Optometrist

Eye care is an important part of maintaining a healthy body. Not only are eyes the windows to the world, but they also provide insights into general well-being. Regular eye examinations by a qualified optometrist are crucial for early detection and prevention of eye diseases such as glaucoma and macular degeneration. Eye care can also play a  key role in detecting systemic conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, and even cancers, which often manifest early signs in the eye.

Currently, there are over 40,000 optometrists providing eye care across the country. Becoming an optometrist is a rigorous but rewarding educational journey. To become an optometrist students must obtain a bachelor’s degree, pass the Optometry Admission Test or similar exam, and earn a doctor of optometry degree. To practice, optometrists must be board-certified and licensed. 

Optometrists fill a special role as eye care professionals. In the eye care field, there are three distinct roles, responsibilities, and educational requirements. An optometrist can conduct eye exams, diagnose vision problems, and prescribe corrective lenses. An optician is a technical practitioner responsible for designing, fitting, and dispensing corrective lenses based on an optometrist’s or ophthalmologist’s prescriptions, with education requirements typically including a two-year degree or specific training program. An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor specializing in eye and vision care, capable of performing eye surgeries, treating complex eye conditions, and prescribing corrective lenses, following a lengthy educational path that includes a bachelor’s degree, medical school, a residency program, and, often, a specific eye care fellowship.

There is good demand for optometrists in the US. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2023), there will be a 9 percent increase in jobs in this field between 2022 and 2032. This is three times the rate for all other jobs, which is 3 percent. The demand is largely driven by an aging population that has an increased need for eye care as well as a significant number of optometrists who will be retiring in the next decade. 

To learn more about how to become an optometrist, including a step-by-step guide, continue reading.

Optometrist Specializations & Degree Types

All optometrists must complete a doctor of optometry degree. This is a four-year degree program that includes both didactic coursework and clinical training. Some optometrists may specialize in a specific area of eye care, such as pediatric optometry, geriatric optometry, or sports vision. Some of these specializations may require a residency or fellowship that provides even more focused training in a specific area of eye care.

Admissions Requirements for Optometrist Programs

Admissions into a doctor of optometry program can be highly competitive, with only a small percentage of applicants being accepted. Here are the typical admission programs:

  • A bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution in a science or health-related field
  • Prerequisite coursework in biology, chemistry, physics, and math.
  • Optometry Admission Test (OAT) score or a similar exam such as the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT)
  • Letters of recommendation from professors, employers, or practicing optometrists
  • An in-person or video interview
  • Work or volunteer experience in this field
  • A statement of purpose or personal essay

Optometrist Program Accreditation

Accreditation is extremely important for optometry programs, as it ensures that the program meets high standards of education and training. The Accreditation Council on Optometric Education (ACOE) accredits optometry schools and residency programs in the United States. Attending an accredited program is necessary to become licensed as an optometrist and to sit for board certification. Currently, there are 24 accredited programs across the country.

On-Campus Optometrist Degree Programs

Nova Southeastern University – College of Optometry

Nova Southeastern University’s doctor of optometry degree offers a unique perspective into individuals’ overall health, enabling the opportunity to detect serious health issues that can save lives and preserve vision. With this degree, students gain the skills to examine, diagnose, treat, and manage diseases and disorders of the visual system. They also learn how to enhance vision through glasses, contact lenses, and visual rehabilitation techniques. 

Admission requirements induce an OAT score of 320 or higher and an undergraduate GPA of 3.4 or higher. The program’s first year includes basic science classes such as anatomy and physiology, microbiology, and neuroanatomy. The second year has more advanced classes and the last two years primarily care for patients while taking a few specialized courses. 

  • Location: Fort Lauderdale, FL 
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council On Optometric Education

Illinois College of Optometry

The Illinois College of Optometry (ICO) is a prestigious institution known for its exceptional optometric program. Founded in 1872, ICO offers a comprehensive curriculum, distinguished faculty, and extensive clinical experience. This program focuses exclusively on optometry, ensuring students receive specialized training to excel in their field. The curriculum includes biomedical and vision sciences classes, primary optometric practice, and specialty optometric areas. 

Prospective students must complete a series of college-level pre-optometry courses before applying. The college also offers residency programs for post-graduate training in various aspects of optometry. Each year this school graduates approximately 160 optometrists.

  • Location: Chicago, IL
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council On Optometric Education

Midwestern University 

The optometry programs at Midwestern University are designed to prepare students for long-term success in this field. The experienced and caring faculty, along with the comprehensive facilities, provide a nurturing learning environment. Students can study the most advanced principles in the field and apply them with actual patients at the state-of-the-art Midwestern University Eye Institute. The university’s commitment to making students “Day One Ready” for their careers and an interdisciplinary approach to education ensures a dynamic and rewarding educational experience.

This program is offered at their Downers Grove, IL and Glendale, AZ campuses. Candidates will need to submit their application to their chosen campus. Requirements include a 2.75 undergraduate GPA and a score from either the Optometry Admission Test (OAT), Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), Dental Aptitude Test (DAT), Pharmacy College Admission Test (PCAT), or the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). Applicants must also complete prerequisite coursework.

  • Location: Downers Grove, IL or Glendale, AZ 
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council On Optometric Education

Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences

At the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences students can complete their doctor of optometry degree on its Worcester campus. This full-time, four-year program prepares students to work with patients of all ages and provide eye care while promoting vision health. Students gain the knowledge and skills necessary to diagnose and manage various eye conditions through classroom instruction and clinical training.

The program emphasizes a student-oriented and learner-centered approach, providing a comprehensive curriculum that covers subjects such as vision science, ocular anatomy, clinical optometry, and advanced diagnostics. Students also have access to state-of-the-art instructional technologies, including the MCPHS Eye and Vision Center, where they can apply their learning in real-world scenarios with patients. They also offer a dual-degree program for those interested in public health where students can earn both a doctor of optometry degree and a master’s degree in public health simultaneously.

  • Location: Worcester MA 
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council On Optometric Education

Pacific University – College of Optometry

The Pacific University College of Optometry offers a doctor of optometry program that prepares students to become clinical doctors of optometry. The program emphasizes integrated academic and laboratory experiences and clinical work to develop highly skilled optometrists. Graduates of the four-year program are fully qualified to practice in North America. The curriculum goes beyond the minimum requirements and provides extensive real-world experience through the Outreach program, allowing students to care for patients while receiving hands-on training.

To be admitted to the program, applicants must submit a verified OptomCAS application and supporting letters of evaluation. They must also demonstrate a plan to complete all prerequisite requirements and provide valid OAT or GRE scores. 

  • Location: Forest Grove, OR 
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council On Optometric Education

Salus University Pennsylvania – College of Optometry

The Pennsylvania College of Optometry at Salus University offers a doctor of optometry program that provides comprehensive education and training for aspiring optometrists. This program offers multiple options, including an accelerated scholars program, a traditional program, and an international advanced placement OD degree program.

The accelerated scholars’ program allows highly motivated and well-qualified students to complete their optometry degree in just 36 months and offers an equivalent curriculum to the traditional program. The traditional program follows a 3+4 model, where students spend the first three years at a participating undergraduate institution and the next four years in the OD program. 

Lastly, the international advanced placement OD degree program is designed for graduates of non-U.S. optometric programs who wish to pursue an OD degree in the United States. This program offers an opportunity for international students to gain the necessary knowledge and skills required to practice optometry in the U.

  • Location: Elkins Park, PA 
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council On Optometric Education

Marshall B. Ketchum University Southern California – College of Optometry

Students can complete their OD degree through The Marshall B. Ketchum University Southern California College of Optometry. This is a traditional four-year program with two nine-month terms followed by two 12-month terms that include clinical experiences. To be considered for admission, it is recommended that applicants have a four-year baccalaureate degree, although those who have completed a minimum of prerequisites may also be eligible. 

This program combines teaching, patient care, research, and public service to provide a comprehensive education in optometry. It also offers various residency programs, such as cornea and contact lenses, low vision rehabilitation, ocular disease, primary care, neuro-optometry, and pediatric optometry/vision.

  • Location: Fullerton, CA 
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council On Optometric Education

Southern College of Optometry

Southern College of Optometry has been providing top-quality education to aspiring optometrists for more than 90 years. This program places a strong emphasis on hands-on experience with their comprehensive curriculum. Graduates are well-prepared for successful careers in optometry. Through its rigorous academic program, the school strives to produce skilled and compassionate optometrists who can provide excellent care to patients.

To be considered for admission, prospective students must have a minimum of 90 semester hours (or 135 quarter hours) at an accredited undergraduate institution. Applicants must complete prerequisite courses in psychology, physics, calculus, statistics, chemistry, and more. 

  • Location: Memphis, TN 
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council On Optometric Education

Online or Hybrid Optometrist Degree Program

Due to the hands-on nature of optometrist programs, there are no online degree options. A hybrid program is in the works, but as of March 2024, it has not been online yet. It is included below. 

New England College of Optometry (Hybrid)

The comprehensive four-year doctor of optometry program at the New England College of Optometry provides options for dual degrees, concentrations, and accelerated programs. This rigorous school offers students exposure to diverse patient populations and clinical settings. Students can specialize with a concentration in pediatric optometry, cornea and contact lens, or low vision rehabilitation

Admission requirements include having completed 90 undergraduate credits or a bachelor’s degree, enrollment in another accredited school or college of optometry, and satisfactory completion of equivalent courses. This program also offers a dual-degree program for both OD and master of vision science. Additionally, a hybrid OD degree program combining distance learning with hands-on training is being introduced to provide flexibility.

  • Location: Boston, MA 
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council On Optometric Education

How Long Does it Take to Become an Optometrist?

Students must complete a four-year bachelor’s degree followed by a four-year doctor of optometry degree. It takes at least eight years of studies to become an optometrist. Residencies and fellowships can and one to two years of training.

How To Become an Optometrist – Step-by-Step Guide

Step 1: Graduate from High School or Obtain a GED (Four Years)

A high school diploma or GED is the first step to becoming an optometrist. This base level of education is required in order to enroll in a bachelor’s degree program and provides the foundation for future studies. Aspiring optometrists should focus on science and health classes to ensure they have the required knowledge for the next step. 

Step 2: Complete a Bachelor’s Degree (Four Years)

A bachelor’s degree in any field is typically required for admission into optometry school. Most students major in a science-related subject, such as biology or chemistry, to fulfill the prerequisite coursework for optometry programs. Applicants should strive for a high GPA and participate in extracurricular activities that demonstrate their commitment to the field of optometry.

Step 3: Take the Optometry  Admissions Test (OAT)

The OAT is a standardized exam that assesses an applicant’s understanding of key science concepts and ability to apply them. This test is required for admission into optometry school and should be taken during the student’s junior or senior year of undergraduate studies

Step 4: Graduate from an Optometry Program  (Four Years)

After completing undergraduate studies and passing the OAT, aspiring optometrists must obtain a Doctor of Optometry (OD) degree from an accredited optometry school. This typically takes four years to complete, with the first two years focusing on classroom instruction and the last two years on clinical experience.

Step 5: Obtain Licensure 

To practice as an optometrist, licensure is required in all states. Licensure requirements vary by state but typically include graduating from an accredited optometry program and passing the National Board of Examiners in Optometry exam. More information can be found in the certification and licensure section below.

What Do Optometrists Do?

Optometrists work in various settings including private practice, healthcare facilities such as hospitals, outpatient care centers, or retail optical stores. Some optometrists may choose an academic career, working in universities as educators, researchers, or administrators. Job duties will vary based on the place of employment but will typically include: 

  • Conducting comprehensive eye examinations to assess patients’ vision and identify problems
  • Diagnosing sight problems, such as nearsightedness or farsightedness, and eye diseases, such as glaucoma
  • Prescribing eyeglasses, contact lenses, and other visual aids that correct vision issues.
  • Providing treatments for certain eye conditions and diseases
  • Advising patients on proper eye care techniques to maintain optimal visual health
  • Referring patients to ophthalmologists or other healthcare practitioners when needed
  • Educating patients about visual health, preventive care, and treatments
  • Keeping detailed patient records regarding diagnoses, treatments, and progress
  • Staying updated with the latest eye care technology and techniques
  • Managing administrative tasks related to running an optometry practice, such as staff supervision, billing, maintaining stocks of supplies, and liaising with insurance companies

Optometrist Certifications & Licensure

To become a licensed optometrist, candidates must meet the specific requirements of their state’s board. Candidates need to verify the specific licensure requirements in the state they wish to practice in, as they can vary widely by state. For example, in California licenses are issued through the California State Board of Optometry, and the requirements include:

  • Completion of an accredited optometry program and providing transcripts
  • Pass the National Board of Examiners in Optometry (NBEO) Examination
  • Pass the California Laws and Regulations Exam (CLRE)
  • Have a clear criminal history background check
  • Submit a passport style photograph

The American Board of Optometry (ABO) Board Certification offers voluntary certification for optometrists in the United States. This certification represents the highest standard of optometric care and is recognized nationally. It validates that an optometrist has exceeded the basic licensure requirements and demonstrated exceptional knowledge, skills, and experience in optometry. To earn this certification candidates must: 

  • Graduate from an ACOE-accredited optometry school in the United States or Canada
  • Complete an accredited one-year residency program or a minimum of three years of active clinical practice
  • Have a valid, active license to practice therapeutic optometry in a U.S. state, territory, or the District of Columbia
  • Successfully completion of a comprehensive written examination

How Much Do Optometrists Make?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2022), the 40,640 optometrists in the US earn $133,100 per year. The percentiles for wages are:

  • 10th percentile: $62,150
  • 25th percentile: $96,980
  • 50th percentile (median): $125,590
  • 75th percentile: $156,030
  • 90th percentile: $191,430

Optometrists Career Alternatives

Here are a few alternatives to a career as an optometrist. 

Become a Physician Assistant

Physician assistants (PAs) work under the supervision of physicians to provide comprehensive medical care to patients. They can perform various tasks, including conducting physical examinations, diagnosing illnesses, ordering and interpreting tests, prescribing medications, and developing treatment plans. They often collaborate with physicians, surgeons, and other healthcare professionals to deliver high-quality and efficient healthcare services. 

  • Typical Education: Master’s degree
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA)

Become a Pathologists’ Assistant

A pathologists’ assistant works alongside pathologists to collect tissue samples, perform laboratory tests, analyze data, and assist in autopsies. They ensure proper specimen handling, prepare slides for microscopic examination, and help document findings. Pathologist assistants may also support research projects and maintain laboratory equipment.

  • Typical Education: Master of science – pathologists’ assistant (PAA)
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP)

Become an Audiologist

Audiologists specialize in the diagnosis, assessment, and treatment of hearing and balance disorders. Their primary role involves evaluating and managing patients with hearing loss, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), and vestibular (balance) disorders. They use a variety of tests and assessments to measure hearing ability and identify the specific type and degree of hearing loss. Other duties include crafting personalized treatment options, including fitting and programming hearing aids, providing auditory rehabilitation therapy, or recommending assistive listening devices. 

  • Typical Education: Master’s or doctorate degree
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA)
Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson

Writer

At HealthcareDegree.com, Kimmy Gustafson has delivered in-depth and insightful articles since 2019, aiding prospective students to navigate the complexities of choosing the right healthcare degree. Her recent work includes topics such as the ethics of gene editing and physician assistant’s fight for autonomy.

Kimmy has been a freelance writer for more than a decade, writing hundreds of articles on a wide variety of topics such as startups, nonprofits, healthcare, kiteboarding, the outdoors, and higher education. She is passionate about seeing the world and has traveled to over 27 countries. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Oregon. When not working, she can be found outdoors, parenting, kiteboarding, or cooking.

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