I started first year of optometry school not working because classes were pretty intense and I didn’t think I would have time to work. As first year was finishing, I knew I would only have one summer off and the question of what I should do during the summer kept coming up. There were a couple of things that I had thought of doing, but I figured it would be good to get into a practice and gain some more experience. Through a series of events that I can only attribute to divine intervention, I landed a job working at a pediatrics and vision therapy specialty practice. I have since left the job due to starting fourth year and my externships, but I was very fortunate to be able to work there.
First hand experience: I had been very interested in vision therapy and getting first hand experience in the specialty as a vision therapist has been an eye opener to what vision therapy and optometry can do. I got to play games with the kids (and sometimes adults) and it was a job that I looked forward going to every time. I also got the opportunity to continue working during school one day a week. For me, it helped to have practical experience when I was sitting in class and trying to shove all the information into my head to know what it was all for. I knew I would get experience in the clinic at school, but the experience is different being in a practice, especially in a specialty that you are interested in. Private practice is typically a lot faster moving than the school clinic, and seeing how to run a successful practice smoothly along with providing excellent clinical care in that environment is another advantage.
Not everyone may want to get a job or be able to work during school, but I would encourage students to get out to different practices and shadow, especially in practices that have a specialty that you are interested in. It makes going through school easier, because you get that tangible experience. One experience (out of many) that did this for me was the look and exclamation of excitement when a patient of mine was able to fuse an image with an aperture rule because I took him outside and had him try looking far off in the distance. Also, hearing from patients and parents that they are not having as many headaches or that they are reading to their younger sibling now is pretty amazing!
Making connections: One other benefit of working at a practice is getting yourself out there and networking. Shadowing is good for this as well, but the doctors can really get to know you when you are there more consistently. Since optometry is a relatively small profession, many doctors know each other. Having those connections with doctors can only benefit your future by helping you connect with other doctors when the time comes.
I hope this will encourage optometry students to get out and either work or shadow during school, because it will help you in the long run!