Key milestones

Building a mentorship programme to support AOP members

The AOP’s membership benefits officer, Sarah Melzack, explains the steps behind a new initiative that is bringing support to optometry’s newest recruits

Sarah Melzack

1. A mentoring programme has always been talked about by our committee members.

There has always been a need. It’s a really valuable source of support for members, in any stage of their career. Everybody goes through changes, professional or personal, and mentoring is a great way to have that one-to-one support when you’re trying to make changes in your life or meet developmental goals. However, previously other priorities for members had always taken precedence.

2. When mentoring was mentioned in the General Optical Council’s (GOC) Education Strategic Review we really started thinking, ‘why don’t we take this as an incentive to push it forward?’

Mentoring was mentioned a lot in the GOC 2019 consultation papers as being a really valuable way to build optometrists’ confidence in their early years in the profession, up the quality of care they can provide for patients, retain them in the profession, and help them to fast-track their career by having support and making new connections.

That was the first instance, and then during the pandemic and hearing what an awful, tough time these students have had adjusting in the last couple of years, we really felt that there was a need to push that support out there as soon as possible.

3. The first step was a lot of consultation.

We had lots of Council members really rooting for the programme, but we wanted to make sure that, if we were going out to this niche group of newly-qualified members, we had identified the categories they would be seeking support with, and also that we had worked out what was going to attract members to become mentors. There’s no support if there are no mentors on the programme in the first place.

We did a lot of research and consultation with our student committee members, our student chair, and our membership committee. We got them to ask around their peers and in their local areas. It was a lot of scoping to identify how to get the programme to work logistically, in terms of attracting and recruiting, making it appeal, and ensuring it would be effective. We had to make sure newly-qualified members would get the support they needed, and the mentors that we were providing were able to support in that department, and would do so willingly.

We’ve had over 200 members come forward to say that they would like to become mentors


4. We decided to launch the programme for newly-qualified members first, in September this year.

We know that the first year is a really tough, vulnerable time, where you are thrust to the fore and maybe feel a bit on the backfoot. Self-confidence issues do occur a lot at that early stage, until you find your feet. This is the time when support is needed the most.
Mixing a pandemic with that, with people having studied through working conditions they never thought they would, and going into practices that were operating in a way they never imagined, we felt that this group of members were probably those most in need at this particular time.

5. Now that the programme has launched, it’s time for us to sit back and wait for those first relationships to develop.

We’ve advised that mentoring relationships have a lifespan of three to six months, but we imagine most would probably stick with three, so they can continue to switch mentors and mentees and benefit from a wealth of different people on the platform. It’s a case of us waiting to see how those relationships play out and how people find the experience.

We will be sending out surveys to mentors and mentees whenever they close a relationship, because we really want to hear back from them: did the mentors find it rewarding? Was it what they expected? And for the mentees, did they find they actually worked towards the development goals that they went in with? Did they benefit from something else entirely?

These are the things we really want to hear, so that as we go forward we can continue to tweak the programme to ensure that we’re listing all support categories, that we’re recruiting the right mentors, and that we’re selling the opportunity correctly and appropriately to mentees. Also, if we’re hearing positive things, how we can then market that and expose the opportunity to other people, to ensure that they’re accessing support that would help them in their early career?

6. I thought we’d have a challenge recruiting mentors, but I was wrong, which is great.

I didn’t know whether people would want to give up their time, especially after a pandemic that has put people through so much. I thought people might be feeling a bit weary. But we’ve had over 200 members come forward to say that they would like to become mentors. That’s incredible.

The responses people have sent to the mentoring inbox have been full of praise, and sometimes a bit of emotion. People are excited for the programme. They think it should have been done a long time ago. They wish that they had had it when they were newly-qualified, and they understand how powerful it’s going to be for newly-qualified optometrists to take it up. It’s been inspiring to see people’s reaction. It makes me really proud of what we might achieve.

7. I think our biggest challenge going forward is going to be getting evaluation data.

This programme is something that is going to exist between mentors and mentees on its own. We don’t have any mandatory requirements. We don’t interact with mentors or mentees during their relationship; we don’t ask them to submit journals or report progress.

It’s a bit daunting for us to be launching something that we’re not going to directly see develop. We are going to completely rely on those mentees to provide us with feedback on how it’s going. We’re not going to have a clue, unless they tell us, and we’re not going to be able to improve or expand it until we get that information. Trying to sell the importance of that feedback to mentees and mentors will be key. It really is crucial. All the feedback will be taken into account, thoroughly, to make sure that we continuously improve our service.

With that information, we will hope to expand the programme. The more we hear back from people, the more impetus we’ll have to offer it to others.

  • As told to Lucy Miller.