How to Become an Optometrist

Optometry is a great career with good job growth and high salaries. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), careers for optometrists are growing by 4 percent, and median salaries are $118,050 per year.

If you have ever had an eye exam, you have probably met an optometrist. They work with patients to correct vision and manage eye diseases. To become an optometrist you need to have a specific education and degree and be licensed in your state.  

What Does an Optometrist Do?

Optometrists are experts in eye care. They examine, diagnose and treat people with eye diseases, vision problems and eye injuries. Some of the typical duties of an optometrist are:

  • Performing and analyzing vision tests
  • Diagnosing issues with vision such as farsightedness or nearsightedness
  • Diagnosing diseases of the eyes
  • Treating certain eye diseases, and depending on state law, performing minor eye surgery
  • Prescribing lenses and visual aids
  • Providing care for patients before and after surgery performed by an ophthalmologist
  • Educating patients about eye health and preventative measures
  • Referring patients to specialists or physicians for other health issues

Some optometrists focus on a particular area of specialty. Those who work in a larger practice with other eye doctors and optometrists are more likely to have a specialty. Those with their own practice are usually more general practitioners.

Where Do Optometrists Work?

More than half of all optometrists work in an optometry office. Some work in physician offices, sometimes alongside an ophthalmologist. Optometrists may also work in retail locations like drug stores.

A small number of optometrists are self-employed. They own their own practices, which means that in addition to doing all the duties of an optometrist, they are also small business owners. They need to have general business skills and are responsible for things like hiring staff, managing the budget, accounting, marketing, and ordering and managing supplies.

Most optometrists work full-time. They mostly work standard business hours during the week but may also offer weekend or evening appointments to accommodate patients.

How Long Does it Take to Become an Optometrist?

The time it takes to become a working optometrist varies a little bit. For most people, it takes eight years. This includes four years earning an undergraduate degree and four years completing optometry school. The time can be shorter or longer depending on different factors: finishing an undergraduate degree early, completing a post-doctoral program, or enrolling in a residency after optometry school.

Do Optometrists Go to Medical School?

You do not need to go to medical school to become an optometrist. Optometrists do hold an advanced degree, though. It’s called a Doctor of Optometry, or O.D. Medical doctors, M.D.s, who went to medical school and specialize in eye medicine are called ophthalmologists.

According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the difference in degree is important. Ophthalmologists with medical degrees learn in medical school how to treat the whole body and also receive additional training in eye medicine, diseases and surgery.

Pre-Optometrist Education

Optometrist education requirements begin with undergraduate coursework. Most optometrists earn a four-year bachelor’s degree. A degree is a prerequisite for most optometry programs. There are few optometry schools in the U.S., so entry is competitive. For this reason, it’s best to have a four-year degree even if it is not a requirement for the school where you hope to gain admission.

You can find a pre-optometry degree program at many schools. You don’t have to complete pre-optometry to be admitted to an O.D. program, but it is a good way to get in all the courses that most optometry schools require.

Most programs list prerequisite courses you must have completed during undergraduate studies in order to be considered. As an example, these are the undergraduate courses required for admission to the State University of New York College of Optometry

  • Two semesters of general biology with lab
  • Two semesters of General chemistry with lab
  • Two semesters of General physics with lab
  • Two semesters of organic chemistry with lab
  • One semester of calculus
  • Two semesters of English composition and literature
  • Two semesters of Social sciences or humanities
  • One semester of general psychology
  • One semester of statistics

Admissions guidelines also recommend that applicants take microbiology, biochemistry and physiology and anatomy. If you don’t complete a pre-optometry degree, a science degree with these courses will be adequate for admission to most O.D. programs.

What Else is Required for Admission to Optometry School?

The specific courses you take in an undergraduate program represent just one requirement that competitive optometry schools have for applicants. You’ll probably also need to have the following to be admitted:

  • A score of 300 or higher on the Optometry Admission Test (OAT)
  • A minimum overall grade point average (GPA) of 3.0
  • A minimum GPA of 3.5 in science courses
  • Letters of recommendation including one from a science professor, one from a boss or supervisor and one from an optometrist
  • An application with fee
  • A criminal background check

Many schools require a reference letter from an optometrist to attest to your knowledge about optometry. You need to be able to show you understand what it means to be an optometrist and are serious about completing a degree program. If you haven’t worked in an optometry office, you can get a letter by shadowing an optometrist for a day to see what the career is like. Also consider applying for an internship or volunteer position with an optometrist.

You will probably also have to go through an interview process to be admitted to optometry school. A school will only set up interviews with applicants who meet the requirements and are good candidates for a position in the program. Expect to wait a few weeks or a couple of months after submitting your application to get a call for an interview.

The Optometrist Degree

To become an optometrist, you must earn an O.D., Doctor of Optometry, degree. This is a four-year degree. According to the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry there are just 23 accredited O.D. programs in the U.S., including one in Puerto Rico:

  • University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Optometry
  • Arizona College of Optometry, Midwestern University
  • Southern California College of Optometry at Marshall B. Ketchum University
  • University of California – Berkeley, School of Optometry
  • Western University of Health Sciences College of Optometry
  • Nova Southeastern University College of Optometry
  • Chicago College of Optometry, Midwestern University
  • Illinois College of Optometry
  • Indiana University School of Optometry
  • University of Pikeville – Kentucky College of Optometry
  • Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences School of Optometry
  • New England College of Optometry
  • Michigan College of Optometry at Ferris State University
  • University of Missouri at St. Louis College of Optometry
  • State University of New York College of Optometry
  • Ohio State University College of Optometry
  • Northeastern State University – Oklahoma College of Optometry
  • Pacific University College of Optometry
  • Pennsylvania College of Optometry at Salus University
  • Inter American University of Puerto Rico School of Optometry
  • Southern College of Optometry
  • University of Houston College of Optometry
  • University of the Incarnate Word Rosenberg School of Optometry

The limited number of schools of optometry and universities with optometry programs is why admissions are competitive. In order to get into one of these programs, you must beat out other applicants. You need good grades and a science-focused degree from a four-year institution.

O.D. programs vary a little by school but generally take four years to complete. Each program provides a curriculum to train students to do the work of optometry. This means learning biology and anatomy, eye optics, vision science, optometric practice, critical thinking, evidence-based practice and clinical work.

You’ll also learn about eye diseases and treatment, vision therapies, vision rehabilitation and how to examine and diagnose patients. Students learn about doctor-patient interactions and relationships and practice management. Many programs include a community health course and resources for delivering care to underserved populations.

Optometry Residency Positions

A residency program provides clinical training for post-doctoral optometrists. This is not required to get licensed and begin working as an optometrist, but there are many good reasons to complete a residency:

  • It may be a requirement for a job you apply for later. Positions in veterans hospitals and clinics often require residency for optometrist applicants.
  • A residency is often a requirement for clinical faculty positions in optometry schools.
  • You’ll learn a lot in a residency program with hands-on training.
  • Residencies often take place in unique settings catering to geriatric patients or socioeconomically disadvantaged patients.
  • Residency positions encourage lifelong learning and contribute to the education of the next generation of optometrists.

With an O.D. and a state license, you will be prepared to begin working as an entry-level, general optometrist. A residency position gives you additional training, usually in a specialty area. It lasts for 12 months and includes advanced optometry topics, seminars and, in some cases, research. Most residents are paid a stipend to complete the program.

Some of the types of specialty you can train for in a residency program are family practice, vision therapy and rehabilitation, geriatric optometry, pediatric optometry, ocular disease, ocular surgery, low visio, and community health optometry.

What Are the Optometrist Requirements for Licensing?

To work as an optometrist, you must be licensed. Every state has its own set of requirements for licensing, but all require an O.D. degree from an accredited school. All states also require that you pass the exam set by the National Board of Examiners in Optometry.

The National Boards includes three parts all licensed optometrists must pass:

  • Part I – Applied Basic Science. This is a two-part exam with 350 scored items. It covers the science concepts needed for practicing optometry. O.D. students usually take this part of the exam in the spring of their third year.
  • Part II – Patient Assessment and Management. This portion of the exam assesses the ability to think and make decisions in a clinical setting. It includes diagnosis and treatment. It takes place in two sessions. Students take this in December of their fourth year.
  • Part III – Clinical Skills. The third part is a hands-on test of clinical skills. Students take the test in a setting that simulates a real optometrist examination room. Students take this exam any time in their fourth year of study.

There are more components to the National Boards, but these three are the minimum required portions for licensing. They are pass/fail, but some states may require higher scores. Some states also require other portions of the exams, such as the Treatment and Management of Ocular Disease exam. Certain states also require applicants for licensing pass a jurisprudence test to show they understand the relevant state laws for practicing optometry.

States also set renewal requirements for an optometry license. You will have to renew your license periodically, every few years typically. Renewal in most states requires that you have completed a certain number of hours of continuing education coursework.

What Are Optometrist Career Paths after Earning a Degree?

While most optometrists work in optometry practices, there are other options and career paths for this profession. For instance, you may choose to start your own practice and be both an optometrist and business owner.

In terms of practices, you can work in a partnership or a group practice with three or more optometrists. Larger practices provide more opportunities to specialize in one area of optometry. Smaller practices require optometrists to do a little bit of everything.

Optometrists can also consider other types of employers. Optometry schools, for instance, hire optometrists as instructors and researchers. Government agencies and the military need optometrists to provide eye care. Optometrists also work for HMOs, ophthalmologist practices, and medical and community clinics.

If you are considering a career in optometry, start planning early. The competitive nature of optometry schools means you need to have all the requirements ready. You should even consider going above and beyond those requirements. Becoming an optometrist is a lengthy journey, but it leads to a rewarding career with good job stability and a high income.