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Australia's Leading Ophthalmic Magazine Since 1975

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From the coalface to the lab

Optometry produces some of the highest paid graduates in Australia, and it is one of the few careers where the majority of students are able to secure fulltime employment straight out of university.

This is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand it is fantastic to have so many opportunities and the security of plentiful fulltime work in a chosen profession. However, it also means there are fewer optometrists interested in furthering their education via specialist postgraduate studies.

This is despite Australia’s worldwide reputation for excellence within the field of optometric research, and the fact that there is currently an abundance of postgraduate research positions available for domestic students. We get applications from all over the planet to take part in our PhD programs, but comparatively few locally.

As someone who continues to work in private practice, I know how fulfilling it is to be at the coalface providing patients with eyecare every day. However, being able to combine this with research, means that I get to answer some of the questions that are raised in clinical practice – for example, what impact does contact lens wear have on the ocular surface? How effective are artificial tears at managing dry eye disease?

"A strong research project has the power to change the way millions of people all over the globe are able to perceive the world."

While a clinically practicing optometrist can directly help thousands of Australians a year to see better, a strong research project has the power to change the way millions of people all over the globe are able to perceive the world.

How many times has a patient entered your practice complaining of vision problems, only for you to recognise the signs of degenerative eye disease which means you can only, at best, offer them some more time before the inevitable happens? It is a sobering experience, but one that I believe could inspire some among us to take up the challenge to find new and better ways of allowing people the gift of sight.

It can happen. It was only 20 years ago that neovascular macular degeneration was a life sentence for vision impairment and eventual blindness that we were virtually helpless to prevent. Yet, in 2018, the vast majority of cases can not only be managed, but halted altogether.

I need to be clear: I’m not suggesting you will be able to cure glaucoma or find a way to reverse the effects of diabetic retinopathy, but you may be able to help find biomarkers for dry eye disease, for example, potentially improving the way we treat a disease that currently affects more than 40 million people.

AFT Pharmaceuticals

The other reason we should be encouraging optometrists to consider further education and research is to potentially stop those among us who discover they don’t feel suited to clinical practice from being lost to the profession.

People change jobs for a number of reasons, but I would suggest that for some the daily grind becomes too much and they feel compelled to pursue an alternative career. I believe letting these bright minds drift off into other areas of the workforce is a waste, especially as some could be better served by pursuing higher education and research.

There are very few programs in the world that not only offer mentoring and the chance to work at the forefront of scientific research, but also a support structure that can provide a comfortable enough lifestyle while doing it. We are lucky to have a number of those programs available to optometrists, including the UNSW Scientia program.

This program offers successful applicants a tax-free $40,000 per year stipend, plus a further $10,000 to aid with career progression, not to mention the chance to work with inspiring people. It’s just one example of the many opportunities afforded to us from state-of-the-art institutions all over the country.

I would encourage anyone interested to take the plunge and apply, not only for yourself, but for the countless number of people whose vision you could eventually save.

Name: Maria Markoulli
Qualifications: PhD MOptom GradCertOcTher FAAO FBCLA
Organisation: UNSW School of Optometry and Vision Science
Position: Senior Lecturer
Location: Sydney
Years in the profession: 15


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