You finally decide to apply to optometry school. You make a commitment to complete your prerequisites, stay on top of your grades and take the OAT. All of your requirements seem to be complete… but what about shadowing? It’s not always a requirement for optometry school, yet all schools seem to highly recommend it. What exactly is shadowing? How do you do it successfully? And why is it so important?
When you were a little kid, you probably realized that there always seemed to be a dark blob with a long body attached to your feet whenever the sun was shining on you. It copied you when you raised your hand or jumped, and followed you around everywhere. Shadowing someone at work is a similar concept. You follow them around their office, going wherever they go and observing what they do on a typical work day. Unlike a real shadow, however, you can communicate, and you should! It is important to listen and ask questions to meet the goals of your shadowing experience. Before jumping to any more conclusions, let’s outline some general steps you can take to find a shadowing opportunity and approach it effectively.
1) Find an optometrist to shadow. It could be your own optometrist, a family friend, a neighbor or even an optometrist from an office that you encountered while walking down the sidewalk. You could call, email or visit the office directly. Tell the receptionist that you are considering optometry as a career path, and that you would greatly appreciate the opportunity to shadow the optometrist for a day or a couple of days to learn more about the profession. They will most likely instruct you on how to best contact the doctor or take down your contact information so that the doctor gets back to you. If you don’t receive a response within a week or so, it is a good idea to contact them again since your email/message may have been lost or forgotten. Demonstrate that you really want to do this! Most optometrists will gladly give you an opportunity, but if not, try someone else.
2) Compile a list of questions. After you have scheduled a date/time with an optometrist, take some to reflect on what you want to gain from this experience. Are you looking into differences between private practice and an HMO setting? Are you wondering if an optometrist ever feels stressed during work? What does an optometrist like and dislike most about their job? Your questions can be about the nature of the profession, an optometrist’s lifestyle, or an optometrist’s journey through optometry school, to list a few examples. You can also use Dr. Munroe’s shadowing objectives from “10 Steps to Becoming a Competitive Applicant” as a guideline. Bring these questions with you when you shadow or at least have them in mind.
3) Show up. That is, show up both physically and mentally. Your shadowing experience is what you make of it, and that is where your questions come in. Whenever the optometrist has down time to chat, ask your questions, be friendly and make conversation. Address your concerns and learn about optometry. You may find that if you have more basic questions, your optometrist will address them before you even ask. Feel free to take notes or write a summary of what you learned afterwards for future reference. Before you leave, be sure to ask for their business card so that you can send them a thank you letter and ask them if they could serve as a reference for your optometry school application. If you have shown a lot of interest (and of course acted and dressed professionally), the optometrist is likely to oblige and to speak positively of you. Not only does this make you a more competitive applicant, it serves as a networking connection for the future!
4) Repeat. One shadowing experience is great to get a sneak preview of what optometry is like, but it won’t dig deep enough. Seek diverse opportunities – maybe different locations, practice settings or specialties – to gain a full scope of optometry and explore the different routes you can take. Also, shadow in other fields you may be interested in so that you can compare the careers and make the best choice for yourself. Take your growing knowledge a step further by adding in some hand-on experience: you can work at an optometry office, volunteer for an organization that provides vision screenings, etc.
Shadowing is important so that you can explain what optometry is and why you want to be an optometrist. As Dr. Munroe states in “10 Steps to Becoming a Competitive Applicant”, the number one reason why students fail an interview is lack of shadowing experience. This is because you are less likely to understand what the profession of optometry entails, and you won’t have a basis for explaining why you are passionate about pursuing it. Remember, the interviewers know that your undergraduate studies gave you the scientific knowledge base to succeed in optometry school, but you’ll need to know why you want to be there to get through it.
Michelle Biaggi, SCCO Class of 2016