What is an Optometrist?

Job Description and Career Profile

An optometrist examines a patient
An optometrist does a vision exam on a patient. Thomas Northcut / Digital Vision / Getty Images

An optometrist, also called a Doctor of Optometry or O.D. for short, provides primary vision care. He or she diagnoses and treats eye diseases and disorders. If a patient needs vision correction, an optometrist will prescribe eyeglasses or contact lenses.

Some optometrists specialize in a particular clientele, for example, pediatric or geriatric patients, or a type of treatment such as low vision or post-operative care.

Quick Facts

  • Optometrists earned a median annual salary of $103,900 in 2015.
  • In 2014, 40,600 people worked in this field.
  • Stand-alone optometry practices employed almost half of them.
  • Classified by the U.S. Bureau of Labor  Statistics as a "Bright Outlook" occupation due to its excellent job outlook, employment is expected to grow 27% faster than the average for all occupations through 2024.

What Is the Difference Between Optometrists, Ophthalmologists, and Opticians

Other practitioners who provide vision care are ophthalmologists and opticians. Ophthalmologists are physicians who, unlike optometrists, can perform eye surgery. After college, they must attend medical school for four years and then complete three to eight years of graduate medical education. 

Opticians fit eyeglasses and make adjustments to them. They do not examine eyes, make diagnoses or treat diseases and conditions, unlike the other two vision specialists.

Some learn their trade through on-the-job training. Others earn an associate degree or certificate by completing post-secondary training at a community college or technical school.

How to Become an Optometrist

If you want to become an optometrist, you must first complete a four-year program at an accredited optometry school.

You will earn a Doctor of Optometry (O.D.) degree. You can find a list of programs accredited by the Accreditation Council on Optometric Education on the American Optometric Association website. Although applicants to schools must have completed only three years of study at an accredited college or university, most have earned, or will shortly receive, a bachelor's degree. Undergraduate coursework should include mathematics, English, chemistry, physics and biology.

Applicants must take an entrance exam called the Optometry Admission Test (OAT) which the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry sponsors. Training combines classroom instruction and clinical experience under the supervision of a licensed optometrist. If you want to specialize in a particular area of practice, you will have to do post-graduate clinical training. This hands-on experience is called a residency.

To practice anywhere in the United States, you must become licensed. In addition to earning an OD degree from an accredited program, you will have to pass the National Boards of Optometry, a four-part exam administered by the National Board of Examiners in Optometry. Some states require passing another exam in addition to this.

Continuing education coursework is usually required to maintain licensure.

What Soft Skills Do You Need to Succeed as an Optometrist?

You will learn the technical aspects of your job through formal training, but you won't learn all the soft skills, or personal qualities, you need to succeed in this field. They are:

  • Active Listening: The importance of excellent listening skills cannot be emphasized enough. They will allow you to understand what your patients are telling you so you can respond appropriately. 
  • Verbal Communication: You will have to convey information to your patients clearly. Stellar speaking skills will make that possible.
  • Interpersonal Skills: In addition to strong listening and verbal communication skills, you must be able to "read" your patients' non-verbal signals, as well as persuade and instruct them.

What Will Employers Expect From You?

To find out what requirements employers have, we looked at some actual job announcements on Indeed.com:

  • "Basic Life Support certification, preferred"
  • "Should be personable and friendly"
  • "Must be motivated to be able to work under minimal supervision"
  • "Candidates must be used to fast paced, busy environment"
  • "Applicants must have flexible availability"
  • "Must be tech savvy"

Is This Occupation a Good Fit for You?

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Sources:
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 (visited November 16, 2016).
Employment and Training Administration, U.S. Department of Labor, O*NET Online (visited November 16, 2016).

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