By Thuy-Lan Nguyen, OD
March 20, 2019
Sometimes the fulfillment of private-practice ownership, and daily work as an OD, isn’t enough. Teaching optometry in an academic setting can be a career option that gives back to the profession, and provides a lifestyle you prefer.
Until four years ago, I was co-owner of a private practice in South Florida. I started off as an associate after completing a residency. I worked hard to prove myself and build a patient base. I learned the ins and outs of the business of optometry. When I was given the opportunity to buy into the practice, I jumped in with both feet.
I worked long hours and wore many hats, but I loved the challenge. I loved the ability to make major business decisions. I was in charge of the practice and my life. Of course, I made mistakes, and there were difficult days. It wasn’t perfect, but it was what I had worked hard to achieve.
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Then I gave it all up. There wasn’t one specific thing that made me leave my practice. I think it was just fate and timing. I thought about work-life balance, and I thought about friends and colleagues I admired, who are professors.
I took a teaching position at Nova Southeastern University College of Optometry. A major factor in deciding to teach was my desire to give back. I was constantly wondering how I could make a bigger impact on optometry, and a bigger difference in people’s lives.
Time to Make a Change?
When the teaching opportunity opened up, it was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make, but it felt right at the time. Most people leave their jobs to take a higher-paying position. Some make career changes because they are unhappy with their current job description or work environment.
In January 2018, The Harvard Business Review reported that many people leave their jobs because of horrible bosses or managers. But I was the boss. The practice was doing well. I liked my job, and I was good at it.
Leaving was not a decision that I made easily. I had to do a lot of soul searching. I was fortunate to have maintained a good relationship with Nova, my optometry school alma mater. When a position became available, I saw it as a blessing and an opportunity that I could not pass up. I believed I could prepare and inspire the next generation of ODs.
Four years later, I still get questions from friends and colleagues about why I left. But I have no regrets. When I see the excitement and a look of accomplishment in the faces of my students, I know I made the right decision. When they are successful, I feel successful.
Challenges & Rewards
There are many challenges with teaching. When you are a part of a large institution like a university, many people have to approve before anything changes. When I was in my practice, if I wanted to implement something new, I did it. If there was a problem, I fixed it. If there was something I didn’t like, I got rid of it.
As the boss, you can do almost anything you want for your own business. I am at the bottom of the totem pole now. I have to work to prove myself all over again. I’m not the boss anymore. It took me a long time to adjust to this. I had to learn how to be patient.
I also had to learn how to deal with students. I researched how to communicate and connect with Millennials, so I could be a more effective teacher.
I teach a practice management class, and I teach in the specialty contact lens clinic. I have the opportunity to talk to students about the joys of being your own boss. I help write resumes and CVs, and help students look for job opportunities and negotiate contracts.
I also teach students about personal and practice finances. I use my “real-world experience” to encourage students to go into private practice. Everything I teach in my class are things I had to learn on my own, and things I wish someone had taught me when I was in school.
Making a Difference
A few years ago, I helped a student who was interested in buying out an established practice. We discussed the details of practice appraisal and the sales contract. I encouraged him to modernize the practice with new technology, and to bring in new lines of eyewear.
Two years later, I am so proud of him. He is a successful practice owner. He incorporated a social media marketing campaign for his practice and brought in an OCT for ocular disease management. He is thriving and growing.
Recently, I was working with a fourth-year student in the contact lens clinic. Other professors found him difficult to work with. But he and I bonded over business.
He asked for my advice about expanding his family’s practice. Then in clinic, we fit a keratoconic patient with scleral lenses. For the first time, this patient could see the world properly. She cried tears of joy. Afterward, the student told me, “That was awesome. We changed her life. This is what I want to do in my family’s practice.”
Also, I just got back from an SVOSH mission trip in Ecuador, which was amazing. I had always wanted to go on mission trips, but taking the time off during private practice was never possible. Now I get the opportunity to travel for a good cause, serve those in need and teach students at the same time.
Finding the Right Opportunity for You
Teaching is not for everyone. And perhaps a new opportunity will present itself to me tomorrow. Maybe I’ll decide to make another change someday. But for now, I celebrate every small victory. When I see the light bulb go on in a student’s head, I smile. I enjoy working with highly intelligent colleagues. Everyday I learn something new myself. To me, that is happiness, and job satisfaction that is priceless.
For anyone seeking career advice, or contemplating a major career change, I would ask, “How much do you value your happiness?”
Have you made a major career change in recent years? How did this change impact your professional and personal fulfillment?
Thuy-Lan Nguyen, OD, teaches at Nova Southeastern University College of Optometry. To contact her: TLNGUYEN@nova.edu