Dental and Medical Counsel Blog

You’ve Just Graduated Optometry School, Now What?

May 1, 2022
optometry

As you reach the end of your optometry school life, you may be excited and nervous about what comes next. You may be ready to dive into the world of work in optometry, but you might not know exactly how you should do that. You are transitioning into the role of a professional in your community, and fulfilling that role can be intimidating.

The average person who graduates from optometry school has over $200,000 in debt. The prospect of starting to pay back those loans can also be overwhelming. You want to make the right choices for both your personal and professional life as you look at your employment options. But, what should you be doing to get ready? What are your options? How can you get more information?

This guide provides some helpful insights and information for those who are just starting their professional career as optometrists. It serves as a helpful jumping-off point so you can take steps now to better your future.

Deciding What to Do After Optometry School

Every optometrist has to pass all parts of the National Boards in Optometry to become an optometrist. Every state has slightly different requirements to sit for the exam, so check the prerequisites in the state where you want to practice, so you are aware of what the test entails and when you need to be ready to take it.

Not everyone will want to immediately sit for their Boards, however. Instead, you can do a couple of things.

Take Time Off

The first option is to take some time off before doing anything else. Optometry school is intense, and finishing is a huge accomplishment. Some graduates choose to take some time to themselves before deciding what they want to do next.

Keep in mind that once you are out of school, your loan payments will start after the deferment period ends—be sure you are prepared to start making those payments.

Specialize in a Sub-Field of Optometry

You can choose to start a residency so you can specialize in a specific area of optometry practice. Those in specialized fields must usually go through a residency requirement to gain this specialization. Many schools require residency before graduation, but additional residency requirements are often necessary for many specializations.

Examples of specializations in optometry include:

  • Ocular disease
  • Low vision rehabilitation
  • Refractive and ocular surgery
  • Pediatric optometry
  • Geriatric optometry
  • Family practice
  • Vision therapy and rehabilitation

In most cases, you will wait to take your boards until after you finish your specialization residency. Additional exams might be required for certain specialties or in some geographic areas.

Start Work in an Optometry Practice

Once you pass your boards, you can start practicing. For some, that means opening their own practice. Others might want to consider becoming an associate in an established practice, often with the goal of becoming a practice owner at some point in the future.

Work on Your Professional Development

Assuming you have made the decision to move forward toward entering the workforce, you need to take some steps to work on your individual professional development. Until this point, your focus has been entirely on your education. However, it takes a different set of skills to succeed as a professional now that you have graduated. While many of the abilities you developed as a student will be helpful, you now have to focus on professional skills that you may have never considered before this point.

  • Managing your money. As a student, you likely had to manage your money somewhat, but if you were not working to cover your own expenses, this might be the first time that you need to address this demand. This skill is especially important if you are considering owning your own practice or joining a practice as an owner. Even as an employee who will someday be a business owner, “thinking like an owner” now will serve you well when you take on that role in the future. Managing your money properly also means setting up a retirement account to start saving for decades down the road.
  • Develop a plan to balance your personal and professional life. As a young professional, you can expect to work a lot of hours. You may be seeing patients for only a portion of the day, but you will have other administrative responsibilities that you must address. All of that time at the office can harm your personal life. Creating boundaries now, before you get too far into your practice, can set you up well for developing a healthy work-life balance for years to come.
  • Network and find a mentor. Whether you are striking out on your own or you are joining a practice, having the right professional network can be extremely helpful. You want to have a team of people to turn to when you have questions or need assistance. Networking can help you build referrals, and finding a good mentor will help develop your practice.

Whatever your professional goals may be, keep in mind that you are more likely to achieve those goals if you map out a plan and write down your end goal.

Getting Started with Your Optometry Career

If you are ready to practice now, you have a few options. The choices you make now will help you prepare for your ideal professional career. Examining all of your options thoroughly will help you make the right decision for your future.

Deciding What You Want

One of the first questions you need to answer is: What kind of practice do I want to have? Are you more focused on serving patients? Or are you interested in the business side of running a practice? Do you want to be able to make decisions that affect how your office runs, or would you rather see patients without worrying about managing an office?

Only you can answer these questions. However, it does take some soul searching to decide what you really want. For example, being able to set your own schedule as a business owner might sound appealing. But the tradeoff is that you have to handle things like bookkeeping and HR yourself (or have reliable people help you with that work).

Once you have the answers to these questions, you can determine which career path is going to work best for you.

Becoming an Associate

Being an associate at a current optometry practice essentially means that you work as an employee in an optometry firm. In most cases, you focus most of your time and effort on serving patients, but you might have some limited administrative responsibilities.

Working as an associate first helps you build your reputation in the community and get some good experience under your belt. It also provides you with “built-in” mentors that you learn from within your practice. Perhaps the most important benefit of being an associate right out of optometry school is that you can focus on patient services rather than the more complicated aspects of running a practice.

Many optometry associates do not go into this role under the assumption that they are going to be associates forever. Instead, they are associates for a relatively limited amount of time before moving on to something else. That “something else” could be an owner in the existing practice or moving on to open your own practice or joining another group.

Some optometry practices bring on associates for the explicit purpose of transition or retirement planning. They assume that the new associate will take over the practice, either at a specific point in time or some time in the future. Some practices choose to use associate contracts with “buy-in” language so that the associates know what becoming an owner of the practice will be like at some point in the future.

Private Practice in Your Own Optometry Practice

You also have the option of “hanging your own shingle” as an optometry practice owner. You can either take on this ownership role yourself, buy into an existing practice, or purchase a whole practice outright.

While this route is certainly the fastest way to become your own boss, it can be very challenging as well. Starting your own practice from scratch requires teaching yourself (hopefully with the help of a good mentor) how to run an optometry practice. It also requires getting and keeping your own patients, sometimes without any prior association or reputation in the area.

Starting your practice requires doing things like:

  • Hiring your own team
  • Buying or building an office location
  • Setting up your facility for your practice
  • Getting financing
  • Marketing and developing your brand
  • Creating a team of advisors

While things like HR can be intimidating, you have options to utilize great resources to help you with challenges such as these. For example, HR for Health is an HR solution that is specifically tailored to provide HR services to those in the health field, including those just starting optometry practices. Tools like these turn what would otherwise be an overwhelming part of owning your own business into something much more manageable.

Being an independent or solo optometrist has its challenges, but it can also be very rewarding. Suppose you find being a solo professional to be a little more than you would like to take on. In that case, you might want to consider creating an optometry practice with several like-minded professionals so you can support one another. Joining a network of optometrists might be an option for you as well.

Contract Terms: Considerations When Becoming an Associate

Most optometrists choose to practice for a few years as an associate before opening their own practice or buying into a practice. This transition can make sense for a lot of reasons. It allows you to get your feet wet before making any major financial decisions, and you can make money right away to get started on paying those pesky student loans without worrying about the potential of an unstable paycheck.

If you are thinking about becoming an associate optometrist, you will likely need to sign a contract with your new practice as part of your employment. These are even more likely to crop up if you are building in an option to purchase the practice at some point in the future.

Below are just a few terms to keep an eye out for as you make this type of career move.

  • Length or term of the contract. As someone who is just starting out, you might not want to enter a contract that forces you to stay with one practice for any significant length of time. If you do not like the practice or the people drive you crazy, you might want the ability to cut the contract short or get out of it altogether. Having a shorter term will help make that process easier. If the contract contemplates you buying the practice, be realistic about when you are going to be financially and professionally ready to make this type of move.
  • Non-compete language. If you decide this practice isn’t the right fit for you or your situation, you want to be sure that you can move on to something else without much pushback. A very broad non-compete is not going to let you move on to something else very easily, but if you know that you will not be in the same geographic area if this opportunity does not work out, this type of provision might be less of a concern for you.
  • Anti-solicitation clause. If your goal is to open your own practice that is separate from your current potential associate position, you should also be on the lookout for an anti-solicitation clause. This language prohibits you from taking patients with you when you leave. If you are trying to start a practice in the same area, this contract language can significantly limit your ability to do that.
  • Red flag language. If there is anything in the contract that seems odd or unreasonable to you, that can be a red flag. Asking questions can be a good way to get clarification from your new employer, but ultimately, it is your responsibility to ensure that you understand every term in the contract. You should never sign anything you don’t fully understand.

Dental & Medical Counsel is a great resource for optometry associate contract review, and we can be an excellent partner as you consider the legal aspects of starting your own optometry practice. We also offer an array of helpful resources specific to optometry practice on our blog. Contact us to set up a complimentary consultation with attorney Ali Oromchian.

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At Dental & Medical Counsel, PC, we understand optometrists have trouble navigating the legal process. We believe every optometrist deserves the best advice and service so optometrists can do what they do best, treat their patients. We make dentists' lives easier by providing expert guidance, so they can focus on their personal and professional aspirations.

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