If glasses or contact lenses help you see your loved ones and navigate the world, thank an optometrist. These doctors specialize in eye health and vision. An optometrist performs eye exams, diagnoses eye diseases and writes prescriptions for corrective lenses. As with other medical professions, starting an optometrist career requires many years of school and a solid grasp of the sciences.
Educational Requirements for Optometrists
The first step toward becoming an optometrist is to pursue a bachelor's degree. Chemistry, biology and other sciences are common areas of study for undergrads planning on pursuing a career in optometry, but graduate schools will sometimes accept applicants who majored in social sciences or humanities too. That said, this is a competitive field and only a limited number of schools offer graduate programs in optometry – so studying one of the the sciences and earning a high GPA may help you beat out the competition for a spot in your first-choice program.
The next step in your optometrist education is to take the Optometry Admission Test, or OAT. It's a multiple-choice exam that tests an applicant's reading comprehension and mastery of the sciences. Undergraduates take the test and submit the results to graduate optometry programs.
The final step in your education is optometry school. Upon completing one of these four-year programs – which include both classroom and clinical training – a student earns a Doctor of Optometry (OD) degree. In all, it takes most candidates four years of undergraduate work and four years of graduate work to become an optometrist, but some schools offer joint programs that allow students to complete both degrees in seven years. As long as students meet certain requirements and achieve high enough scores on the OAT, they move straight from undergrad into optometry school without having to apply.
Next Steps to Becoming an Optometrist
Upon completing school with an OD degree, some new optometrists decide to complete residencies. They're paid programs, typically lasting one year or longer, which are useful for those graduates who want to specialize in a particular area of optometry. Residencies are optional.
All new optometrists must get licensed to practice. Each state has its own licensing requirements. The National Board of Examiners in Optometry administers a three-part board examination, and most states require new optometrists to take and pass all three parts as part of the licensing process.
What to Expect as an Optometrist
An optometrist career can be very lucrative. The median salary was $110,300 in May 2017, which means that half of optometrists earned more than that amount and half earned less. The top 10 percent of optometrists earned more than $190,090 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The field is also expected to grow in coming years, which is good news for students who are just starting their optometry careers. The BLS predicts that optometry jobs will increase by 18 percent between 2016 and 2026, which is a much faster rate of growth than the average across all industries.
Unlike many medical fields, optometrists generally work pretty standard, predictable hours. Many work in private practice or in stores that sell eyeglasses and contact lenses, where they work daytime hours primarily on weekdays. Some optometrists may work as educators or in hospitals. Those who work in hospitals may need to be on call on holidays and overnight, in case a patient has an emergency related to vision.