Optometry Australia National President Kate Gifford, addressing optometry graduates at QUT. Photo: Elite Photographics
When Optometry Australia National President Kate Gifford addressed QUT optometry students at their graduation ceremony on 10 December 2014, she offered advice on what they could do to have a meaningful career. You can read the full transcript of her speech.
By Kate Gifford
Chancellor Mr Tim Fairfax, Acting Vice-Chancellor Professor Peter Little, other members of the official party, graduates, ladies and gentlemen:
I’m honoured to share this moment with you all today. It was 11 years ago that I was a freshly-minted QUT Faculty of Health graduate and I can remember how it felt. I felt excited, terrified and proud. Excited about reaching this milestone and starting the next phase of my life as a health professional. Terrified about becoming a proper adult with a proper career, of no longer seeing my close friends on a daily basis, and about being let loose on ‘actual’ patients. I was proud to share the moment with my friends, new colleagues and family, and feel a part of a centuries old tradition honouring academic endeavour. Today is a very special day.
I grew up in Toowoomba and as a teenager, had no idea what I wanted to do after school. I knew I wanted to study at university and was vaguely interested in law. At a tertiary study expo in 1999, I remember talking to a science lecturer from another university who asked, sagely, why I wanted to study law since I was a maths and science student. It’s a little foggy now but I remember visiting a QUT stand at the expo and suddenly there was optometry in my head. I ran back to the first lecturer and asked if their university offered optometry. He said ‘We have laser sciences’, which I thought wasn’t quite the same thing, and that was that. I was going to study optometry.
This was mid-way through Grade 12 and by leaving this decision a little late I sought some work experience. I spent a few days with a passionate dynamo of an optometrist in Toowoomba called Henry Heron, who at the time was president of the Queensland Optometrists Association. I was inspired by Henry’s busy days, his seeing his patients and leading his profession.
Being an A-class nerd at school, which I am happy to declare, I achieved an OP 1 and got my offer for optometry. Fast forward four years because you all know about that bit—I was a QUT graduate and my future lay in front of me. Eleven years later, I’m a clinical optometrist, educator, researcher, practice owner and professional leader. Your QUT degree is the golden ticket to your career journey, and it’s up to you how that plays out.
I’d like to tell you a little more about what I’ve done with my golden ticket. As a student I had been introduced to my profession in action through contact with Optometrists Association Australia. In my final year, the CEO of the Queensland and Northern Territory Division spoke to our class, and I spoke to him and Emeritus Professor Leo Carney, Head of School at the time, about getting involved. I became the first QUT Student Observer on the state’s Optometrist Association board and continued my involvement on graduation, being elected to the board as a director by my peers in 2005. I became state president in 2010 for two years and at the same time was nominated to the National Board.
Two and a half weeks ago, I was elected the National President of Optometry Australia. I’m the youngest national president and the second female. In this role I’m responsible for leading, engaging and promoting optometry to government, stakeholders, the public and 4,500 individual optometrists across Australia.
This involvement in my profession is important to me because it’s all about education. You might think that your brain is full now and that it’s closed for business, but your professional education is life-long. You will learn from your patients and your colleagues. You will learn from continuing professional education, assimilating scientific research into your clinical practice. Your QUT degree has given you the tools and passion to become a perpetual learner.
Seeking these learning opportunities, in Australia and overseas, has led me into a peer education role. In my areas of clinical expertise, I have lectured to my peers at conferences in this country, as well as in England, America and New Zealand, and even taught ophthalmologists and nurses how to fit speciality contact lenses in Vietnam. I’ve completed four professional fellowships and mentored Australian and international colleagues undertaking the same.
These experiences have provided opportunities to meet the clinical and academic leaders of my profession, the people who write the textbooks and the journal articles, and to develop personal and professional friendships with colleagues across the globe. My QUT degree instilled in me a reverence for science and academic rigour, which is as important in educating peers as it is in educating yourself.
I remember jumping up and down and crying a few happy tears when I received a letter before my graduation stating that I was to be awarded a University Medal. Because I was obviously nerdy at uni, Emeritus Professor Carney talked to me about undertaking PhD studies. I was keen to get out into the real world after graduation and did just that, but it was about five years later when I was sitting next to Associate Professor Peter Hendicott at an optometry function that the PhD idea floated back up again.
We talked about part-time study and I got so excited that I went out and bought a new desk the following day, and starting putting my ideas together. Becoming a small business owner in the meantime saw a slow approach to the start line but I’m now almost four years into a part-time PhD, with Professor Hendicott as one of my supervisors. Experiencing the academic, clinical, professional education and leadership aspects of my profession has seen my 11 years take me from right where you are all sitting today to a career that is fulfilling, rewarding and endlessly interesting.
It’s easy to define success when you’re a university student—it’s defined in percentage terms several times over, twice yearly. Now you’re looking at a new framework for success, and that’s meaningful. When writing about what makes for meaningful work, best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell says there are three key ingredients.
The first is autonomy. You have a role in deciding what you do every day. Even if you might not always decide exactly what you do, you can choose how to get it done. You have been educated to provide the best clinical care to each and every one of your patients. Regardless of work setting, my QUT education instilled in me a strong sense of professional autonomy and I hope you can identify that feeling deep down in your innards as well.
The second is complexity. Your work must be an intellectually stimulating challenge, engaging both your mind and your imagination. Every day I’m confronted with clinical puzzles and I enjoy the detective work. As a new graduate, everything feels like a scary challenge and I can remember that it took me a few years before I could wake up in the morning and think: ‘Yes, I can handle anything or anyone who walks through my door today.’ Over time things get easier and more automatic. Continue to question your knowledge and invest your energy in seeking complexity in your work, and you’ll never get bored with it.
The final key ingredient to a meaningful career is a connection between effort and reward. As a clinical optometrist, nurse or paramedic, you achieve something for an individual patient many times a day. In a public health role you’ll see your expertise translate into better outcomes for a handful to many thousands of people. Seek the rewards for your efforts, which in the health arena are delivered to you far beyond your wage or title.
Success through a meaningful career is what’s ahead for all of you today. This is an exciting and challenging time for health, with an ageing population and increase in chronic disease, and technological advances that can both help and hinder our ability to deliver best practice clinical care. Today you’ve each collected your golden ticket, and shaping your journey is up to you. Stepping out of university and into the real world can sometimes feel lonely but remember that you are part of your professional communities, and the academic community here at QUT.
Please accept my congratulations on your achievements and my best wishes for your futures ahead.
Masters of their destiny: QUT optometry students celebrate graduation
Kate Gifford (centre) at the QUT graduation ceremony