At a pop-up talk filmed live at Vision Expo, a group of such panelists shared their experiences and highlight things they wish they knew in optometry school before graduating.
Starting a new career as a new optometry graduate can seem to be quite a formidable task; however, the experiences of those who’ve successfully managed to forge a path of their own can be a valuable resource.
The panelists reflected, and shared stories with one another and gave advice to new graduates, focusing upon knowledge they wish they’d had and skills they wish they’d learned before graduating optometry school. The panel included Patricia Fulmer, OD, FAAO of Madison Eye Care Center; Laura A. Goldberg, OD, MS, FAAO, DIPL ABO of Original Eyewear and Cicero Family Eye Care; Sabrina Mayo, OD of Mayo Family Eye Care; and Antonio Chirumbolo, OD, Associate Director of marketing at CovalentCareers.
All of the panelists agree: networking is key. However, as Dr. Chirumbolo points out, new graduates have often made most of their connections in the state in which they went to school, rather than the state in which they wind up working. Making the right connections in an area where you do not yet live may seem difficult, but it can be done, as Dr. Goldberg proves – she grew up in New Jersey, went to the New England College of Optometry, and now works at a private practice in Syracuse, NY.
“I grew up in Jersey my whole life, and so I kind of created my connections working for optometrists in college … Near the end of my residency, I knew I was going to go up to Syracuse, so what I did really was just start cold-calling and e-mailing people.” She recommends contacting sales representatives in the area you’re planning to start your career, since they are in close contact with local practices. She also recommends contacting job recruiters, as well as using LinkedIn.
Though she also graduated from NECO, Dr. Mayo decided early on that she wanted to return to her hometown upon graduation and start a career there, and so she began to research optometry practices in that area. She wound up finding a private practice run by an older doctor who was planning to retire, and approached him about buying his practice, which she did. Her advice:
“Find out where you want to practice early on in the game, even your first year. Find out who might be hiring and what type of modality you want to practice in, and set some goals.”
According to Dr. Chirumbolo, it’s important to start out with realistic expectations, including being open to the possibility of part-time work: “Even if an opportunity is just for one day a week, that could lead to a full-time job after a month or so.” Dr. Fulmer agrees: “Most students think that they’re going to be able to graduate, walk out, have a five-day-a-week or a four-day-a-week job, and that’s just not reality the way our profession is now.” Many of Dr. Fulmer’s friends worked multiple part-time jobs upon graduation before eventually settling into a more stable career.
Often, these initial part-time jobs will involve being paid as a 1099 independent contractor. In this case, it’s the responsibility of the person getting paid to take taxes out of their income. Dealing with this can be quite confusing for those without the proper background, which is why the panelists agree that it’s important to find a good accountant who can provide you with sound financial advice.
A good financial planner will also be able to help you manage your student loans, the payment of which will be another one of the major challenges facing new graduates. Dr. Fulmer notes that a 10-year repayment plan is standard, but that there are also plans based on financial need that might be a better choice for recent graduates. Dr. Goldberg points out that community health centers often offer loan forgiveness programs for their employees. Dr. Mayo strongly recommends consolidating your loans.
Figuring out how to navigate the confusing world of medical insurance coverage can also be a challenge. “When you’re in school,” Dr. Chirumbolo observes, “you don’t really learn much about billing and coding – at least we didn’t.” However, understanding these topics can have a significant effect on your income:
“You have these exams, and you’re thinking that your exam fee is $140, and every time you see a patient you’re getting $140. Not the case, especially in the world of insurance.”
Dr. Mayo agrees. “You really need to know,” she says, “‘Is this a new patient or a previous patient? Did you do a refraction?’ Make sure that you are coding appropriately and you know what tests you can do within the same day and still be able to get paid.” Dr. Fulmer adds that it’s important to learn from the people who do the billing, and to understand the EOB (Explanation of Benefits) forms you’re given – if you can start to understand those, you’ll be in a better position.
As you build your career, it’s important to stay connected with the wider world of optometry. You can do so in a variety of ways. Dr. Goldberg, who is currently a young advocate for the NYSOA, recommends staying connected to your local optometry organization. Dr. Mayo agrees, and adds: “I make a point every month to meet with some OD friends in my community.” Going to conventions and conferences (such as Vision Expos East & West) is also a good way to stay connected.
In interacting with staff, Dr. Fulmer says that it’s important to be friendly and warm, but also respectful and professional. “The absolute biggest thing is that you’ve got to go in with respect for the staff, because they have been there, they know the practice, they’ve got a lot to teach you if you’ll listen. You can still be that boss without being a dictator or being disrespectful to them.” Dr. Mayo agrees that respect on both sides is important. This has been a particular challenge for her given that everyone on her staff is at least twenty years older than her. “Instill that you are the employer,” she says, “you make the calls. You make the executive decisions.” You need to be confident in your decisions, she says, and make sure you have a standard “template” for how to respond to different employee situations.
Over the course of an in-depth discussion, the panel dealt with these topics and others, with each panelist drawing upon their own experiences to point out a range of challenges that confronted them as new optometry graduates.