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NECO and Beyond: How to make the most of your 4 years

Posted by on April 30, 2014

Tonight, a panel of fellow residents and I met to answer students’ questions about residencies, which highlighted some areas that students seemed to be concerned with, so I thought I’d take this post to address some of those concerns whether you’re a first year or a fourth year.

To the first years: be open to all possibilities that are available to you throughout these next few years. One of the best aspects of NECO is the opportunity to see a variety of modes of optometry practice. I find myself now most thoroughly fulfilled by a mode of practice that I didn’t even know existed before starting optometry school–the community health center. If you do have a particular area of optometry interests you, get in touch with faculty in that subspecialty to discuss what it is they do; ask to shadow them in clinic one day to get a feel for the practice. Ask questions. Talk to upper-class students and residents. Have you ever met an optometrist or optometry student who didn’t love talking about what they do? Anyone would be happy to discuss their mode of practice or optometric experiences with you.

To the second years: now you’re starting to move into clinic and getting your first taste for how a clinic operates. If the mode of practice you find yourself in at your first clerkship doesn’t seem to fit your interest, stay open minded. If you love it and want to spend the rest of your life only doing that one thing, stay open minded. There is so much yet to come. Start to make connections and get to know your professors as you move into more specialized classes. Ask questions. Get involved. Hold leadership positions. NECO is a small enough community, so don’t let your first two years go by without making personal connections. Or, if they already have, make it your goal this summer while you’re here with a reduced class size to get to know faculty, staff and classmates. Maybe you can take advantage of a lighter course load this summer to shadow in some specialty areas. Find out what it is people do in pediatrics, contact lens, low vision, binocular vision, community health and VA/ocular disease. Remember, it’s at the end of your second year that you choose your 4th year rotations, so the more invested you are throughout your first two years to explore areas that interest you, the better prepared you will be in choosing where you spend the last twelve months of full time clinic.

To the third years: remember, every interaction you make with your preceptors from emails to showing up for clinic the first day (early, of course) is part of your professional development. As your role as a clinician expands, be sure your conduct and expression of concern for your patients is also at the forefront of your care. You still have a lot of learning to do, but even if you don’t know everything optometrically speaking, you know how to be kind. Be engaged in clinic, with your patients, with your preceptors, with your classmates. Be enthusiastic about learning. Read on your own. Take advantage of specialty clinic opportunities, like the SPEC elective. It’s never too late to find a mentor. Make a connection with a professor/preceptor; it will be invaluable to you in all aspects of moving forward in your career to have someone who knows you well and has gone through these same steps to offer advice and listen throughout some potentially stressful decisions you will be making about your future.

To the fourth years: here is your chance to really excel as a clinician. I know you’re thinking you’ve finished 16 hours worth of a Board exam, not to mention three intensive years of post-collegiate studying, that you’re more than likely at least a little burnt out. Take a breather as you get used to the schedule of working full time, but it is vitally important to your career that you take full advantage of the learning potential in your last year. You are no longer in class, you are seeing more cases than ever before. There will be plenty about many of these cases that you don’t know. If you don’t think that’s the case, that’s more reason to do more reading on your own. I found books (like Kanski, pharmacology, anatomy) and journals/magazines like Review of Optometry, Optometry and Vision Science, and journal articles (PubMed should be your friend) to be very helpful during this time to expand upon the knowledge gained in clinic. Your preceptors don’t know everything about everything. If there is a condition you don’t know much about, read it on your own to delve further than the few minute synopsis that was discussed by your preceptor.

Keep in mind also, that these same preceptors are a great resource for writing letters of recommendation whether it be for residency or the jobs you will be applying to afterwards. I don’t mean suck up. I mean, be yourself, and get to know the people you will be spending 40 hours a week with in three month intervals. Work as a team with your classmates. You will all pass the rest of your Board exams and graduate. You will all be ODs very soon. There is nothing to be competitive with them about. Work together, learn together, help each other out, pick each other up. Not every day is easy and you will enjoy this year so much more if you make it a point to enjoy the people you are spending your days with.

One of the things that I loved best about fourth year was starting to see my friends and I develop into very individualized clinicians. Up until that point, the majority of our experiences had been fairly similar, but during that year, everyone had a unique combination of clinics and patient scenarios that defined the early stages of our careers. Be aware of how you are developing and look for new ways to grow and expand your knowledge.

Not to be understated: have fun. Explore the new areas you’ll be living in. Start to live the life of the optometrist you want to be. Keep in touch with your classmates. Define yourself as something other than a student. Take pride in what you do and appreciate the opportunity you have to serve the community you are working in.

For those who are on the brink of graduation, whether you’re heading into residency or otherwise, stay connected to NECO. The faculty you had as resources as a student are still available to you, and they want to remain an active part of your career development. Good luck and here’s to a strong finish to your NECO career!

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