to present my research.
While I thoroughly enjoyed this mix of hands-on clinical care and spending all day behind my computer researching, it became evident that, to further my career in either direction, I would unfortunately have to prioritise one over the other. After weighing the pros and cons, research edged out in front by the smallest margin, and my PhD journey at CFEH started, looking at improving the characterisation of the relationship between structure and function in glaucoma, with the goal of potentially enabling prediction of visual field results from structural measures.
Since commencing my PhD, I have noticed a more streamlined approach to my research; where I previously dabbled in several areas as a research optometrist, glaucoma is now my day-to-day. While my tasks as a research optometrist have carried into my PhD, the extra time I have to focus on my research has enabled me to hone additional skills, such as learning about different statistical analysis methods, developing automated image analysis software, critical appraisal of current research and writing to prepare publications. I have been lucky enough to retain some clinical time as well, and I feel that the knowledge I have gained from my time in research has changed the way I have practised.
Starting a PhD is a huge commitment, but it has been very rewarding. It would appeal to those who enjoy solving challenging problems and using skills outside the typical optometry toolbox, while appreciating nuances of evidence-based patient care. Nonetheless, the opportunity to take your career in a clinical, research or other direction shows that optometry presents a wide range of career options, and although the turns may be unexpected, they can certainly be worthwhile.
Janelle Tong graduated with a Bachelor of Optometry (Hons)/Bachelor of Science degree from University of New South Wales in 2015, and was awarded the University Medal. She is currently undertaking a PhD at the Centre for Eye Health.