I decided to go into optometry because I love problem solving. When I realized that I could take this to the next level and answer big problems that every clinician faces in practice, I was hooked. I started in the optometry student summer research program (NEI T35 program) that my school offered the summer between first and second year and began a project about finding a better glasses prescription for patients with keratoconus.
Quickly after starting in the lab, I realized I was in the right place. The lab was productive, the members were supportive, and I decided I wanted to stay. Originally, I figured I would stay for a combined OD/MS degree, but later switched to a PhD as our brainstorming grew the project too large to be completed in one study. They help me to stay excited about research even when nothing is going right, the numbers aren’t working out, or when I’m stressed out with optometry school.
This might seem like an unconventional route for someone who loves clinical care, but I’m excited about the opportunities it opens up and the benefits along the way. As optometry students, we have the unique opportunity to get involved in research and move the eyecare industry forward. If this sounds appealing, read on!
4 ways a PhD can benefit ODs
I didn’t realize this coming into optometry school, but I’ve always had a lot of questions about why things are done and why certain problems have not yet been solved, and I realized that I could make a career out of answering them. When I decided to go for the PhD in addition to the OD, I discovered the wide variety of benefits this combination can offer.
1. You’ll find a different way to help patients.
One of my favorite things about seeing patients in clinic is giving them one-on-one time and helping to solve their problems. I was afraid that research might feel less rewarding because my problem solving is no longer face-to-face with a patient. However, I found the opposite to be true. Each brainstorming session seems to spark ideas that could give more options for optical correction for patients with keratoconus. Now I am excited because the projects I’m working on could end up directly helping thousands of people! Let this factor into your decision–you can expand your impact exponentially by innovation through research!
Every tool and technique we use in clinic was developed by a researcher solving a problem. Every challenge you face in clinic and every disease we currently have no treatment for should be sparking researchers to solve these new problems. Research is the cornerstone of our profession. While there are many ways to become an eye researcher (being an MD, PhD, etc.) it is important ODs have a seat at the table. It benefits the advancement of our profession to have optometrists as part of the problem-solving teams that approach the problems of our own patients.
2. It will benefit you in your optometry coursework and in clinic.
Getting to know the professors at my school through my research has allowed me to network and find multiple mentors in different fields of optometry. Also, because of my area of research, I had been working with patients with keratoconus for two full semesters before I ever saw my first patient in clinic. Not only did it give me confidence while talking with a patient and with clinical procedures, but it gave me a greater understanding of the impact of vision loss on patients’ lifestyles. The problem-solving skills I’ve developed through working with patients with complex conditions have prepared me for the logical thinking patterns required in clinic.
3. Student loan repayment!
The NIH has a loan repayment program for clinicians who devote their careers to research. Once I complete my OD and become a full-time PhD student, I will be eligible. There are also multiple grants available for clinicians who dedicate a career to research. These options are what can make it financially feasible to spend the first few years of my career as a graduate student. You should ask your school’s financial aid and grants director to find out how to qualify for this program during your graduate studies.
4. You’ll acquire some new skills that will make you more employable in more fields.
I came into the graduate program barely knowing how to use Microsoft Excel and I quickly realized that I needed to gain some additional skills or I would spend hours doing tedious work manually. I went online and began learning more detailed Excel tricks and eventually found free online resources to learn Matlab. Now I’m able to write some programs for myself to analyze data on my own much quicker. This really saved me since I’m trying to do two degrees and I don’t have time for calculations by hand! This also gave me a new challenge and a fun “hobby” to pursue outside of clinic and classes.
Is it really going to be worth it?
Yes! The career options are limitless!
Having an OD and a PhD will allow you the flexibility to choose between, or combine practices from different corners of the optometric world:
- Industry: Research and Design
- Private practice/specialty practice
I love the idea that I can try any and all of these!
Ok, that’s great and all—but how does it work? Is it going to take me longer to graduate optometry school?
Each optometry school with a graduate program manages combined degree programs differently. It is important to talk to your graduate research advisor about what options are available. Several schools offer a formal combined OD/PhD program. If this is the case at your school, start communicating with the advisor early in the program.
If your school has a graduate program but no formal OD/PhD program, consider talking to a graduate advisor to see if this is a possibility for you. In my case, there is currently no formal program so we made a plan together that is suited specifically for my educational needs. Ask what your options are and get ready to get creative with your time!
To make everything work and balance two degrees, I have spent a lot of time talking to my advisor about my schedule and changing it as needed. While making my timeline, it was important to me to stay with my optometry class and still graduate on time (before the PhD). After I graduate I hope to be working in the clinic part time and finishing up my research and dissertation writing full time.
For right now as I’m finishing my third year, this means I am working on research during the one half-day I have off from my OD clinics and classes each week. I am writing and learning computer programming during the evenings and weekends as possible. I also try to put my summers to good use when I have fewer classes and clinics to worry about. I have been taking graduate classes like Experimental Design and Statistics when I can work them in around my OD clinic and class schedule, and the university has been helping by allowing my graduate courses to count as my OD electives.
Studying for classes, keeping up in clinics, preparing for National Board exams, scheduling and seeing human subjects for research projects, and of course the writing that goes along with research can get overwhelming at times. Through careful planning and an understanding advisor, I have been happy to have made significant progress on several studies since beginning research between my first and second years as an optometry student.
After I finish my OD, I’ll begin taking the “core” PhD classes that I have not yet taken and will continue with my research and writing. Although this is completely out of order for a typical PhD student to complete most of their research before beginning the formal coursework, the demands on my schedule necessitate some scheduling creativity. I have been learning what I need to know along the way through independent study, reading, my OD courses, and a very understanding advisor who is willing to answer my numerous questions. After finishing these courses, I will take my written and oral qualifiers quickly to become a “candidate” for a PhD. After this I can finish my research, write up my dissertation, and defend.
It will likely take me between two and three additional years after graduating with my OD in 2019 to complete and defend my PhD. I hope to stay in clinic part time during these years to continue developing and sharpening my skills. And, of course, it will be good to have some income.
It will certainly be overwhelming at times to forge your own path through two degrees, but it will be well worth it to move our field forward!
How can I get started?
Check out what research programs your school offers! Start talking to your professors about their areas of research and consider joining their lab. Ask if your school participates in the NEI T35 grant or if you can travel to another school during your first summer to kickstart your research career.
If you’re already past your first year, you can still get involved in research! Think about some of the problems that your professors discuss in class or that you face in clinic. Consider every clinical challenge a problem that can be solved through research. This can be a basis of discussion for you and your attending, or with another professor who is knowledgeable in the field. Ask if they would be interested in getting involved in a research project together. There are multiple grants available to optometry students who are moving the profession forward through vision science research! Talk to your graduate research department and see what options are possible for you!
Already a practicing optometrist? You can get involved in research too!
Doctors who have completed their clinical training are valuable researchers. You can partner with other practices to be part of a multicenter trial or publish case reports. If you want to expand your education by pursuing graduate research, consider contacting an optometry program that offers graduate research training.
Is an OD/PhD something that interests you? Are you an optometrist or student doing research? Tell me about it in the comments!