By Thomas A. Wong, OD
Networking begins in optometry school–where you create bonds that help to build and guide your practice through your entire career. Here are practical steps to use an invaluable resource to help yourself and others.
Top Tips for Optimizing Alumni Networks
Your optometric alumni networks are practical career-building resources. Here are several tips to get you started on the path to using this important tool:
—Give money to your alma mater. You be surprised at how little it takes to participate in an alumni network.
—Volunteer. Money may be tight during your first few years as an OD, but you can still participate in alumni groups by volunteering to bring optometric services to those in need.
—If your alumni group has a newsletter (online or in print), be sure to submit material, including updates on your career progress along with contact information.
—Join your alumni group’s Facebook, LinkedIn and other social networking pages. It is a great way to keep in touch with peers and informally brainstorm professionally with those experiencing the same career challenges and rewards. —ROB Editors.
How connected are you to your optometry school’s alumni network? By “alumni network” I am referring to a group of individuals who also graduated from your alma mater whom you have established a relationship with. This relationship creates a bond that is strengthened by your common profession and relationship to your optometry school. In some cases this network also involves individuals who have graduated from the same undergraduate university. Participation in an alumni network is particularly powerful if your undergraduate university also has an optometry school associated with it such as Ohio State, Indiana University and UCAL Berkeley. Your alumni associations and networks are the information portal to your alma mater and the profession of optometry. These networks help you get started and help you at various points in your career–if you work at it; and social networking makes that easier than ever before.
Most optometric alumni associations solicit annual contributions. The amount contributed usually is much less for younger alumni, and varies depending on how much each individual is able to give. The money will support your alma mater and indirectly the profession. Many alumni volunteer their time instead of or in addition to a financial contribution. This can be helpful when you are a recent graduate and have less money to give as you are paying back your student loans. Alumni associations sometimes sponsor social events that require a fee. Sometimes alumni can sponsor students, residents and others to attend.
There is often no charge for you to be part of the alumni association nationally. If you want to be part of the Georgetown Club of New York City it is $35 if you are more than 10 years out of school and $25 if you are less than 10 years out of school. I do not know of any optometry school that charges dues to belong. You belong based on attending the school for so many semesters or for being a resident. They do ask for contributions but to be a member I am not aware of any that ask for dues. Most undergraduate universities ask for dues for their regional clubs that have more social events and community service. The dues are usually around $30-50.
Find a Job, Generate Ideas
My fellow classmates were good contacts for me when I began my career. I explored opportunities to start and join practices with alumni contacts. While one of these opportunities ultimately did not pan out, my exploration with fellow alumnus provided me with an invaluable learning experience. We looked together at several practices in New York City and the Washington, D.C. area. This joint search amounted to research that taught me a great deal about OD office environments, contracts and the business of running a practice. Two of my optometry school classmates opened a practice together cold. Those two alumni friends continue to provide me and our other optometry school friends with best practices on topics like staffing, equipment, electronic health records, contact lenses, optical products and financing. From fellow SUNY-O alumni I learned where to find work, where to get malpractice insurance, how to negotiate salaries and where to meet potential employers. We still bounce ideas off of each other today.
Get Involved While Still a Student in Optometry Alumni Group
If you are still a student, get involved in your alma mater before you become an alumnus/a. You can do this by participating in various activities as a student including participation in student government, SVOSH and AOSA. I was the president of my class at the SUNY College of Optometry, and those networking skills I acquired as a student have helped me throughout my career. I spent on average about one hour a day on my responsibilities as class president, carving out time separate from my studies so I would not compromise my academic performance and optometric training. My role as class president taught me about leadership, management and handling sensitive issues as it applies to professionals. In particular, I gained many contacts with ophthalmic vendors. I also gained experience running education programs and organizing large social events. In my own jobs and practices, I then knew how to contact people to get things done.
Use Alumni Group to Network
After graduation from optometry school begin networking at in-person events as soon as you can. That means spending time going to events, meetings and continuing education seminars in person rather than via webcast or recorded online classes. Once you establish contacts from face-to-face events, you can optimize online communications like social networks to stay in touch. Virtually every educational institution in this country has a Facebook group. In fact, most universities, and optometry schools have Facebook groups for the school in general, as well as for each of their alumni associations. The AOA Facebook group and the AOA state affiliate Facebook groups are powerful tools for connecting to alumni and other optometrists in your community. Along with Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter are the best vehicles for optometric networking.
The time I continue to spend on alumni networking varies greatly, but it probably averages about two hours a week. Much of this time includes posting on AOA and state association Facebook pages with new innovations or breaking news in eyecare. Monitoring social networking alumni group sites keeps me updated on major meetings, research and other ophthalmic programs.
Give Back to Your Alma Mater
The main reason you should get involved in your alumni association or group is to give back to your alma mater and your profession. At my undergraduate institution, Georgetown University, I learned the importance of giving back–especially to others less fortunate. At a university like Georgetown giving back to the alumni network can include contributing to scholarships and financial aid so others can follow in your professional path. You may also have the opportunity through your alumni network to get involved with optometric charities that provide eyecare to struggling communities. In optometry we have the ability to greatly impact our patients lives by working to give patients quality vision for a lifetime. In addition to my current position as chief of adult and pediatric primary eye care at SUNY College of Optometry, I speak with students about career planning, networking and other opportunities. My interaction with current students gives me additional insight into hiring and training new ODs and staff. It also keeps me in touch with trends in education. Throughout my career, I have helped many young ODs find work each year and offer career guidance during their first years in the profession. Mentoring of young ODs has helped me, also, identify new job opportunities and maintain contacts in many areas including pharmaceutical, equipment, contact lenses, marketing, research and health-care reform.
Aim for Continuous Involvement
After you find a steady job, these alumni networks can be even more important in your development as a professional. You never know when a career change is around the corner. In addition to helping you find new work opportunities, keeping in touch with fellow alumni will teach you lessons on hiring employees, marketing your practice to patients and understanding billing and reimbursement. Your alumni contacts also can help you better manage optometric practice changes related to health-care reform and how best to handle the transition to electronic health records. For example, my alumni friends and I continue to consult one another about trends in refractive surgery co-management and premium IOLs.
My alumni network friends, other contacts and I have created lectures, meetings and other educational programs for the Maryland Optometric Association on how to get connected to the State Health Information exchange including how to get reimbursed and what software and hardware can help an OD expedite the reimbursement process. Techniques and widely accepted best practices change quickly in optometry so it is important to exchange ideas about current practices with peers. Employers want to hire those committed to the profession, and those who work hard to stay current with new technologies and trends in vision care.
Alumni Network Participation is Fun
The reunions, continuing education on a state and national level, picnics, networking receptions, holiday parties and fundraising auctions that come with alumni network involvement can be a lot of fun. You have the opportunity to find enjoyment with your optometric peers all the while building the contacts you need to continue growing as an optometrist, and a professional.
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Thomas A. Wong, O.D., is a graduate of Georgetown University and the SUNY State College of Optometry. To contact him: firstname.lastname@example.org.