Optometrist: Required Degree, Education, Expected Salary

optometrist examining patient

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine
Laura Berlinsky-Schine2.3k

Optometry can be a high-paying and rewarding career. Sometimes in conjunction with other vision professionals, these eye doctors participate in the diagnosis and treatment of eye diseases, injuries and disorders, playing an instrumental role in the management of vision and vision-related conditions.

Are you interested in becoming an optometrist or curious about the job? Here are the steps to take toward the goal of earning your doctor of optometry and practicing eye care and treatment, plus what you can expect to earn as a practitioner, related professions, and more. 

What is an optometrist?

Optometrists, also called doctors of optometry (OD), administer vision care to patients, including eye examination, diagnosis of diseases and other eye problems, pre- and post-op eye care and prescription of corrective lenses. In some states, they may also prescribe medication.

Unlike ophthalmologists, these eye doctors are not doctors of medicine (MD) and do not perform eye surgery. Often, optometrists and ophthalmologists work together to diagnose and treat eye disorders and conditions such as astigmatism, nearsightedness, farsightedness and many others. 

Optometrists work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, eyewear stores, private practice, and other healthcare facilities. 

How does one become an optometrist?

Are you thinking of pursuing a doctor of optometry and helping people correct their vision problems? Here’s how to become an optometrist.

1. Earn a bachelor’s degree.

Aspiring optometrists must first earn a bachelor’s, preferably in a science or related field such as biology, from an accredited college or university prior to entering an optometry program.

2. Pass the Optometry Admission Test (OAT).

The OAT is required for admission into any of the 20 schools in the United States (including Puerto Rico) that offers an optometry program. The test assesses competencies in natural sciences, physics, reading comprehension and quantitative reasoning.

3. Complete an optometry program.

Because there are so few schools offering optometry, the programs tend to be very selective and competitive. If you do gain admission into an optometry program, you will participate in relevant science courses and gain clinical experience over the course of four years toward the goal of earning your doctor of optometry (OD).

4. Pass the National Board of Examiners in Optometry exam.

After completing an optometry program, candidates must pass the National Board of Examiners in Optometry exam in the state in which they want to practice. This exam consists of three comprehensive sections, including Applied Basic Science, Patient Assessment and Management, and Clinical Skills, with some states requiring additional components. 

5. Become licensed.

After passing the exam, you must become licensed in your state or state of practice. Look into any additional requirements for licensing in the state in which you wish to practice. 

6. Renew your license accordingly.

States have different requirements and timeframes for renewing your license to practice optometry. Make sure you stay apprised of them at all times to avoid having your license revoked.

How many years does it take to become an eye doctor?

At minimum, it will take you eight years to become an optometrist, including four years in an undergraduate program and four years of optometry school. After receiving their OD, some optometrists complete an optional residency program to gain more specialized experience in optometry. This residency lasts for one year, for a total of nine years of education.

You may also elect to complete certifications, such as the American Board of Optometry (ABO) certification, which demonstrates that you have exceeded the minimum requirements necessary for becoming an optometrist and practicing the profession. You can earn the voluntary ABO certification while you’re already a practicing eye doctor, however.

Do optometrists get paid well?

According to PayScale, entry-level optometrists earn $99,856 on average in the U.S. The median pay for all optometrists of all experience levels is $110,300 annually, as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Are optometrists in demand?

Because of the relatively small number of schools offer an accredited optometry program—just 20 in the U.S. and Puerto Rico—the job is in high demand

The BLS projects employment of optometrists to grow approximately 18 percent between 2016 and 2026, which is considered much faster than the average growth of all jobs. The BLS also notes that an aging population will mean a greater need for optometrists since vision problems are more likely to occur at later life stages. 

BLS data shows that 40,200 optometry jobs existed in 2016 and that 7,200 more jobs will be added in the 10-year period between 2016 and 2026.

Similar job types

“Eye doctor” is a broad term encompassing several different occupations. Moreover, not everyone who works with vision and eye diseases is actually a doctor. Here are some jobs that are related to that of an optometrist. 

• Ophthalmologist

Average salary: $208,548 (PayScale)

Ophthalmologists attend medical school and complete a residency to perform a variety of medical procedures related to eye care, including surgery, to treat disorders and diseases that affect the eyes. They also diagnose and treat eye conditions, perform eye exams and prescribe medications and corrective lenses.

• Optician

Average salary: $36,250 (BLS)

Opticians are not eye doctors. They will fill prescriptions written by eye doctors including optometrists and fit and help patients select eyeglasses and corrective lenses. In some states, you will need to become licensed to be an optician, while others don’t require this step.

• Orthoptist

Average salary: $74,710 (Opticianedu.org)

Orthoptists are allied health professionals who evaluate and treat eye disorders, specializing in amblyopia, diplopia and other eye-movement and muscular control disorders. They often manage treatment plans for patients but do not perform surgery. Unlike optometrists, they are not independent providers. In the United States, orthoptists must complete two years of fellowship training after receiving a bachelor’s degree. 

Should you become an optometrist?

Optometry can be a satisfying career that allows you to help people on a regular basis. The profession is in high demand and has the potential to be very lucrative, with many different paths and specialties available. It is important to keep in mind that the education required to become an optometrist can be extensive, and entry into these programs is highly competitive. Still, many practicing optometrists find that payoff is well worth the effort and investment.

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