Optometry Students Can Open Even More Doors with a Dual Degree
The Doctor of Optometry degree is a ticket to a rewarding, well-compensated, flexible career, and combining it with another graduate degree, such as a master’s or PhD, opens even more doors of opportunity. Many schools and colleges of optometry offer dual-degree programs. The available programs are structured in various ways. For example, some are campus-based while others are at least partially online, and the degree tracts may be completed concurrently or consecutively. What the programs have in common, however, are the benefits they can provide for students, which include the ability to branch out from solely clinical optometry into research and to receive two degrees in less time and for less money than it would typically take.
The Security of an Optometry Degree, Plus a PhD
In May 2018, Stephanie Adams, OD, PhD, graduated from the New England College of Optometry (NECO) as the first recipient of its OD/PhD degree, a joint program with Boston University. As an undergrad she enjoyed her molecular biology courses and working in research labs and knew she wanted to pursue a PhD, with some clear goals in mind. “I wanted the security of a health profession-based career,” she says. “I explored the various health professions and was most interested in optometry and the ocular connection to systemic disease. I also wanted to be able to stretch my knowledge outside the realm of vision research and be qualified to join any science department and teach basic science courses at universities, which the PhD would allow me to do.”
After receiving the OD/PhD degree, Dr. Adams completed an ocular disease residency at the West Roxbury VA Medical Center in the Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System. Then, in August 2019, she moved directly to her position as an assistant professor at the Illinois College of Optometry where she works in the primary care eye clinic precepting students and also helps facilitate human anatomy lab and lecture content. “Through the NECO OD/PhD program I was able to earn both degrees in a total of 7 years,” she points out. “A PhD degree alone can take anywhere from 4 to 7 years, so this was a great opportunity to follow a set schedule to a dual degree in 7 years, which included publishing three papers based on my work. In addition, with a PhD, I am a more competitive applicant for NIH grants to fund potential research projects.”
Optometry and Public Health
The dual OD/Master of Public Health degree was one of the things that attracted Kelly Morgese, OD, MPH, to the MCPHS University School of Optometry. She completed the program in spring 2019. “My interest in public health blossomed during my time as an undergraduate working with vulnerable populations in New Mexico and taking medical sociology classes,” she says. “I am passionate about people and health care, and there is so much public health-related work to be done in optometry. It relates to everything from amblyopia prevention through pediatric vision screenings to educating communities about how dilated eye exams save lives by revealing systemic diseases, and the importance of compliant use of contact lenses and glaucoma medications.” Dr. Morgese also feels the knowledge behind her dual degree will help her to relate to patients on a deeper level, with a better understanding of what barriers stand between them and the best possible health outcomes.
After graduating with her OD/MPH degree, Dr. Morgese began a residency in ocular disease/primary eye care at the W.G. Hefner Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salisbury, N.C. Looking toward the future she says, “I anticipate public health will be part of everything I do in optometry.”
Advantages to Being a Clinician and a Researcher
The Ohio State University College of Optometry (OSU) is among the optometric institutions that offer a dual OD/MS degree. Jeffrey J. Walline, OD, PhD, Associate Dean for Research, describes its appeal: “The OD/MS degree provides students with more options when they graduate. Completing the program gives them research experience that is important to industry partners who need to test their products. The program also makes students better consumers of science so they can practice evidence-based optometry. In addition, they have an advantage when applying for a clinical job because employers know they have obtained expertise in an important area of clinical practice. It opens doors they don’t even know exist.”
Jay W. Henry, OD, MS, can vouch. He received his Master of Science in Physiological Optics and Doctor of Optometry degrees from OSU in 1998. As he explains, “I pursued the OD/MS dual degree for a number of reasons. I wanted to challenge myself while in optometry school. I also felt like this was an outstanding opportunity to use my time wisely and get multiple degrees without spending many more years in school. I felt like it was a financial savings, time savings and most importantly a great career-building opportunity.”
Dr. Henry’s expectations were exceeded. Upon graduating he was offered a job as a part-time clinical instructor at OSU as well as more than five other positions in the area he wanted to live and work, Columbus, OH. His offers included roles in commercial, optometric private practice and OD/MD referral settings. “I think being one of the few that graduated with the combined OD/MS degree in my class definitely helped spur the interest in me,” he says. And the positive developments didn’t stop there. Dr. Henry, who now works with a full-scope practice near Columbus, notes that “numerous opportunities have been offered and created for me that I contribute to my additional MS degree as well as the connections I made as part of the degree process. Some of these opportunities have been my continued involvement with The Ohio State University College of Optometry as an adjunct faculty member and clinical preceptor at my private practice for the extern program, conducting contact lens studies for numerous companies, being invited to write journal articles on various topics, creating and co-speaking on three national lecture series about government incentives, federal legislation, quality reporting, meaningful use and technology in eye care, and serving on industry advisory boards for technology and electronic health record development.”
The effort he invested in earning the double degree was well worth it, Dr. Henry says. “I can say it has paid me back in dividends and rewarded me with opportunities I never imagined would come my way.”
Visit the websites of ASCO member schools and colleges of optometry to explore the dual-degree options they offer. And let three eye doctors show you more about how you can “find your charge” through a career in optometry.