Career Guides

Career Guide for Optometrists

An optometrist is a provider of vision care. They examine patients’ eyes to diagnose vision problems, test for depth and color perception, and treat other eye disorders. Optometrists prescribe eyeglasses or contact lessons and offer services such as laser surgery.

In this free career guide, you will learn how to have a successful career as an optometrist.

Optometrist Summary

  • Admission to optometry school is competitive; only about 1 in 3 applicants was accepted in 2007.
  • Graduation from an accredited college of Optometry and a State license administered by the National Board of Examiners in Optometry are required.
  • Employment is expected to grow much faster than the average in response to the vision care needs of a growing and aging population.
  • Job opportunities are likely to be excellent.

Working as an Optometrist

Optometrists, also known as doctors of optometry, or ODs, are the main providers of vision care. They examine people’s eyes to diagnose vision problems, such as nearsightedness and farsightedness, and they test patients’ depth and color perception and ability to focus and coordinate the eyes. Optometrists may prescribe eyeglasses or contact lenses, or they may provide other treatments, such as vision therapy or low-vision rehabilitation.

Optometrists also test for glaucoma and other eye diseases and diagnose conditions caused by systemic diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure, referring patients to other health practitioners as needed. They prescribe medication to treat vision problems or eye diseases, and some provide preoperative and postoperative care to cataract patients, as well as to patients who have had corrective laser surgery. Like other physicians, optometrists encourage preventative measures by promoting nutrition and hygiene education to their patients to minimize the risk of eye disease.

Although most work in a general practice as a primary care optometrist, some optometrists prefer to specialize in a particular field, such as contact lenses, geriatrics, pediatrics, or vision therapy. As a result, an increasing number of optometrists are forming group practices in which each group member specializes in a specific area while still remaining a full scope practitioner. For example, an expert in low-vision rehabilitation may help legally blind patients by custom fitting them with a magnifying device that will enable them to read. Some may specialize in occupational vision, developing ways to protect workers’ eyes from on-the-job strain or injury. Others may focus on sports vision, head trauma, or ocular disease and special testing. A few optometrists teach optometry, perform research, or consult.

Most optometrists are private practitioners who also handle the business aspects of running an office, such as developing a patient base, hiring employees, keeping paper and electronic records, and ordering equipment and supplies. Optometrists who operate franchise optical stores also may have some of these duties.

Optometrists should not be confused with ophthalmologists or dispensing opticians. Ophthalmologists are physicians who perform eye surgery, as well as diagnose and treat eye diseases and injuries. Like optometrists, they also examine eyes and prescribe eyeglasses and contact lenses. Dispensing opticians fit and adjust eyeglasses and, in some States, may fit contact lenses according to prescriptions written by ophthalmologists or optometrists.

Work environment. Optometrists usually work in their own offices that are clean, well lighted, and comfortable. Although most full-time optometrists work standard business hours, some work weekends and evenings to suit the needs of patients. Emergency calls, once uncommon, have increased with the passage of therapeutic-drug laws expanding optometrists’ ability to prescribe medications.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

The Doctor of Optometry degree requires the completion of a 4-year program at an accredited school of optometry, preceded by at least 3 years of preoptometric study at an accredited college or university. All States require optometrists to be licensed.

Education and training. Optometrists need a Doctor of Optometry degree, which requires the completion of a 4-year program at an accredited school of optometry. In 2009, there were 19 colleges of optometry in the U.S. and 1 in Puerto Rico that offered programs accredited by the Accreditation Council on Optometric Education of the American Optometric Association. Requirements for admission to optometry schools include college courses in English, mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology. Because a strong background in science is important, many applicants to optometry school major in a science, such as biology or chemistry, as undergraduates. Other applicants major in another subject and take many science courses offering laboratory experience.

Admission to optometry school is competitive; about 1 in 3 applicants was accepted in 2007. All applicants must take the Optometry Admissions Test (OAT), a standardized exam which measures academic ability and scientific comprehension. The OAT consists of four tests: survey of the natural sciences, such as biology, general chemistry, and organic chemistry; reading comprehension; physics; and quantitative reasoning. As a result, most applicants take the test after their sophomore or junior year in college, allowing them an opportunity to take the test again and raise their score. A few applicants are accepted to optometry school after 3 years of college and complete their bachelor’s degree while attending optometry school. However, most students accepted by a school or college of optometry have completed an undergraduate degree. Each institution has its own undergraduate prerequisites, so applicants should contact the school or college of their choice for specific requirements.

Optometry programs include classroom and laboratory study of health and visual sciences and clinical training in the diagnosis and treatment of eye disorders. Courses in pharmacology, optics, vision science, biochemistry, and systemic diseases are included.

One-year postgraduate clinical residency programs are available for optometrists who wish to obtain advanced clinical competence within a particular area of optometry. Specialty areas for residency programs include family practice optometry, pediatric optometry, geriatric optometry, vision therapy and rehabilitation, low-vision rehabilitation, cornea and contact lenses, refractive and ocular surgery, primary eye care optometry, and ocular disease.

Licensure. All States and the District of Columbia require that optometrists be licensed. Applicants for a license must have a Doctor of Optometry degree from an accredited optometry school and must pass both a written National Board examination and a National, regional, or State clinical examination. The written and clinical examinations of the National Board of Examiners in Optometry usually are taken during the student’s academic career. Many States also require applicants to pass an examination on relevant State laws. Licenses must be renewed every 1 to 3 years and, in all States, continuing education credits are needed for renewal.

Other qualifications. Business acumen, self-discipline, and the ability to deal tactfully with patients are important for success. The work of optometrists also requires attention to detail and manual dexterity.

Advancement. Optometrists who wish to teach or conduct research may study for a master’s degree or Ph.D. in visual science, physiological optics, neurophysiology, public health, health administration, health information and communication, or health education.

Employment as an Optometrist

Optometrists held about 34,800 jobs in 2008. Salaried jobs for optometrists were primarily in offices of optometrists; offices of physicians, including ophthalmologists; and health and personal care stores, including optical goods stores. A few salaried jobs for optometrists were in hospitals, the Federal Government, or outpatient care centers, including health maintenance organizations. About 25 percent of optometrists are self-employed. According to a 2008 survey by the American Optometric Association, most self-employed optometrists worked in private practice or in partnership with other healthcare professionals. A small number worked for optical chains or franchises or as independent contractors.

Job Outlook

Employment of optometrists is expected to grow much faster than the average for all occupations through 2018, in response to the vision care needs of a growing and aging population. Excellent job opportunities are expected.

Employment change. Employment of optometrists is projected to grow 24 percent between 2008 and 2018. A growing population that recognizes the importance of good eye care will increase demand for optometrists. Also, an increasing number of health insurance plans that include vision care should generate more job growth.

As the population ages, there will likely be more visits to optometrists and ophthalmologists because of the onset of vision problems that occur at older ages, such as cataracts, glaucoma, and macular degeneration. In addition, increased incidences of diabetes and hypertension in the general population as well as in the elderly will generate greater demand for optometric services as these diseases often affect eyesight.

Employment of optometrists would grow more rapidly if not for productivity gains expected to allow each optometrist to see more patients. These expected gains stem from greater use of optometric assistants and other support personnel, who can reduce the amount of time optometrists need with each patient.

The increasing popularity of laser surgery to correct some vision problems was previously thought to have an adverse effect on the demand for optometrists as patients often do not require eyeglasses afterward. However, optometrists will still be needed to provide preoperative and postoperative care for laser surgery patients, therefore laser eye surgery will likely have little to no impact on the employment of optometrists.

Job prospects. Excellent job opportunities are expected over the next decade because there are only 19 schools of optometry in the United States, resulting in a limited number of graduates—about 1,200—each year. This number is not expected to keep pace with demand. However, admission to optometry school is competitive.

In addition to job growth, the need to replace optometrists who retire will also create many employment opportunities. According to the American Optometric Association, nearly one-quarter of practicing optometrists are approaching retirement age. As they begin to retire, many opportunities will arise, particularly in individual and group practices.

Projections Data

Projections data from the National Employment Matrix
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2008 Projected
Employment, 2018
Number Percent
Optometrists 29-1041 34,800 43,200 8,500 24
NOTE: Data in this table are rounded.

Earnings for Optometrists

Median annual wages of salaried optometrists were $96,320 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $70,140 and $125,460. Median annual wages of salaried optometrists in offices of optometrists were $92,670. Salaried optometrists tend to earn more initially than do optometrists who set up their own practices. In the long run, however, those in private practice usually earn more.

According to the American Optometric Association, average annual income for self-employed optometrists was $175,329 in 2007.

Self-employed optometrists, including those in individual, partnerships, and group practice, continue to earn higher income than those in other settings. Earnings also vary by group size. For example, practitioners in large groups—six or more—earn $159,300; practitioners in mid-sized groups—three to five people—earn $179,205; those in small practices—two people—earn $176,944; and individual practitioners earn an average of $134,094. Self-employed optometrists must also provide their own benefits. Practitioners associated with optical chains earn $100,704 on average. However, they typically enjoy paid vacation, sick leave, and pension contributions.