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SCO Student Andrew B. Murphy, ’24, writes about his decision to attend optometry school:
There is a question I believe we all ought to ask ourselves from time to time: How did I end up here? Deciding to attend optometry school is no easy task, and determining exactly where is harder still. There were months (or in my case, years) of hand-wringing, circular thinking, and seeking out data that ultimately only confirmed what I already knew about job prospects, board passage/graduation rates, and where the future of optometry was heading. What was it that finally pushed me over the tipping point? Of course, a six-figure income sounds good. Yeah, I like job security. A scientific career that will let me be my own boss, and own my own business? Sign me up. These are all features of a career in optometry, and very compelling reasons to pursue any profession: However, I believe that the key to a satisfying life is pursuing work that aligns with your passions, and perhaps more importantly, your personal values. Throughout this post, I hope you can gain an appreciation of the things I am most passionate about, and how a career in optometry neatly falls into place with what I value most. Without further adieu, let’s skim the surface of “Andrew’s Top Three Reasons to Attend Optometry School.”
Any physician is, or should be, in my humble opinion, a scientist at heart. Auto mechanics, detectives, and university researchers alike rely upon conducting tests, collecting data, and generating a conclusion to get their work done. If a conclusion leads to an undesirable outcome—like an engine that keeps stalling, a suspect with a rock-solid alibi, or the latest debunked hypothesis—the investigating party must start all over again. In the growing field of optometry, a patient will come in presenting with symptoms. As is the case with, say, a family pediatrician, many outputs (symptoms) will appear stunningly similar across many different inputs (underlying conditions). How can a discerning investigator determine if it’s a common cold, a flu, or the novel coronavirus? A minor bout of temporary dry eyes caused by sleeping with a fan on, or a brain tumor? Is it just a faulty connector, or is it time to overhaul your transmission? The answer, of course, is through thorough training, development of critical thinking skills, and a reliance upon the cornerstones of science.
Through my undergraduate training in biochemistry, as well as my personal reading to help me make sense of the cosmos, I have fallen deeply in love with the scientific method, its findings and self-correcting tendencies, and the broad shoulders of giants that we currently stand on. My greatest desire in life is to understand the world we live in, and to help others do the same. Whether you aspire to rocket science or a career in politics, you might just need your eyeballs; with the power of modern optometric science, many of the sight-related problems of our ancestors virtually disappear. When we view the world through the lens of science, everything eventually falls into focus.
As a workforce neophyte after graduating from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2016, I discovered to my bewilderment a nearly complete absence of good leadership at all levels of my company. I naively assumed that “the real world” had little room for error, and that those incapable of leading would not rise in rank. To summarize my findings succinctly, I was wrong. Although I knew the subject matter of my work intimately, there was a major learning curve; interacting with people in the office is fundamentally different than working with classmates, advisors, or professors. Understanding the science alone didn’t qualify me for advancement, it didn’t make my opinion valuable to management, and nobody cared if I was learning and growing. It was largely trial by fire, and I burned badly.
A few other intellectually-starving colleagues recommended a program at another Lincoln institution, Nebraska Wesleyan University. Ever the opportunist, I sought an MBA which was paid for by an excellent tuition reimbursement program at the company. I enrolled that fall. While there is no way to speak to the importance of understanding accounting, finance, and economics in business, the true power of the MBA program was what it taught me about leadership.
My friend and colleague Amanda Peters and me receiving our MBA diplomas (May 2019)
Everybody knows a good leader when they see one, but few take the time to think about what it truly means to excel in leadership. Many people believe that the ability to lead is something that you either have or don’t, and that your emotional intelligence is a static feature of who you are. By shattering this illusion, I was able to realize the paramount distinction between being a “leader” versus a “manager.” A manager will tell you what to do because they can. They try to bend you to fit the work. They may focus on maximizing sales or minimizing losses, and little else, least of all how their team feels about the work they do. A leader will help you realize your value. They will shape the work to you, making your contribution feel less like work, and more like self-actualization, a natural extension of what you already hold dear.
As I sat through evening business classes, marveling at stories of great leadership through the most challenging of circumstances, a stark divide became apparent between what I experienced at my day job, and what I was growing to expect from leaders I want to follow. I began to realize that I could lead better than those I was forced to serve under, but may never have my chance to lead in a corporate environment, plagued with bureaucracy and ever-expanding levels of middle and upper management. Optometry opens the door to business ownership, community involvement, and political leadership; optometrists and industry advocates lobby for our ability to serve patients to the best of our ability, not to maximize uninvolved shareholders’ piece of the pie. There are many amazing leaders to be found in all companies on earth, of course, but I long for the freedom to practice to the height of my abilities, in an environment I design, with like-minded staff that will focus on the best possible care for the patients we serve. If I had to distill what I admire most about the great leaders and difference makers in my life into a single word, one that I hope to take with me into the world of optometry in my interactions with colleagues, staff, and patients alike, I would choose “empathy.”
Throughout the MBA program at Wesleyan, there was a heavy emphasis on mentorship. This was a concept that was utterly foreign to me until my first nerve-wracking instance of reaching out to a professor I admired, to whom I hadn’t spoken to in almost two years, asking him to be my mentor. He gracefully accepted. Like all things, there was a learning curve; I showed up unprepared much of the time that first year. My mentor was patient with me, and endlessly encouraging. I realized that many of my doubts about the future were imposed only by my own mind, something it is virtually impossible to escape from in modernity, where everything is Instagram filtered and curated. Everyone wrestles with doubts, and the only way to defeat your own demons is to take an outside perspective. Hopefully, that perspective is one that seeks to lift you out of, not reinforce, your doubts. This first, crucial mentoring experience opened me up to the possibility of learning from everyone I meet, and asking those that are especially inspiring to me to be lifelong mentors and friends. It taught me that everyone has flaws, and a backstory. In short, it taught me empathy. I realized that I already had a bounty of mentors in my past, from my high school swim coach, to classmates in the MBA program, and perhaps most importantly to where I am now, my former associates at Clear Vision Eye Care.
Celebrating the Annual Frame Show with Past and Present CVEC Staff (2019)
This wonderful establishment in Lincoln, NE (shout out and Five Star recommendation) introduced me to the world of optometry in the summer of 2014. More importantly, Dr. Drew Bateman and his wildly talented wife Katie showed me that work didn’t have to feel like work. Throughout my time as an associate in their office, they taught me how to see the best in the most abrasive of people. They forgave my mistakes without hesitation, acknowledging my humanity instead of making me feel guilt (as so many later bosses would do). They hired caring people, who would genuinely inquire at my life’s affairs, who raised me up on my down days. I was amazed at the number of patients who seemed to be in the office once a week, if only to chit chat, or try on frames for the 14th time; I now realize it was because precious few businesses left in the world treat their patrons with such esteem. I wish I could have realized at the time how much my experience there would ultimately mean in the course of my life, but through retrospect, I realized that the only path forward was one of empathy. Being a human is a daunting task. There is no room to make that harder for others, and Clear Vision Eye Care showed me a way to follow your passions, earn a living, and most importantly, build the people in your life up, resulting in a ripple effect throughout the community in which you live. In hindsight, returning to optometry, the first environment that showed me my potential despite being deeply flawed, is the most natural course I could have taken.
CVEC Owner Dr. Andrew Bateman and optical specialist Jean Jergensen, two incredible mentors and friends (2019)
Maybe after all, I do know why I choose this profession, why I choose to continue my education for a third time. I choose optometry because it allows me to embrace the nitty gritty of the science I revere, including physics, biology, anatomy, and more. I choose optometry because I can no longer abide lackluster leadership; I will be the leader I hope to see more of in the world, in the businesses I frequent, and the institutions raising the leaders of tomorrow. Finally, I choose optometry because whether you spend 20 minutes in my exam chair once a year, or 40 hours a week behind a desk in my office, I don’t just want to help you see, but to help you feel seen, too.