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Visual Science as a Career: Some Basic Information

Each year during the last week in April, more than 12,000 members of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO) gather in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for their week-long annual meeting.  If you ask any of the attendees what they do, they’ll tell you that they’re “visual scientists.” But if you dig deeper you’ll discover an amazingly multidisciplinary group of researchers. 

The major components of this community by training are (1) PhD’s, (2) MD/Ophthalmologists, and (3) optometrists, osteopaths, and veterinarians.  A more meaningful insight into what the members do in their visual science careers can be gained from the titles of the 13 scientific sections of the organization:  Anatomy & Pathology; Biochemistry & Molecular Biology; Clinical & Epidemiologic Research; Cornea; Eye Movements, Strabismus, Amblyopia & Neuro-ophthalmology; Glaucoma; Immunology & Microbiology; Lens; Physiology & Pharmacology; Retina; Retinal Cell Biology; Visual Neurophysiology; Visual Psychophysics & Physiological Optics.

A pervasive presence at ARVO meetings is the leadership and staff of the National Eye Institute (NEI), an NIH institute dedicated to research on human visual diseases and disorders.  With an annual budget close to $700 million, the NEI is the principal source of funding for the research done by the eye-research community — and presented at the ARVO meeting.  Hence, ARVO meetings provide an ideal venue for close communication between visual scientists and the government agency that pays for most of their research.  Jointly, they engage in strategic planning and set priorities and goals for vision research.  

Since its creation by Congress in 1968, the NEI, along with the vision science community have been successful in fulfilling the NEI’s stated mission to “conduct and support research, training, health information dissemination, and other programs with respect to blinding eye diseases, visual disorders, mechanisms of visual function, and the special health problems and requirements of the blind.”  The commitments of vision scientists to preserve vision and prevent blindness is a vital element in the cohesion and collegiality of the vision science community.  Both the NEI and ARVO provide information about vision science as a career and available job opportunities.  A personal visit to the ARVO annual meeting is highly recommended for anyone interested in vision-related science; it is not only informative but also inspiring.

Where do members of the vision research community work?  The vast majority are employed by universities.  Extrapolating from figures available from the University of Wisconsin – Madison, I estimate that slightly more than half are members of  departments of ophthalmology in medical schools, with most Ph.D.’s holding joint or adjunct appointments in a basic-science department.  The other vision scientists are distributed among medical school basic science departments, or science departments outside the medical school.  In addition, many pharmaceutical companies have ophthalmic divisions and career opportunities for vision scientists.

From my own personal experience, I can attest to the fact that vision science is a challenging and highly gratifying career.