Dr Ellie Mein gives an eye-opening account of her route into ophthalmology and what inspired her to study this fascinating area of medicine

How did you first get into medicine?

My father and grandfather were both doctors, as were most of their respective siblings. When deciding on my A-level subjects I was torn between medicine and law. After much consideration I opted for science subjects and medicine won out, possibly because it was a tried and tested career within my family. I may also have been influenced by many of the doctors I knew being somewhat wary of lawyers!

What inspired you to pursue ophthalmology?

During my training I was drawn to the surgical specialties. I liked the practical aspects of operating and that the surgery was often a definite 'fix' to a problem. I started a surgical training rotation once I had completed my house jobs and while I did enjoy it, during my second placement in A&E I got to use a slit lamp and treat minor ophthalmological conditions.

Your exposure to specialties as a student doesn't necessarily reflect what it's actually like to work in them

This was my first real exposure to ophthalmology, as up to that point I hadn't really considered it as a career. As a student I had a two week placement in ophthalmology that mainly involved sitting in the corner of a darkened room and trying, unsuccessfully, to see patients' retinae. I think this highlights that your exposure to specialties as a student doesn't necessarily reflect what it's actually like to work in them. As such, it's important to keep an open mind when trying to decide which career path to take.

I enjoyed ophthalmology as it offered a combination of medicine and surgery. The surgery was intricate and quite clean in comparison to most other surgical specialties. I also enjoyed the physics aspect of ophthalmology, as well as using all the various gadgets.

How does it differ from other medical settings?

In order to perform even a basic examination of patients you need to be able to use certain specific items of equipment - such as the slit lamp and lenses - which you may not have really got to grips with before working in ophthalmology.

In comparison to many other junior doctor posts, more of your time is spent in clinics rather than on wards. The advantage of having fewer inpatients, however, is that the on-calls are often a lot more civilised than in other surgical specialties.

Photo credit: Science Photo Library

What additional skills have you learned as a result?

I was privileged to work with some excellent doctors, nurses, optometrists and orthoptists, which highlighted the benefits of working well as part of a varied and multidisciplinary team.

Working as part of a large team also reinforced the importance of good record keeping. This was key to being able to detect changes in the patient's condition, especially if you had not seen the patient before and were relying on your colleagues' notes.

What advice would you give to students considering ophthalmology as their specialty?

Ophthalmology is a competitive specialty to get into. I was fortunate to already be on a training programme that allowed me to work in relevant specialties such as neurosurgery, ENT and plastics. I also sat my part one ophthalmology exam rather than completing my surgical exams, and contacted my local ophthalmology department which enabled me to be involved in writing some relevant publications.

In these three ways I was able to demonstrate a commitment to a career in ophthalmology and this helped me secure a training post in a great unit. If you are interested in a particular specialty, you may find it helpful to make contact with your local department to find out more about that specialty and see what opportunities are available in order to allow you to enhance your CV.

This page was correct at publication on 13/08/2015. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.