From my mother’s biophysics research into the retina, to my own research in eye movement of flies in undergrad, eye movement as part of the vestibular system during grad school rotation, then multi-electrode recording of non-image forming circadian photo receptors as a postdoc, eyes have always found a way to get back into my life. Even after I left academia, I somehow got involved shortly as the communications director for the Canadian Coalition of Eye Care Professionals. This past few weeks, I began to have some eye problems of my own, and after visiting my new optometrist, I am inspired to share with you the possibilities that lie in the career path of an optometrist.
Whether as an undergrad looking for a health related career path outside of the traditional med school route, or as a life sciences grad student or postdoc considering alternative career options, becoming an optometrist could be an appealing career path with several benefits.
Optometry school takes less time than medical school
For one, the optometry school route takes less time than the medical school route. It’s a 4-5 year investment as opposed to the 7 year investment of being a MD. To become a medical doctor, you must finish 4 years of med school, 1 year of internship, 2 years of residency, before you get to be a “real” doctor. To become a Doctor of Optometry, it’s 4 years at optometry school, then 1 year of residency training for those who chose to do so.
All the benefits of academia without the disadvantages
If you are a grad student/postdoc, your first reaction might be “Are you kidding? More schooling?” But hear me out.
For those of us who have done eye research, whether it be eye movement or retina electrophysiology or eye disease, you can continue to work in the lab while you apply to and attend optometry school. The work you do will not only be relevant to your new career path, it will put you ahead of your classmates. Just as there are MD/PhDs, there can also be OD/PhDs.
Of the many people I’ve spoken to who looked to alternative career paths outside of academia, there’s usually two main reasons: money and social interaction.
On the money front, an optometrist makes more money than most academic positions. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average income for salaried optometrists is $96,320 and the average for self-employed optometrists is about $175,329. So instead of the unknown years of toiling as a grad student (~$20k) then postdoc (~$40k) to perhaps reach a coveted professor position (~$60k and up), you can invest 5 years and get a much higher stable income while still doing the research you love if you so choose.
Now on to social interaction. Like with other health professions, being an optometrist will give you the opportunity to interact with patients and make a direct difference in people’s lives. There were many times when I sat in lab and thought “does any of this research I’m doing now matter?” Sure, in time, my findings could lead to practical uses that help people, but until then, only maybe 20 people in the world would give a damn about what I’m doing – and that because they are in the same specialized research field. As an optometrist however, knowledge and first hand experience on the front lines of eye research could be used to directly have impact on patients’ wellbeing. As an optometrist, you won’t have the heavy burden of having someone’s life in your hands as a doctor might, but you will be directly responsible for giving people the ability to see clearly, something so important that I can truly appreciate especially after the eye issues I’ve had in this past month.
For those who love the recognition part of academia, you could maintain the same recognition as a optometrist. Like in academia, there are still conferences where you can present your research or patient case studies, there are boards you can be the chair to, and there are associations to join. Furthermore, optometrists could also be involved in industry, offering their expertise in developing new eye care products and services.
Real life example of a successful optometrist
Take my optometrist for example. Dr. Jerry MacKenzie have done research, taught at the university level, held leadership positions such as the president of the Vancouver Optometry Association, and is actively involved in industry R&D. On top of that, he’s great with patients and have helped me a lot with my eye issues. You can find his full bio here.
How to become an optometrist
If you are interested in becoming an optometrist, the Canadian Association of Optometrist have great information including list of accredited schools in the US and Canada, financial information about costs, and other things you may wish to learn. it’s US counterpart, the American Optometric Association have some good stuff on their sites as well.