Pros and Cons of a Career as an Optometrist
Optometrists, also called doctors of optometry, are the main providers of vision care in the United States. Becoming an optometrist can be a sound career choice, but you need to look at all the pros and cons before deciding if this career is for you.
|Pros of a Career as an Optometrist|
|High job-growth field (24% growth expected between 2012 and 2022)*|
|Higher-than-average salary (median approximately $101,410 as of May 2014)*|
|Can work in most geographic locations**|
|Many workplace options (private practice, retail stores, government)**|
|Regular 40-hour work weeks in clean office setting*|
|Cons of a Career as an Optometrist|
|Requires at least four years of graduate training*|
|Few optometry schools means admissions process is competitive (only 23 accredited schools in the U.S. and Canada)**|
|Must pass state licensing exams*|
|Continuing education required to renew licensure every few years*|
Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **American Optometric Association.
Essential Career Information
As an optometrist, you'll diagnose and treat eye diseases, such as glaucoma and cataracts, as well as conditions that impair vision, such as nearsightedness. You'll also test patients for depth perception and color vision. Doctors of optometry can prescribe medications and provide care before and after cataract surgery and corrective laser procedures. They often prescribe eyeglasses or contact lenses. You can also prescribe rehabilitative treatments or vision therapy.
Most optometrists work in private practice, but others treat patients in multidisciplinary medical practices, hospitals or government facilities, such as prisons or mental health treatment centers. You'd generally work a 40-hour work week, which may include some weekends. Emergency calls are becoming more common since laws have been relaxed regarding optometrists' ability to prescribe medicines to treat eye infections and conditions.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics stated that employment of optometrists was expected to grow 24% from 2012-2022, which was much faster than average for all occupations. This growth can be attributed to an aging population that requires more treatment for vision conditions. The increased incidence of diabetes and high blood pressure, diseases that can impact eyesight, means more demand for optometrists. The BLS reported that the median annual salary of optometrists was approximately $101,410 in May 2014.
Career Skills and Requirements
Becoming an optometrist requires four years of optometry school after you finish at least three years of undergraduate work. You'll need to prepare by taking courses in biology, physics and chemistry. Many prospective optometrists major in biology or chemistry. After your sophomore or junior year, take the Optometry Admissions Test (OAT), which tests you on scientific knowledge and academic ability. Taking the test early gives you time to take it again and improve your score if necessary.
In optometry school, you'll learn how to treat eye conditions and diseases through both classroom lessons and clinical experiences. Optometrists also study optics, as well as lens design and fitting. As health care professionals, optometrists must take courses in anatomy, pharmacology, psychology, epidemiology and biochemistry.
All states and the District of Columbia require that optometrists be licensed. You will have to pass written and clinical exams from the National Board of Examiners in Optometry. Many states mandate that optometrists pass exams regarding state regulations. You must show proof that you have completed continuing education courses in order to renew your license.
What Employers Want
Education and licensure are the main requirements for getting a job as an optometrist. Here is a look at job postings on Monster.com and CareerBuilder.com from real employers in March 2012:
- A practice in New Jersey needed a licensed optometrist with a pleasant manner. The posting noted that the doctor could possibly buy into the practice.
- In Pennsylvania, an eye care practice with optometrists, ophthalmologists and physician assistants needed an optometrist who could handle a variety of cases. The candidate needed to be able to use the latest technology and disease treatment techniques.
- A company in Minnesota needed a part-time licensed optometrist to provide eye care to state prisoners at two facilities. The optometrist would prescribe eyeglasses or medicines and make referrals to medical doctors.
- In Iowa, an eye care center needed an optometrist who could help with co-management of cataract and refractive surgery. The posting noted that this was a friendly environment with well-trained support staff. It also mentioned good earning potential.
How to Stand Out
Get Specialized with Advanced Education
One way to stand out from your peers is by completing a 1-year postgraduate residency program in a specialty area of optometry, such as pediatric optometry, family practice, primary care optometry or vision therapy. If you're interested in combining clinical optometry with research, consider earning a Master of Science (M.S.) in Vision Science through one of the dual O.D./M.S. degree programs that allow you to earn both degrees concurrently.
Pursue Optional Certification
In addition to the Part I, Part II and Part III exams required for licensure in every state, the National Board of Examiners in Optometry offers two specialty examinations, one in treatment and management of ocular disease (TMOD) and the other in medical optometry. Many states require the TMOD exam for licensure, but in if your state doesn't require the exam, you can still take it to broaden your scope of practice.
Other Career Paths
Becoming an optometrist is not your only career option if the science of vision fascinates you. If the educational path of an optometrist seems daunting, you may consider becoming a dispensing optician, which is someone who helps fit eyeglasses and contact lenses by following prescriptions written by optometrists. For this career, most employers want you to have a 2-year degree from an optician training program. While a benefit of becoming an optician over an optometrist is fewer educational requirements, your earning potential would be a lot less. The median annual salary for dispensing opticians was around $33,000 in May 2011, the BLS reported.
If you don't mind extra schooling and are interested in getting a full-spectrum medical education rather than learning only about the eyes, you may want to become an ophthalmologist. An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor who is involved in all aspects of eye care, from prescribing glasses to surgery. You'll have to attend four years of medical school after completing your undergraduate education, then earn your medical license and complete a 1-year internship. Finally, you need to complete a 3-year residency in ophthalmology. Though your education would take many years, you're likely to make a lot more than an optometrist would. The median annual salary for an ophthalmologist was about $249,000 in April 2012, according to Salary.com.