There are approximately 35,000 optometrists practicing in the United States. Job growth indicators suggest that over the next decade the occupation will expand at much higher than average rates for all jobs, at 24%. This is due in large part to the aging population, which is much larger than the previous group of seniors.
Becoming an optometrist requires determination. Only 30% of all applicants are accepted into one of only 20 U.S. schools of optometry, which collectively graduate around 1,200 students each year. Applicants are required to pass a standardized test measuring academic and scientific ability called the Optometry Admissions Test (OAT). Testing is given in four categories: survey of the natural sciences covers information about biology, general chemistry, and organic chemistry; reading comprehension demonstrates the applicant’s ability to read, retain, comprehend, and analyze; physics; and quantitative reasoning. Many undergraduates who intend to become an optometrist will take the OAT before their senior year in case their scores require retesting.
Once students have been admitted, they will undertake classroom and laboratory instruction in health and visual sciences, as well as clinical training in the diagnosis and treatment of eye disorders. They will also study pharmacology, optics, vision science, biochemistry, and systemic diseases that can be diagnosed by studying the eye. Postgraduate residencies are available to gain advanced competence in a specialty, such as family practice, pediatric vision, geriatric vision, vision therapy and rehabilitation, low-vision rehabilitation, cornea and contact lenses, refractive and ocular surgery, primary eye care optometry, and ocular disease.
In order to practice, optometrists must have graduated from a program accredited by the Accreditation Council on Optometric Education of the American Optometric Association. To be admitted, students must show undergraduate courses in English, math, physics, chemistry, and biology. After graduation, students must become licensed in their state by the National Board of Examiners in Optometry. These licenses require renewal from one to three years; renewal requires evidence of continuing education.
Optometrists provide a range of vision care activities. They examine eyesight to determine problems such as near- or farsightedness. Perception of depth and of color are tested as well, as is the speed with which a patient focuses and coordinates sight. In addition to prescribing contact lens or glasses, some optometrists offer services like vision therapy or low-vision rehabilitation. Optometrists are also concerned about diseases of the eye. They test for glaucoma and can diagnose some systemic disorders, for example high blood pressure, by examining the patient’s eyes. Optometrists are licensed to prescribe medicine. Some work with cataract patients both pre- and post-surgery. Optometrists explain the importance of good nutrition and hygiene to patients to diminish the risk of eye disease.
Most optometrists work in general practice. However, some have chosen to specialize in geriatric vision, pediatric vision, occupational vision, or vision therapy. A current trend is the formation of group practices in which each member simultaneously performs general optometry as well as specializes in one area.
Low-vision rehabilitation specialists can custom design magnifying glasses that can enable someone who is legally blind to see well enough to read. Occupational vision specialists create devices to protect employees’ eyes from injury caused by flying debris or from strain. Sports vision, head trauma, and ocular disease are becoming more popular specializations. Some optometrists teach, do research, or offer consultations.
The greatest percentage of optometrists own their own business and must also spend time building a client base, ordering supplies, dealing with insurance and billing issues, hiring staff, and so forth.
Optometrists typically work in clean, well organized, well-lit surroundings. Many work standard business hours, while some offer weekend or evening hours for client convenience or to build a client base.
Optometrists must pay very close attention to detail, have a good visual memory, and demonstrate exceptional manual dexterity. Because they work in very close physical proximity, optometrists must develop good social skills to put patients at ease. Business experience or training is essential for those who begin or purchase their own business.
One means of advancement is to pursue a higher degree in physiological optics, visual science, public health administration, neurophysiology, health information communication, or health education. This will enable optometrists to teach at the university level or pursue academic or commercial research.
The median annual salary paid to optometrists is about $97,000. Those in the middle 50% are paid between $70,000 and $126,000. The average annual income for optometrists working for themselves is more than $176,000.