My road to optometry, could it be the road for you too?

I hope you are reading this because you are interested in becoming an optometrist and want to know more about it, in particular real life experience.

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Before studying optometry, I had left a previous degree after only five weeks – that was long enough! Feeling a bit lost having always been driven by education I didn’t know what to do next. A friend asked “Catherine why don’t you become an optometrist?” and my initial reaction was negative and naive, “no way, I don’t want to sit in a small dark room every day asking 1 or 2?!” How very clueless of me! Looking back I can’t help but laugh, but I also think she may have just suggested it in the hope of free spectacles.

Before jumping straight into another career, I got some work experience. I would strongly advise this to anyone, regardless of the career option. The more work experience you get, the better, and you will have a more realistic insight. To gain optometric experience you don’t just have to pop into your local optometrists, you could do a hospital placement or a day in university shadowing a researcher. The list is as long as the career options available. 

There was so much that I never knew existed. I saw a few ocular pathologies and realised how important this profession is to sight and whole body health. Shortly after I began working in the optometrists, I applied to study optometry at Ulster University. As I already had my A-Level results, I accepted my offer straight away.

In all honesty, I didn’t know what to expect of the course even though I had scoured the course website and knew everything that there was to know. On my first day of first year I went in at 9.15am and left at 5.15pm, having finished up in clinic - on my first day! I was exhausted. But it was a wonderful reminder of why I was there – to become an optometrist.

Now I am in second year, and am testing our senior volunteers (patients who are over 60 years old) every other week to practise my refraction routine. Had you told me I would be ‘let loose’ so early into my degree my jaw would’ve dropped. It is truly great, your professionalism and ocular/optical knowledge suddenly correlate and you feel like an optometrist. 

I saw a few ocular pathologies and realised how important this profession is to sight and whole body health.

Coming directly from secondary school can feel like quite a big jump as now you have to be an independent learner, but that’s unavoidable and the same goes with any further education. I was happy to find people at a range of levels in my class; some were straight out of school, others had completed Access Diplomas, for some students this was their second degree and further students were already fully qualified dispensing optician. You may feel like you know less than others, but that is totally normal, your time spent at university brings you all to the same level. Learn from each other, ask each other questions, do past papers and compare your answers. You are not in competition with one another! 

Before I finish I would like to share a few further points which are useful to know before venturing down the path of optometry: 

  • Optometry isn’t just about eyes. You learn about the whole body as everything is inextricably linked; for example, systemic diseases such as diabetes and a medication for your arthritis may affect your vision.
     
  • When start working, it is your responsibility to the equipment needed. This can cost around £2000, and includes a trial frame, Volk lens, ophthalmoscope and retinoscope. These are lifetime investments and there are plenty of deals to be had. Your university may run competitions/ awards/ bursaries – so make the most of these.
     
  • As more and more pressure is put on NHS hospital services, optometrists are being called on to help. This means our role is becoming more clinical, which I find hugely exciting.
     
  • Work experience is not essential, but it is extremely helpful. I found it gave me a basic understanding of things and helped me develop my communication skills.
     
  • Finally you do not have to map out your career in optometry career from day one. There are so many places this career can take you; private practice, in hospitals or in research. One day you may even be the lecturer keeping the students on their first day into 5.15pm! See where it takes you. Embrace it and enjoy yourself!

 

Catherine McGuckin
Student rep, Ulster University

Catherine is a second year optometry student at Ulster University, and says that optometry’s perfect blend of science/healthcare, practical work and communication keeps her interested and on her toes. Her least favourite part of the degree is finding she has developed an inescapable need to make puns about anything to do with eyes, vision or glasses …it’s becoming a spectacle!  She can usually be found in the library or talking to someone on my way to and from the library. And, if Catherine wasn’t studying optometry, she would have gone down another healthcare route, become a florist or ventured into acting – all fairly similar really…

 

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