by Dr. Amy Puerto

Everyone’s optometric goals are different. Perhaps you’ll be joining the family practice after graduation, working in corporate optometry, or starting a practice cold. Several of you are simply ready to start working and acquire that “real-world-optometry-experience” your professors are always talking about.

Yet, there’s another good majority of you who are looking at the vast specialties within our profession, and eyeing opportunities to expand your knowledge and competency in a specific field. If that’s you, this article will provide you a quick guide to the residency process from the insights of four current residents.

Why Residency?
Optometry Residency. You have probably been inundated with these two words since day one of optometry school. No matter if you’re on externships, or just starting school, considering an optometric residency should be a part of your to-do list before graduation.
Accredited optometric residency programs go well beyond the clinical education you receive in school. While not mandatory, residencies provide recent graduates an opportunity to gain a full year of advanced clinical training under an experienced mentor. For many students, the appeal of residency is in the enhanced career opportunities and added level of confidence that comes with this extra year of training. There are currently 11 residency specialties to choose from:

• Family Practice
 Optometry
• Primary Eye Care
• Geriatric Optometry
• Cornea and Contact Lenses
• Pediatric Optometry
• Vision Therapy & Rehabilitation
• Low Vision Rehabilitation
• Ocular Disease
• Community Health Optometry
• Refractive and Ocular Surgery
• Brain Injury Vision Rehabilitation

Dr. Helena Tzou, WUCO ’14 and a current Pediatrics and Vision Therapy (VT) resident, recalls being interested in residency since first year, but it wasn’t until she attended the College of Optometrists in Vision Development (COVD) in her third year that she seriously considered it.

Similarly Dr. Lindsey Wettergreen, SCCO ’14 and current Low Vision/Traumatic Brain Injury & VT resident, found herself interested in Neuro-optometry and TBI/ABI rehab. However, with her limited school exposure to this field in school, she didn’t know if it was something she’d want to pursue as a career. For Dr. Wettergreeen a residency offered her a chance to “Learn something new and decide if I want to invest the time and energy into [Low Vision/TBI/VT] once I am out practicing.”

Theresa Radtke, AZCOPT Trustee, helps you answer “Is A Residency For You?” in the Spring issue of Foresight

Jennifer Turano (PCO), AOSA Vice President, asks “To Be Or Not To Be?” in the Spring 2013 issue of Foresight

Applying for residency:
Before you apply, you should narrow down the type of residency you want to pursue, visit the residency site for an interview, meet the residency supervisor, and talk to current or previous residents from that specific site.

All four  residents interviewed agreed that applying for a residency position is an easy process through the national Optometry Residency Match (ORMatch) program. ORMatch allows candidates seeking residency to register in mid-fall of the year prior to when the residency begins.  However, each school or college of optometry has its own residency application that must be filled out as part of the application process as well. In that sense ORMatch is not like OptomCAS.

Instead of uploading all of your letters of recommendation and transcripts into one application that is sent to all of the programs you are applying to, you must send every document to each program separately. The process can be cumbersome though, so Dr. Frank Zheng, UCB ’14 and a Cornea and Contact Lenses resident, cautions applicants not to put it off. Start early collecting all the necessary documents and be proactive reaching out to administrators and faculty for letters of recommendation. As Dr. Tzou recalls, the real challenge for applicants is in completing everything on time while juggling national boards and externships. Of course, she’s quick to remind interested applicants that many students have gone through this process, and everyone gets through it!

What’s included in the residency application?
• ORMatch Application Form
• NBEO scores
• Depending on the individual school/college applications you may need to submit a CV, letter of reference, transcripts, and/or personal statement.

The Interview
You filled out your ORMatch application, sent your supporting documents to all the programs you’re applying to, and now comes the interview.

According to the residents interviewed, program directors will contact you directly (usually by email) when you have been accepted for an interview. According to Dr. Wettergreen, the program director will inform you of the scheduled interview date, but most are flexible, knowing you’re on externship rotations. While the interviews are undoubtedly nerve-wracking, the residents admit each interview process was different based on the program. Dr. Wettergreen shared that some of her interviews were casual and conversational while others were more inquisitive and tested her knowledge. It was similar for Dr. Zheng, so he’d encourage you to be prepared for both. Also, Dr. Tzou advises applicants to consider where they’ll be in January and February during their fourth year because you’ll have to coordinate interviews around your externship schedule. For the residents this meant coordinating flights, hotels, expenses, and requesting clinic days off — factors they hadn’t initially considered when applying.

Let’s Talk Competition
As you can imagine, placement within residency programs is competitive. There were nearly 530 applicants for 400 residency spots in 2014! With everyone graduating with the same degrees, it’s the little details that will provide you the biggest competitive edge. The current residents all suggest putting a lot of time into your personal statement and interviews. As Dr. Wettergreen advises, residency programs are searching for candidates who are dedicated to the program, passionate about the specialty, and willing to expand their knowledge.

What if you had a less than amazing performance your first year of school and your grades are just ‘average,’ or you didn’t have a competitive score on national boards? Perhaps you feel less competitive than your colleagues who were able to complete research during their schooling?

While these benchmarks are important to residency directors, and may become talking points during the interview according to Dr. Zheng, they’re not the most important factors. Instead, he strongly encourages applicants to have good letters of recommendation. As he attests, those letters can go a very long way, especially if your letter writers know the residency site faculty.

Dr. Greg Haberhaus, NOVA ’14 and Ocular Disease resident, suggests that the most important part of the application is the interview because the resident programs have to assess the candidate for a personality fit — both parties have to enjoy spending time together.

In this way, Dr. Tzou encourages applicants to show why they are different from everyone else out there and why they would be an asset to a specific residency program. From attending optometry conferences to leading a campus organization, all of these unique experiences have made the student grow as a clinician in ways beyond the classroom that will be of interest to the residency programs. Dr. Wettergreen offers this last-minute suggestion that if there’s any inkling you may consider doing a residency, do it! As she reflects, “I think it is better to have done a residency and possibly not love it, then to not have done it, and always regret the decision. If you are worried you won’t get accepted, apply anyway. If you aren’t accepted, then your decision is made for you.”

How are you “Matched?”
It’s not quite the love-affair of Match.com, but after you have evaluated all the programs to which you have applied, applicants must determine their residency program order of preference. This is done through the ORMatch website where applicants rank their most preferred program first, their next-most-preferred program second, and so on. Similarly, residency programs also rank the applicants they’d like to have at their program (hence, the importance of the interview mentioned above!). ORMatch then uses a sophisticated matching algorithm to place applicants into residency positions. With more applicants than residency positions available, it’s a helpful hint to submit more ranks to reduce the likelihood of being left unmatched.

Once applicants and programs submit their ranks, applicants will receive a confirmation letter from residency directors that acts as a contractual agreement for the upcoming year.  It never fails to do a little research on your own too. Be sure to check this informative guide on the Association of Colleges and Schools of Optometry website: http://www.opted.org/about-optometric-education/residency-programs

No matter if you’re applying for a residency this fall, next year, or it’s still just an after thought to all your exams and clinic finals, I hope you feel more informed about the residency application process. Good Luck!