Excerpted from page 38 of the October 2017 edition of AOA Focus.
The first few months after optometry school graduation can be overwhelming.
The excitement that comes with your new degree is tempered by applying for a license, student loan bills, the hunt for that first optometry position, perhaps acclimating to a new city, and a seemingly endless to-do list with tasks that include setting up a retirement fund.
In an excerpt from an article in AOA Focus, doctors of optometry offer advice and valuable AOA resources to get your post-student life started off right.
1. Dominate your debt
When Lauren Haverly, O.D., graduated from optometry school in 2014, she chose a 25-year student loan repayment plan—just in case an emergency kept her from being able to pay much. But by living below her means and paying more than the monthly minimum, Dr. Haverly says she's actually paying off her loan as if she chose a 10-year plan.
Student loan debt that stretches into the hundreds of thousands of dollars can feel like a staggering burden for new doctors. The options for tackling your debt depend on your financial situation, says Alex Macielak, business development manager for the online lender Laurel Road, an AOAExcel® endorsed business partner.
Are you strapped for cash at the end of each month? Then it's key to find a student loan repayment plan that fits your budget. This could mean securing a more manageable monthly payment through an income-based federal loan repayment program, he says, or finding out how much, if any, student loan debt you could have forgiven.
But if you have money left over after your monthly bills are paid, Macielak says, determine where those extra dollars can get the best risk-adjusted rate of return. Some strategies include making additional student loan payments, funding a Roth IRA or buying disability insurance.
Laurel Road offers a student loan refinancing product that gives credit-worthy borrowers a lower interest rate on their debt, with no added fees, Macielak says. AOA members get an additional 0.25% off their quoted interest rate. Refinancing makes the most sense for borrowers who are comfortable making their loan payments, want to tackle debt quickly and have a good credit score, Macielak says.
Use Laurel Road's free online student loan assessment tool to get personalized information on monthly payment options, forgiveness potential, interest rates and more. And remember, Macielak says, the repayment plan you choose now might not be the best one as your career advances. "You can always switch repayment programs in your best interest," he says.
2. Team up
Networking can open the doors to job opportunities, mentoring relationships, referrals and friendships.
Start your networking efforts at the local level, and try to find opportunities to meet other young doctors, says Niloufar Soltanian, O.D.
Dr. Soltanian, who works at a referral center in Atlanta, Georgia, says she's part of a group of young doctors who meet quarterly at breweries or baseball games. "It's less intimidating for new graduates to be around other new doctors," she says. "It gives you a network of people your own age. They can slowly introduce you to the doctors who have been practicing for a few years."
Make a point to attend your state's optometry meeting, and you'll get the chance to meet your state association's board members and staff, says Matthew Gerstberger, O.D. "Those people are contributing their time to make sure you're able to do your job as well as you can," says Dr. Gerstberger, who has been on the board of the Kansas Optometric Association for six years.
Most states have county or regional society meetings monthly for doctors who are part of the AOA state's affiliation.
If you're worried about what to say to colleagues at these meetings, Dr. Soltanian suggests finding one question to ask. It could be as simple as, "I know you're in private practice. Can I visit?" or "I notice you've been practicing a long time. Do you have any tips?"
3. Get your practice off and running
There are several AOA-member benefits that can help new grads get their businesses off the ground. To ease the job hunt, visit Optometrys Career Center to browse open positions across the country.
Students and new graduates who choose AOAExcel-endorsed malpractice insurance can save 50% in their first year in practice and 25% their second year. AOAExcel also offers recent graduates one year of complimentary term life insurance. And through its partnership with AGIA Affinity, AOAExcel connects doctors to disability and life insurance.
As soon as you've decided where you're going to practice, apply for medical licensure with your state's regulatory board of optometry. You'll also need to apply for a National Provider Identifier if you don't already have one. That's the 10-digit unique identification number for health care providers issued by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The application is available at nppes.cms.hhs.gov. And apply with the Internal Revenue Service for a Taxpayer Identification Number for insurance and tax purposes.
4. Retirement: Get ahead of the game
Dr. Gerstberger has been contributing to his retirement through a safe harbor 401(k) plan since he joined his private group practice a decade ago. He initially funded the account with 3% of his salary to match the practice's contribution and later upped the amount as his income grew.
It might be the last thing a new doctor thinks about, but planning for retirement is best done early, says Santo LoPorto, senior director of the life and retirement group at AXA, an AOAExcel endorsed business partner.
If two people make the same retirement contributions, but one begins at age 30 and the other at 40, the older person will never catch up, LoPorto says. "That's the impact of tax-deferred [investments] and compounding over time," he says.
AXA can help a new doctor in solo practice to set up a qualified retirement plan, usually a 401(k), LoPorto says. It's a turnkey product, he adds, so doctors need only make periodic contributions and enroll whoever is eligible. Even new doctors with no assets can set up a plan for their new practice. "For under $100 a year, they can have a retirement plan," LoPorto says.
Doctors who are employees should participate in the retirement program offered by their employer, LoPorto says. But AXA also offers individual options for doctors who want to fund an additional retirement account, or who don't have access to an employer-based retirement program. Typically, these individual plans are traditional IRAs, in which contributions are tax deductible, or Roth IRAs, in which withdrawals during retirement are untaxed.
5. Beef up your skills
In the past year, Dr. Gerstberger has pursued continuing education to sharpen his skills, including courses on amniotic membranes and lasers. At the 2017 Optometry's Meeting®, he used a model eye to perform laser procedures.
"That's something that is not yet within our scope of practice in my state," Dr. Gerstberger says. "But because it's a potential sometime down the road, it's important to keep pushing that envelope and looking for ways to offer services that we don't offer now."
He's also maintained the injectable certification he graduated with more than 10 years ago—just to be ready if the use of injectables becomes available to Kansas doctors of optometry.
EyeLearnTM, the AOA's member-exclusive centralized education platform, offers an online catalog of educational courses, webinars and resources to help expand clinical knowledge and practice management expertise for doctors and staff without ever leaving the comfort of your personal computer. Now relaunched following a top-down revamp, EyeLearn is available with new features that improve accessibility and offers AOA members a more intuitive user interface.
In a virtual kick-off, the AOA launches Leadership Institute with 130 doctors of optometry from across the country. A project of the AOA Leadership Development Committee, the Institute is a yearlong program designed to grow and support the next generation of leaders in the profession.
At the 2021 Leaders Summit, AOA-member volunteers set priorities for the year and launched new initiatives to lead the profession forward.