“As a profession we are more open to the idea of lifelong learning than ever before”

Optometrist and AOP chair, Dr Julie-Anne Little, on a shift in mindset and an openness for lifelong learning

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Getty/Malte Mueller

My education journey after graduation began with my PhD – today it remains the biggest, but not the only, thing that I have done in regards to post-qualification education. I completed my pre-reg in a hospital optometry environment. My pre-reg supervisor had completed a PhD and it really opened my eyes to the skills that you develop, not just the application of research, but in understanding the evidence base, as well as the organisational and time management skills that come with it. As a PhD researcher you learn a broad range of skills that you can apply to other roles across optometry. It’s a journey.

Most recently, I have completed the professional certificate in low vision as I have an interest in this area. In my position at Ulster University, I have been involved in setting up and contributing to a number of professional certificates, including the profession certificate in glaucoma and the professional certificate in paediatric eye care, and have also run a distance learning MSc programme for optometrists and other eye care professionals wishing to extend their academic qualifications and skills. Being part of this administration and delivery of post-graduate teaching has been really exciting: it has allowed me to see first-hand professionals who want to develop their skills, and who have taken the plunge to go on courses, big and small. I have witnessed so many times where a student has had a total shift in mindset and they become so much more confident in their clinical reasoning, better articulating why they do what they do and having solid understanding of the underlying concepts.

To me, postgraduate education enables optometrists to engage with and be enthused by a subject. It is very different to undergraduate learning and it puts you in a different mindset from the beginning as are interested and are keen to understand more on a topic. While working optometrists can be daunted by going back to the classroom, the majority find that because they already have an interest and clinical experience they are ‘pushing in an open door’ in their own mindset to learning.

For me, the notion that qualification is the start of your journey rather than the end is very true, and as a profession we are more open to the idea of lifelong learning than ever before. We are more open to the idea that things move on, and that we need to reskill and refresh our education ourselves in different areas. Of course, what we might have learnt 10–20 years ago is still important, but there is no shame in feeling that some of your knowledge may not be up to scratch anymore as things move on. Perhaps there are technological developments, for example, that may shape professional advancement.

I also think we look differently now on continuous professional development and, while we have all become quite used to the General Optical Council’s (GOC) ongoing education system, it’s easy to forget that CET only became mandatory for the profession in 2005. I think the profession’s positive attitude towards CPD demonstrates the growth and the willingness of the profession to see and understand that we need to keep talking to each other and upskilling.

There has been a change of mindset in the profession as additional qualification offerings have grown and the scope of optometry seeks to evolve. Previously, some may have completed training as a means to an end, but I feel now that professionals are completing education for enjoyment and thinking, “I’m going to do this and see where it takes me. I’m going to do this because I enjoy this area and want to know more about it.” That’s the shift. This is really important for optometry as, generally, education has to come before change – we have to show that we are ready and willing and able to embrace the scope of practice that might come. The challenge is, of course, making sure that we don’t increasingly gain these skills and then give them away for free; that there are services commissioned that allow us to use our skills and that they are also appropriately recognised.

When it comes to upskilling and considering what courses, qualification and certificates you might want to complete, I encourage practitioners to research and speak to the providers offering the education. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about the expectations of a student on that programme. While fees will generally be similar for a course across providers, you might find that one has a timeframe or teaching delivery that works best for you. You need to be realistic with your time management because what really works best is when someone has set aside and can consistently do work across a period of time. There is nothing more stressful than biting off more than you can chew — sometimes when it comes to additional qualifications, the decision might be that you will do it in future, but now might not be right the time.

For me, when I complete additional qualifications, it feels like I am keeping up with the profession. For someone who doesn’t work in practice all of the time, it gives me a link, an important insight and a connection to the profession and also makes me feel like I am keeping up with the research and evidence base in that area for what best practice is. I ultimately love learning, and when you are enjoying something, you are happy to give it something as well.

Future gazing, I believe that the MOptom and the rollout of the new Education Training Requirements will ultimately change the way in which optometry’s future graduates enter the profession, as well as the skillset they qualify with. But the nature of postgraduate qualifications will remain and expand. In this future I would hope to see more recognition of additional qualifications in the career ladder by employers.

PhDs are not for everybody, but there are a number of optometrists who do end up in that field and find it very rewarding. I am very lucky to supervise PhD students, the majority of whom are optometrists, and it is really exciting to be involved in their pathway as future leaders in education and in our sector.

About the author

Dr Julie-Anne Little is an optometrist, chairman of the AOP Board, and a senior lecturer at Ulster University

• As told to Emily McCormick.