“I feel like I’ve become part of the community”
Independent practice director Chris Evans on how leaving optometry helped him overcome his disillusionment with the profession
10 September 2022
I graduated from Aston in 1999, and my optometry career got off to an inauspicious start when the pre-reg I had arranged in Birmingham got cancelled in Easter of my final year.Luckily, thanks to my parents being fantastically supportive, I was able to secure a new place at an independent group of practices based in Middlesbrough and the Northeast.
Under the old pre-reg system you had to work a calendar year.The vast majority of students needed to resit the professional qualifying exams, so I decided to have a long summer and started a year from the resits in September 1999. The long summer was great, and I had a chance to unwind after university. I suggest the break to my pre-regs, because when else do you get three months off?
I passed my pre-reg, but didn’t stay with the practice and ended up working for Rayners, also in the Northeast.After nine months I got a letter from one of my old lecturers, saying he was moving to Cardiff and asking if I was interested in doing a PhD. I jumped at the chance, and in the summer of 2001 I moved to Cardiff. Most of my peers locumed at the weekend, and I fell into the same routine. Eventually, after a lot of soul searching, I decided the PhD wasn’t for me and became a full-time locum.
I locumed for a few years, travelling all over South Wales and the South West.I never sought to progress – I was happy doing a day and then going home. I enjoyed some practices more than others, but was never able to establish a regular routine or push myself forwards. I found it very easy to take time off and grew increasingly bored, before realising I wanted to try something else.
I looked at several careers: law, teaching, accountancy, even GCHQ.However, by this time I was married and had a mortgage and the idea of going back to the beginning of a profession didn’t appeal. I kept coming back to fundraising, which I had done a lot of at university when I was raising and giving officer in my second year. I volunteered at the Meningitis Research Foundation, where a friend from university worked, and when a job came up I got it. I worked Monday to Thursday there, and continued to locum on a Friday. I also starting teaching in the undergraduate clinics at Cardiff on Fridays, which was a hit on money, but I loved it.
I moved on to a different charity closer to home after about a year, for a bit more money, still working as an optometrist on Fridays. I made great friends, but this life began to frustrate me slightly. The career progression and salary weren’t going where I wanted them to.
When we found out we were going to have a second child, I decided that I needed to go back to optometry, but this time I would do it properly.Although this was nearly 14 years ago, I remember walking around Swansea on my lunch break having this conversation with myself and then calling my brilliant wife, Kate, to discuss what I wanted to do.
‘Properly’ meant looking to see what I could do within the profession. During my time out my friends had moved on; some had started practices and others had got involved in running things like the Primary Eyecare Assessment and Referral Service, now Eye Health Examination Wales (EHEW). I still locumed initially, but I began to push myself more clinically and also arranged to sit in with the hospital clinics for a few afternoons, which reignited my passion.
I looked for further teaching opportunities, and ended up doing Wednesday mornings and all-day Fridays. I loved the teaching, and I learned so much from it. I was interested in working with the EHEW accreditation, so when a job became available with the Wales Optometry Postgraduate Education Centre (now within Health Education and Improvement Wales) I went for it. I’m terrible in interviews so I didn’t get a role initially, but another opportunity came up soon afterwards that I was successful in.
I really believe you can work in a commercial setting without being cynical and falling into bad habits. You still have time to get to know patients, do what is right for them, and enjoy the job
Because I was finding it harder and harder to maintain a good locum lifestyle and because the daily rate had dropped, I also decided to go for an employed position. I ended up in Specsavers in Cwmbran, and worked for the best bosses I have ever had. I was at a point where the commercial side of optometry worked for me: we worked really hard whilst still doing a great job clinically, and received praise and a bonus.
I really believe you can work in a commercial setting without being cynical and falling into bad habits. You still have time to get to know patients, do what is right for them, and enjoy the job. It was also really encouraged to work as a team of optometrists. We spent all our downtime in each others’ rooms, talking about interesting cases and their management. Selling spectacles is not a bad thing: treat people like you would treat your mum and want the best for them, including the best frame, the best prescription and the best lenses, without being ripped off.
We went to watch the Olympics in 2012 and stayed with my best mate, who is not an optometrist.We ended up talking about our ‘dream job’ and I couldn’t think of mine, which was quite sad. I think it can be easy to settle in optometry if you don’t actively seek out opportunities. In the first phase of my career, I was happy just doing the day job and coming home. By this point, though, I was searching for things. Getting involved with one thing gave me access to other opportunities, and I was becoming known as someone who was interested in getting involved.
I wanted to teach more, but I wanted it to be clinical teaching.
Having no PhD closed the doors on a lot of academic teaching at the time. I also wanted to keep testing. I put some feelers out, and emailed Christine Purslow, who had just moved from Cardiff to Plymouth. In a moment of serendipity, Plymouth University was looking for someone to do pretty much what I’d written to her about. I ended up as clinical lead, running the final year clinics.
During the time I was away my wife, who had gone back to university to do optometry herself as a mature student, was doing her own pre-reg as essentially a single mum with two kids. She is genuinely a superhuman, and my hero. So, after a while, I made the decision to come home to Cardiff.
Before I moved back, I made some calls to contacts I’d made during teaching.
I ended up in a group of independent practices, where I am now a director.
Although this was a roundabout way to get where I wanted to be and I’m probably a few years behind some peers, the only thing I regret about my career choices was being away from Kate and the kids during the week for six months while I was in Plymouth.
I feel like working across the profession – independents, multiples, academia, teaching and a bit of research – has given me a huge amount of insight into how this profession works and what I want my place in it to be. Working in an office showed me that it wasn’t the life I wanted. Many of my non-optometrist friends’ salaries have flown past mine, but they can work late hours or spend days or weeks away from home and family. I’ve done that, and it wasn’t for me. A thing I really appreciate from my lifestyle now is that I get to come home every night to my wife and kids and the dog. There are more meetings now I’m a director and on committees, but they’re pretty well spaced out.
I love working in the same place: I get to know patients and their families on repeat visits, and I have people who want to see me specifically. Because I’m in a market town, I feel like I’ve become part of the community. I was able to make changes to practice before being a director, and now even more so.
I’m still looking to make the clinical side of practice a bigger part of my day and our business income. Finding the right place has allowed me to say yes to even more things and further explore the job. I now have qualifications in low vision, clinical teaching, glaucoma, and independent prescribing (IP), and I am a qualified mentor.
Working across the profession – independents, multiples, academia, teaching and a bit of research – has given me a huge amount of insight into how this profession works and what I want my place in it to be
I still do some teaching, and was involved in an IP panel recently. During peak COVID-19 I became a South East Wales Regional Optical Committee member, an Optometry Wales Councillor, and a deputy cluster lead. I even got a little piece in Optometry Today, which was cool.
I’m the principal supervisor for a pre-reg, teaching on a one-to-one basis. That has helped me understand the pressures of pre-reg year and of being newly qualified. For many it’s their first full-time job, with lots of academic pressure, constant assessment, and a low wage. Putting commercial pressure on top of that could be very difficult.
I have also started doing careers talks, meeting with school and A-Level students to talk about what I do and why I think it’s a career worth pursuing.
I still have days when I come home frustrated, or I meet a patient who has an awesome job and I’m jealous, but I’m so glad I came back to optometry. There is so much to do and explore within the profession that can take you outside of the consulting room. The retail element isn’t to everyone’s tastes, but that differs from practice to practice, so it’s a case of finding the right balance for yourself. Personally, I love wearing spectacles and I love it when a patient finds a pair that they’re excited about.
I’m excited about CPD and the opportunities it will give us to identify where we want to grow and direct our own learning. Watching a myopic kid, who you’ve given first spectacles to, walking out of the shop, looking at the world and taking their glasses on and off, is so much fun. It’s a rare day when an optometrist saves a life, but it’s a very uncommon one where you finish having not made someone else’s life a little bit better.