5 Industry Experts Pull Back the Curtain on Optometry Careers

July 27th, 2017 in  Eyecare
by Meredith Castin

When it comes to optometry careers, you'll receive all sorts of advice from well-meaning family members, professors, and friends.

The CovalentCareers team was lucky enough to sit down with Patricia Fulmer OD, FAAO and Quy Nguyen, OD at Vision Expo East 2017. Dr. Fulmer is the Center Director and Consultative Optometrist at VisionAmerica of Huntsville, AL, and Dr. Nguyen is the Director of Career Development at SUNY Optometry .

The full panel included:

  • Dr. Patricia Fulmer OD, FAAO - Center Director and Consultative Optometrist at VisionAmerica
  • Dr. Quy Nguyen, OD - Director of Career Development at SUNY Optometry
  • Dr. Matt Geller, OD - Head of Marketing and Co-Founder of NewGradOptometry.com and CovalentCareers.com
  • Dr. Brett Kestenbaum, PT, DPT - ┬áHead of Growth and Co-Founder of CovalentCareers.com
  • Daniel Goodrich, Esq. - ┬áHead of Recruiting and General Counsel at CovalentCareers.com

You'll get the full experience by watching the panel itself, but we've also condensed some of the best information into this article, so you can read it at your convenience. Enjoy!

When should new optometrists approach the job search?

A frequently asked question about optometry careers is, "when should a new optometrist should start looking for jobs?" It turns out that it's never too soon to start putting the feelers out, but you're certainly not a hopeless cause if you're just now starting to look for an optometry job.

Quy Nguyen, OD

There's no one size fits all. Some folks find jobs before they even graduate, but others wait. Many OD jobs wind up being filled somewhat last minute.

For example, a practice might need to fill a doctor's shoes during maternity leave. Another practice might need vacation or fill-in coverage. These roles are usually filled last-minute. Obviously, if the practice is looking to replace a retiring OD, they'll start the search sooner because they'll know sooner. Starting the job search a few months before you need a job is fine.

Danny Goodrich, Esq

You don't need to formally start looking at any point. Always be searching, and always be networking connections, even before you graduate. You'll have the most selection if you know what you want well in advance.

For example, if you've got your heart set on a fancy boutique practice right out of school, you'll want to start networking with those practices well before you graduate, so you you'll have a better idea of where you should start applying.

That said, if you aren't as picky about what you want (regarding location, practice modalities, and pay), you can start searching much later in the game.

Brett Kestenbaum, PT, DPT

Definitely set up some informational interviews while still in school. Reach out to practice owners whom you admire, and ask lots of questions. Ask them about optometry careers. Get tips about patients. Use LinkedIn, CovalentCareers.com, and the phone. The more you reach out, the better.

Down the line, one of these people might hire you. You can also reach out to these people and ask if they know anyone who is looking.

Patricia Fulmer, OD, FAAO

Job searching doesn't start the day you post your resume. You should always be looking and making connections, even if it's way in advance. And put it out there that you want certain things. You won't get what you want unless you ask for it.

Matt Geller, OD

Don't attend conferences and networking events in big groups of people. Whether it's local or Vision Expo, try to fly solo or travel with one other person max. It's much easier to approach people when you're not in a pack, which can cause social bombardment.

Don't forget to swap business cards and actually follow up after the event.

What does success look like for a new optometrist?

Students often wonder whether to do a residency or take a particular job. There seems to be a great deal of pressure to be that model optometrist who seems to exemplify career success right out of the gate. But success means different things to different people.

Quy Nguyen, OD

You can only define success if you have an idea of where you want to be. That idea will be the driver of the goals you set for yourself. Do you want to start a practice cold? Buy out a practice? Teach? Become a staff OD?

Once you know what you want, set SMART goals. Make sure you set short-term goals, then medium-term goals, then long-term goals. If you're not sure what you even want out of your optometry career, consider starting out in fill-ins or part-time work. It gives you a taste of multiple types of work, without forcing you to commit.

After finding that an ophthalmology practice was not for me, I wound up taking a job in career development. But I had to work in that first job to know that what I thought I wanted wasn't what I'd truly enjoy.

Danny Goodrich, Esq

Regarding setting goals - make sure to set long term ones, but short term goals are more important. You'll likely change your mind once you start practicing. There's a stigma against certain modalities, like retail, but you might find you love that setting and it makes you happy in a way that no other practice setting would!

Brett Kestenbaum, PT, DPT

Success is all in your mind. Be honest with yourself and be true about who you are. You'll get lots of advice, but you need to know what YOU want and keep that as your north star to guide you with all of your goals and decision-making.

Patricia Fulmer, OD, FAAO

If you think about it, your whole life until now has been in segments. School was also provided in segments. So how can you suddenly set one simple life goal that is 30 years ahead? Think 4 years ahead if you can.

Some people just know what they want at age 55, but most don't, so look at short-term goals and go from there. I agree that residency, part-time, and fill-in work are all good choices if you're feeling unsure. All help you get a better idea of what you want. And don't think of yourself as a failure if you leave a job after a year.

Just remember success is different every year of your life. Stay positive.

Landing jobs by solving employers' pain points

When we think about applying for jobs, we can get sucked into thinking it's all about cover letters, resumes, and slick interviews. When it comes down to it, a business is interviewing you as a possible solution to a problem. In effect, the hiring manager is looking to you to address pain points. Our panel shares some ways to highlight how you can address these pain points.

Brett Kestenbaum, PT, DPT

Doctors want upbeat, confident doctors.

Even if you're not the best yet, if you present as confident, where patients can trust you, that will address a major pain point of any practice - ensuring exceptional customer service and trust.

Many practices have shared with me that they have trouble finding people who present with confidence, so they are concerned that lack of confidence will convey to the patients. Confidence starts in the interview process.

Be confident from day one.

Practice, practice, practice for those interviews. Practice owners also want excellent communicators. Some ODs might be incredible diagnosticians or doctors, but they can't communicate with the rest of the staff. If you can show that you're excellent at working with others, it generally solves pain points of booking appointments, and keeping the practice busy.

Danny Goodrich, Esq

Demonstrate that you're professional. Always send follow-up thank you emails and courtesy thank-you calls (within reason - meaning that you don't badger them after the interview, asking for a decision!).

Patricia Fulmer, OD, FAAO

Staff, when treated right, can be incredibly valuable to an optometry practice. Let the employer know that you plan to be part of the team. Let them know you're good at communication. You'll train the staff on whatever modality you're bringing in, and you'll treat them like they're vital to the process.

Get the entire team passionate about eyecare, and it will translate to patients and improve the whole experience, from front door to back.

Matt Geller, OD

Different organizations have different pain points and value needs. You have to understand what those needs are and make sure you address them.

For example, good clinical care AND revenue should be at the forefront of your mind if you got to private practice. If you're leaning toward corporate, ensure that you tell the hiring team exactly how you will work to represent their brand.

Will you practice to the full extent to make that brand look incredible? Will you color within the lines? Can you work well with the existing staff?

If you think your resume, GPA, and great patient care is enough to land you a job, you need to change how you think.

Make each application unique!

Quy Nguyen, OD

Be a problem solver to add value. Don't go to an interview only focused on yourself. Be thinking about what you can do to solve that organization's problems.

If you look at what Matt did, he did it just right. From setting up dry eye and glaucoma modalities, to bringing on Yelp reviews and marketing during his down time, he brought exceptional value to his first job.

A few notes about practice setting differences

As noted above, private practice can be very different from corporate, but neither one is better than the other.

Brett Kestenbaum, PT, DPT

When people think anything in life is one-size fits all, it really bothers me. It's not true. All of the practice settings are good choices for someone, so what you pursue depends on you and your own interests.

Something to keep in mind, though, is that pedigree and accomplishments do not mean you simply have to work in private practice; some people with impressive residencies and CVs might still fit best with corporate if they're OK with practicing inside the confines of whatever company they choose.

Let's discuss optometry residencies

A big consideration of any rising OD graduate is whether or not to pursue a residency. Our panel discusses the reasons one should - and shouldn't - take this path.

Patricia Fulmer, OD, FAAO

I thought I wanted to pursue a contact lens residency at first, but then I switched to ocular disease. It was the best decision ever because I realized when I got out, I could still learn specialty lenses.

I am glad I did a residency because it opened tons of doors. I was able to be more selective when taking my first job. I looked at any and all job listings in the practice settings I wanted, then narrowed them down by how close they were to my family.

I then applied and interviewed, talking with people until something felt right. I already knew disease, so I found a practice that saw primarily disease patients. Then I learned that I did miss some primary care elements, so I'm actually transitioning into a new role where I'll be in private practice.

Matt Geller, OD

I want to caution you about one thing: Don't do a residency just because you have momentum. Go for a residency because you are excited about the topic or you have a north star you want to further. Don't do it to bide time.

How to deal with debt

Student debt is a very big problem for most clinicians, so it's no surprise that our recent survey of new ODs revealed that over 30% of new grad ODs are worried that they might not be able to repay loans. Here's what our panel had to say on the matter.

Quy Nguyen, OD

Learn about finances. Career capital is important.

He wants to pay down loans so he can take jobs he loves. But the jobs he loves allows him other opportunities. When paying off loans, focus on highest interest rate and high principal loans first. Interest rates accrue daily.

Make payments ASAP. Work a Saturday and throw in the rate to lower principal.

Matt Geller, OD

Call the loan company where you have your highest loan, and try to find a friend there. Talk to them regularly and think of them as a friend, as they can be an advocate and tell you about new laws, etc, that might help you.

Patricia Fulmer, OD, FAAO

If you feel like you don't know about finances, find a mentor or expert who knows and has the lifestyle you want. Ask them how to get there.

Brett Kestenbaum, PT, DPT

Use the Khan Academy to learn about finance. This can help you understand your scenario and take the right steps moving forward.

Let's talk non-clinical optometry careers

On the same survey mentioned in the last section, 48% of clinicians we surveyed revealed an interest in non-clinical optometry work at some point.

Matt Geller, OD

If you have an idea, bring it to light. I might be biased, but I think you can always start with writing, which will lead to other media, then consulting and speaking engagements.

Start with LinkedIn or reach out to us and write with NewGradOptometry.com or CovalentCareers.com. They're all great ways to get your name out there in the first place.

Quy Nguyen, OD

I always thought I wanted to own my own practice, but I found out pretty quickly that I didn't want to own a practice after all. I then saw the SUNY opportunity and went for it. But this all brings it back to problem solving. During school, I was always saying "yes" to things and getting my hands dirty.

I had a proven track record of setting up programs and running AOSA, even when I was still in school. My mantra is "just say yes," because the more involved you get, the more visible you are.

You'll be seen as a problem solver. That way, when a unique or non-clinical role pops up, you're already seen as a good fit for the role, rather than a clinician with no other skills.

Patricia Fulmer, OD, FAAO

Remember, with non-clinical work or clinical work, it doesn't have to be all-or-none. You can work with NGO, Covalent, or many other companies and still do patient care. You can braid together the life that fits your goals.

That might mean that it will eventually lead to full-time non-clinical work, but there are no rules.

How to begin negotiating salaries with your employer

It can be pretty daunting to start the optometry salary negotiation process with a new employer. You don't want to sound ungrateful or overly money-focused, but you do have a life to live and loans to pay.

Matt Geller, OD

The bottom line is really this: if you want something, you have to give something to get it. Provide value to get value. Don't just walk into your job expecting a high salary for simply showing up.

Brett Kestenbaum, PT, DPT

You have to understand the value that you bring in the first place. Don't just ask for 140k/year without telling the employer how you will justify that salary and not bankrupt the practice in the process. You don't just deserve that kind of salary unless you bring value. Tell the owner how you will bring the right value to justify that number.

Patricia Fulmer, OD, FAAO

Be careful about when you bring up salary, too.

If this is someone you've spoken with a number of times, it is fine to discuss salary. But when you're first talking with a practice, you need that first interview to be a time to learn about each other. Don't ask for pay information upfront, no matter how badly you'd like to know about it.

Matt Geller, OD

Essentially, this means you'll earn a percentage of what the practice collects under your name that day. It can be good or bad, depending on the type of person. I do not recommend doing this if you're on paper charts, because it's a system that works best with EMR.

Patricia Fulmer, OD, FAAO

You can negotiate performance-based compensation in a number of ways, including a daily basis. I would caution you against walking into a production bonus only job from day one. Unless you're guaranteed to see 20 days that first pay, you'll be disappointed.

Top tips on optometry careers from the panelists

Here are some closing thoughts and top tips from our panelists. But don't forget to watch the video for everything!

Matt Geller, OD

Remember, you never want to be a sap on an employer's resources. Be a coefficient of >1. Just communicate your value as an employee and remember that it's a two way street; after all, it's a business, not a charity.

Quy Nguyen, OD

Regarding private practice, always think about how you can use technology to solve problems in your practice. You can take courses on Udemy, Lynda.com, Khan Academy, YouTube, CreativeLive.com - They're all ways to learn new techniques to help your practice.

Patricia Fulmer, OD, FAAO

Keep an open mind. Don't put pressure on yourself to know what you want to do with your entire career on day one.

Brett Kestenbaum, PT, DPT

Form relationships wherever you go. Careers are built on relationships, so start now. Start connecting with influencers in your industry and get conversations going.

Danny Goodrich, Esq

Don't be so hung up on your first job out of school and obsess over it too much that you overthink it. Think of it as the class you haven't taken yet, and you'll be getting paid for it!