Have You Considered an Optometry Residency?

October 4, 2016

As graduation from optometry school neared, Valerie Lam OD, FAAO, knew she wanted pediatrics and vision therapy to be her career focus, so she wanted to further sharpen her VT skills and add to the experience she gained in her fourth-year rotations. She and a classmate had discussed the possibility of opening their own practice, so she also wanted to be as equipped as possible for patient care and “come out of school thinking more like a doctor and less like a student,” she says. Also on her mind was having the option of teaching at some point in the future. A residency was the way to address all of these goals. The summer after her graduation from Southern California College of Optometry at Marshall B. Ketchum University, Dr. Lam completed the college’s 2012-2013 Pediatric Optometry and Vision Therapy residency.

Dr. Adeline Bauer, OD, FAAO, FSLS, completed her 2014-2015 Cornea/Contact Lenses residency at Michigan College of Optometry at Ferris State University the summer after she graduated from the college in 2014. She pursued a residency because she wasn’t quite sure exactly where and how she wanted to practice after optometry school. During the residency she rotated through several types of settings, including a private optometry practice, a cornea specialist’s office, a specialty contact lens clinic and a contact lens lab. She was able to acquire broad experience while keeping her options open, and she felt the residency could take her in a number of different directions such as private practice, research or a hospital setting. She also learned something surprising. “What I liked most was the teaching component,” she says. “I never would have known that if I hadn’t done my residency! I do want to teach someday.”

Many Reasons to Do a Residency

According to residency directors, Drs. Lam and Bauer had great reasons for wanting to do a residency, and there are other reasons as well. Says Brianne Hobbs, OD, FAAO, assistant professor and residency director at Midwestern University Arizona College of Optometry, “Residency is an opportunity to both broaden and deepen your knowledge base while gaining clinical experience caring for patients. Residency allows you the unique experience of tackling complex cases outside of your comfort zone in a protected, nurturing, learning environment. It’s an ideal time to challenge yourself, to identify what you know and what you don’t, and to strengthen the areas that need improvement.”

Alison Jenerou, OD, FCOVD, FAAO, associate professor and director of residencies at Michigan College of Optometry, says “The benefits of doing a residency include working with like-minded people who havethe same level of passion for an area of optometry. This pushes the resident to get out of his or her comfort zone, sharpen critical-thinking skills and become better, all while having the one-to-one mentorship of the residency supervisor and/or other attending doctors.” Dr. Jenerou adds, “The networking and connections made during the residency year open many doors for these individuals. Many become leaders in eye care.” Connections made during a residency may include not only fellow residents and program faculty and mentors, but also practitioners in other health professions and hospitals, and representatives from industry. Involvement in research projects, grand rounds and other seminars, and writing and presenting papers is also common during residency. Furthermore, when looking for their next optometric hire, schools and colleges of optometry, referral/surgery centers, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, many private practices and industry typically search for residency-trained optometrists.

How My Optometry Residency Helped Me

Dr. Lam and her former optometry school classmate did end up opening their own practice, Insight Vision Center in Costa Mesa, Calif., and she’s sure completing a residency was a big asset. “I got even more experience than I expected, doing infant contact lenses, pediatric low vision, special population exams and perceptual exams,” she recalls. “Residency is a great year of growing one’s independence and confidence as a doctor, but having the safety net of mentors by your side. I really felt that it opened my eyes to all the ways I can serve my patients as a vision therapy optometrist. It also opened my eyes to the field of behavioral optometry, which wasn’t taught to me in school.”

Reflecting on her residency, Dr. Bauer explains, “It made me a more confident clinician. I gained extensive hands-on experience in patient management not normally emphasized in optometry school, such as
working with post-cataract surgery patients and fitting contact lenses for patients who had corneal transplants.” Today, in her position at Upper Peninsula Eye Specialists, a group OD/MD practice in Marquette, Mich., she sees these types of patients regularly. Dr. Bauer continues, “During residency I also met and keep in touch with a lot of the leaders in the contact lens field. The residency helped me network and build a team of mentors who I still keep in touch with. They’re a wealth of knowledge, and I know I can pick their brains on any challenges I run across.”

Advice for Residency Seekers

For optometry students who have decided they want to pursue a residency, Dr. Hobbs recommends keeping an open mind and exploring programs in a variety of settings. “Often students narrow their focus too quickly and eliminate programs that would have provided excellent educational experiences,” she notes. She also advises students to make contact early and often with programs they’re considering.
“These ‘touchpoints’ foster a relationship with the program supervisor and give the applicant a realistic picture of what the residency program is actually like,” she explains. “Reaching out to former residents is also a great way to obtain an unedited version of the benefits and challenges of any particular program. I
think a good strategy for third- and fourth-year students is to proceed as if they are pursuing a residency until another opportunity redirects them.” Dr. Jenerou recommends that students make a list of what they want to get out of a residency and compare it to the programs they think interest them. “Envision and research how the programs might or might not be able to meet your goals,” she says. “Then formulate some questions to ask the residency supervisors and current or previous residents to paint the full picture of what a year in their program would be like.”

Getting that full picture is important, says Dr. Bauer, because both the applicant and the program want to be a good fit. “Each residency is different and has a different area of emphasis,” she explains. “Do your research. Some are more clinical, while others deal more with research, for example. The best way to know what that residency is like is to ask the previous residents. What was their favorite and least favorite part? What is the patient base like? Don’t forget to ask about cost of living and lifestyle of the area! That will definitely affect how well you fit the residency.” [You can look up previous residents from all of the programs using the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry (ASCO) Resident Directory.] And while you’re in the program, Dr. Lam advises, “Be a sponge. Learn as much as you can and have an open mind about everything you’re learning and what other doctors are doing out there.”

Some Residency Logistics

The first step for students wanting to apply for a residency position is registering with ASCO’s Optometry Residency Match (ORMatch). Online registration for 2017-2018 residencies opens Oct. 5, 2016. ORMatch is an application service and process that helps applicants obtain positions in optometry residency programs of their choice and vice versa. It’s the same type of system used in other health professions and by hospitals in their annual recruitment of medical residents.

Currently, there are more than 200 optometric residency programs that are approved by the Accreditation Council on Optometric Education. The programs offer a total of more than 400 positions. Non-accredited residency programs also are available, and information on both accredited and non-accredited programs can be found in ASCO’s Residency Directory. The types of residencies available fall into 11 general categories:

  • Family Practice Optometry
  • Primary Eye Care
  • Cornea and Contact Lenses
  • Geriatric Optometry
  • Pediatric Optometry
  • Low Vision Rehabilitation
  • Vision Therapy and Rehabilitation
  • Ocular Disease
  • Refractive and Ocular Surgery
  • Community Health Optometry
  • Brain Injury Vision Rehabilitation.

Optometry residencies typically run for one year, usually from the first of July to June 30. Depending on the institution funding the program, residents receive a stipend that ranges from about $25,000 to around $60,000. Residents usually receive some benefits, too, such as continuing education opportunities, health insurance, professional liability insurance, vacation time and paid sick leave. A handful of programs that offer training without compensation are available for graduates who aren’t selected for a funded program but are motivated to complete a residency.

Benefits for Now and the Future

Regardless of when or where optometrists have completed residencies, they tend to consider them
invaluable. “Residency was the single most enriching year of my life,” says Dr. Hobbs. “I learned a lot
about eyes, but I learned more about life. Residency was a time for me to thoughtfully determine what type of doctor, and more importantly what type of person, I wanted to become. It’s impossible for me to assign a value that would accurately reflect what my residency was worth to me. It fundamentally shaped the way I care for patients, evaluate evidence and teach students.”

For More Information

Detailed ORMatch instructions and additional important application dates and deadlines can be found at the ORMatch website. More information about optometry residencies in general can be found at ASCO’s website.