Erik Mothersbaugh graduated from Illinois College of Optometry (ICO) in 2012, completed a Primary Care and Ocular Disease Residency at ICO in 2013, and has since served on the faculty as an Assistant Professor, working with students in the Primary Care and Urgent Care services of the Illinois Eye Institute.
1. Think about your goals and educational values
And I mean really think. What are you truly passionate about? What are the most important things you are looking for in your career? What do you need to be fulfilled? I speak often with optometry students, residents, and other new graduates who “love teaching,” but that alone is not enough to say that working at an optometry school is the right move for all of them.
Every decision comes with both rewards and sacrifices, and it is very important to think through both of these aspects before committing to something that ultimately isn’t right for you. It may sound cheesy, but writing down your priorities, and then ranking them in order, is a tried and true method for doing just this.
For example, here are the five goals I prioritized most:
- Practice full-scope optometry in a high-volume medical setting.
- Impact patient care on a large level.
- Improve both the public and inter-professional perception of optometry.
- Expand optometric knowledge by contributing to the scholarly community.
- Establish a professional identity/reputation as a leader in the field.
And here are the five educational values I prioritized most:
- Put my patients’ and my students’ needs above my own.
- Communicate very clearly.
- Simplify complex concepts and problems.
- Encourage independence.
- Encourage questions.
Obviously I do not mean to imply that you need to have these exact same goals and values as I do in order to be a good fit for a career as faculty at an optometric institution. The point is, once they are well-defined, you can begin to figure out where you really belong to meet your goals, while staying true to yourself and reflecting your own values. You may confirm that you belong as a faculty member, or you may find that you are better suited for something else (private practice, VA or other hospital, military, etc.)
2. Do a residency
In the vast majority of circumstances, completion of an accredited residency is a requirement. If you have yet to complete a residency, become familiar with Optometry Residency Match (ORMatch). This is the website for searching and applying for a program. It also explains the algorithm process for matching applicants to specific programs.
If planning for a career at an academic institution, there are two questions to consider when choosing a program:
1.) Should I do my residency at an optometry school, as opposed to VA/IHS/private practice?
- This is NOT a requirement, but it could serve as a great way to test the waters and get a feel for what day to day life is like on the “other side” of an optometric institution.
2.) Should I do my residency in a specific sub-specialty (ocular disease, contact lens, vision rehabilitation, etc.)?
- This also is NOT a requirement, but it could help open doors for a unique opportunity, depending on the needs of the institution at the time you apply.
If you have already completed your residency, don’t worry that you’re “too late” to consider these potential advantages. You chose your program for a reason, so simply be prepared to discuss your rationale and why it makes you a good candidate.
3. Research your options
Now that you know for sure you want to be at an optometry school, what specifics are you looking for? Tenure track? Full time? Part time? ASCO’s website has a listing of open positions that have been submitted by the administration of various institutions. That would be a good place to start, but keep in mind that not all opportunities will be posted here. It would be wise to also look at each school’s individual website, as well as keep an open dialogue among your professional network for any un-posted opportunities that may be available.
As with any career, there are obviously two important aspects to consider when comparing opportunities: salary and benefits.
It is very common for these postings to use phrasing like “salary is commensurate with experience.” What does this mean? Basically, it means that each institution has a typical set entering salary level that correlates with rank/title (e.g. Instructor, Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, Full Professor).
This ranking system makes salary likely non-negotiable.
The institution will also likely have general rules and guidelines regarding timeline for raises and promotion. Typically, merit and performance play a significant role in this, so although you may not have much say in where you start, you have some control over how quickly you move up.
Keep in mind that in the world of optometry, and especially in optometric education, “benefits” goes far beyond health insurance and vacation time. Some other items to ask about:
- Will my license(s) be covered?
- What about continuing education?
- Academic travel?
- Does the institution provide a research/development budget?
- Will they make and/or match retirement plan contributions?
And then, the big one - we can’t forget about those loans!
Possibly the single most important benefit for a new optometry grad to consider when looking at academic institutions is whether their employment will qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. It is no secret that, on average, you will earn less in academics than in the private or corporate sectors. However, this program offers a significant incentive for new graduates to work in an approved not-for-profit – and stay there. With this program, student loan debt is forgiven after 10 years of service, while making payments on time in good standing. Combining this program with one of the income-driven repayment plans, such as - Pay As You Earn or Income-Based Repayment, in which your monthly payments are considerably lower than Standard Repayment, can maximize the amount forgiven and save you tons of money over the life of your loans.
Here’s a hypothetical example:
New graduate with $200,000 of loan debt at 7% interest. To keep it easy, let’s say this new grad is deciding between earning $100k/year in private practice or $80k/year at an optometry school, and he or she is unmarried and lives in California. These are obviously approximations – each individual situation will be different.
Scenario 1: Private Practice, Standard Repayment
Payments will be $2322/month for 10 years, totaling $278,660 ($78,660 of which is interest).
Scenario 2: Academic Institution, Pay As You Earn
Payments will start at $523/month for the first year, then will gradually increase to (roughly) $970/month in year 10, totaling (roughly) $89,580, then forgiving the rest. This is a benefit of at least $189,000, not accounting for the fact that more interest will accrue (and be subsequently forgiven) on the Pay As You Earn plan.
Gradually, over the course of 10 years, making $20k less/year is not all that much less, especially when you consider during that time you could be investing the money saved from each lower monthly payment.
You can use the repayment calculator to put in your own numbers if you’d like.
4. Apply for the position
Once you’ve discovered the right opportunity for you, it’s time to get moving and get your application in as soon as possible, as these hiring windows typically aren’t open for long (a month, maybe two at most). Don’t think of this step as just "putting your name in the hat", think of it as your first opportunity to demonstrate why you are a great candidate.
You’ll probably need to submit three things:
- A Cover Letter
- Your Curriculum Vitae
- A Few Professional References
This your first impression, and as such is of critical importance. Your words should be very carefully chosen and your sentences very carefully crafted. This is your opportunity to share your passion and your goals, to share what you want and why you feel you deserve it. Remember to keep the JFK rule in mind: the emphasis should be on what you can do for the institution, NOT what it can do for you.
Keep it short (1 page if you can, 2 pages MAX), and keep it focused on what is most relevant to optometric education. You may have been outstanding as a part-time retail employee during high school, but that doesn’t really matter anymore.
A good CV should include a BRIEF summary of:
- your educational background
- your clinical experience
- your professional involvement
- any publications or poster presentations, and notable awards/honors received.
The idea is to include bullet-like items on which you can further elaborate during the interview. Organizing these items into a simple, clean format is very important. It is helpful to have a trusted mentor or an industry consultant look at your CV, someone who isn’t afraid to give you constructive criticism.
When choosing specific people who can speak to your qualifications, it is important to keep in mind not only what each individual letter of recommendation is likely to say about you, but how those recommendations will look side by side. Imagine yourself as a member of the hiring committee, reading through all your submitted materials.
For example, it obviously wouldn’t be bad to have three very strong recommendations discussing your outstanding abilities as a clinician. But don’t you think it would look better if one letter described to you as a clinician, another letter marveled at your passion for teaching, and then yet another recognized your leadership experience and discussed your potential contributions to the profession? By being strategic in thinking through who to ask for your recommendations, and then by reminding them how they know you and suggesting what specifics you hope they can speak to, you have an opportunity to demonstrate yourself as a very well-rounded candidate.
5. Nail the interview
No surprise here. If you expect to stand out to be selected from a large field of qualified applicants, you will need to interview well.
You will likely be given a detailed schedule in advance, but in case you don’t, expect for the interview to last more or less the whole day.
Similar to an interview for residency, this will probably include:
- A series of small panel meetings with faculty and administration
- One-on-one time with your potential supervisor (likely the Dean or Associate Dean)
- A presentation for the faculty, something around 40-60 minutes in duration, with PowerPoint if you so choose.
Remember, having a good interview is about more than just fighting your nerves the morning of – your preparation beforehand is critical.
Know the institution, and know the players.
You should spend some time before your trip researching the history, philosophy, and surrounding community of the institution you’re headed to. While you can learn a lot from a university’s website, you shouldn’t just stop there.
Optometry is a very small community. Even if you haven’t yet met the Dean, there’s a good chance that you at least know who went to that school, and as such you indirectly know some of the current faculty. Take advantage of those relationships to get as much insight as you can, and bring that insight to the interview. Anything you can say to demonstrate how your goals are aligned with the goals of the institution (remember the JFK rule) will help to establish yourself as a good fit for the position.
Look good, feel good.
This one may seem simple, but I really can’t stress it enough. It goes beyond being well dressed – professional attire is a given. This is mostly about how you carry yourself. In an ideal scenario you’ll be perfectly balancing that fine, demonstrating CONFIDENCE without coming across as ARROGANT. Stand up to shake hands, make lots of eye contact, keep good posture, and most importantly, don’t forget to SMILE.
Check out the comments section below, feel free to ask me any questions. I would be happy to help.