How to become an Optometrist: A comprehensive guide

Updated on January 12, 2024


Becoming an optometrist takes dedication and many years of specialized education, but it can be a rewarding career helping people improve their vision and eye health. First and foremost, aspiring optometrists must obtain a Doctor of Optometry (OD) degree, which generally takes four years to complete after finishing an undergraduate bachelor’s degree, as the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry explains. After OD school, optometrists must also pass national and state licensing exams to practice. Additionally, more training is required for those who want to specialize in certain areas like contact lenses, vision therapy, pediatrics, etc. Overall, the journey requires a significant commitment but allows optometrists the opportunity to make a real difference in their patients’ lives. With proper dedication and passion, it is certainly possible for the right individual to successfully embark on this career path.

What is an Optometrist?

An optometrist is a primary health care provider who examines the eyes and visual system to diagnose eye diseases and vision problems. Optometrists are optometry (OD) doctors trained to prescribe glasses, contact lenses, vision therapy, low vision rehabilitation, and medications to treat certain eye diseases.

Education and Training

To become an optometrist, students must complete a 4-year optometry degree program after obtaining an undergraduate bachelor’s degree. Optometry programs teach students about optics, anatomy of the eye, diseases of the eye, and vision science. Coursework also covers pathology, pharmacology, neuroanatomy, physiology, and optics. Optometry students additionally complete clinical rotations where they gain hands-on experience working with real patients under the supervision of licensed optometrists. After graduating from an accredited optometry program, prospective optometrists must pass national and state licensing exams to be able to practice.

Scope of Practice

Optometrists can provide comprehensive eye health and vision care. They perform eye exams to assess vision, test eye coordination and focus, detect eye diseases like glaucoma or cataracts and prescribe corrective lenses or treatments. Optometrists can diagnose and manage vision changes related to diabetes, hypertension, multiple sclerosis, and more. They also treat eye infections and irritation through medications. Most optometrists work in private practices, optical retail settings, hospitals, or academic institutions.

What do optometrists do?

So you’ve decided to become an optometrist. But what exactly does an optometrist do daily? Here is an overview:

Educational Requirements for Becoming an Optometrist

Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

The first step to becoming an optometrist is earning a bachelor’s degree, typically taking 4 years of study. Many optometry program applicants complete their bachelor’s degree in a science-related field, such as biology or chemistry, to prepare for the optometry program prerequisites. However, any major is acceptable if you complete the prerequisite coursework. Learn more about choosing a bachelor’s degree major on the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry website.

Complete Prerequisite Courses

While working towards a bachelor’s degree, students should complete prerequisite courses for entry into optometry school. Common prerequisites include biology, microbiology, chemistry, physics, math, statistics, psychology, and English. The specific prerequisites vary by optometry program, so check each school’s requirements before applying. The OptomCAS application service provides an overview of common prerequisites.

Earn a Doctor of Optometry Degree

After completing a bachelor’s degree, the next step is to earn a Doctor of Optometry (OD) degree, which typically takes four additional years. Most OD programs consist of classroom learning and clinical experience. Coursework covers optics, anatomy, physiology, eye diseases, and vision care. Clinical rotations allow students to gain hands-on experience examining patients. OD programs also require an internship under an experienced optometrist’s supervision.

Obtain a State License

After graduating from an accredited optometry program, prospective optometrists must obtain a state license to practice. The requirements vary by state, including passing national and state board exams. After receiving their license, optometrists can apply for top optometrist jobs or open their optometry practice. Learn more about licensing from the State Boards of Optometry.

Postgraduate Training for Optometrists

Becoming an optometrist requires extensive education and clinical experience beyond a bachelor’s degree. The key steps are:

In summary, at minimum, becoming a practicing optometrist requires:

Further optional training through 1-year residencies and board certification processes allow qualified optometrists to gain recognized specialization. With dedication through years of postgraduate study and clinical hours, this rewarding career caring for patients’ vision needs is absolutely attainable.

Licensure and Certification

Becoming a licensed optometrist requires completing an accredited optometry degree program and passing national and state examinations. All states require optometrists to be licensed to practice.

Education and Exam Requirements

To obtain a license, you must first complete a 4-year Doctor of Optometry (OD) degree program accredited by the Accreditation Council on Optometric Education (ACOE). These programs include classroom learning and supervised clinical experience. Learn more about OD programs on the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry website. 

After graduating from an accredited optometry program, you must pass the national board exams administered by the National Board of Examiners in Optometry (NBEO). These exams test your knowledge on topics like optics, biomedical sciences, vision science, and more.

You also need to pass a state board exam in the state(s) where you plan to practice. State board exams test your ability to practice safely and competently. Review licensing requirements by state on the Association of Regulatory Boards of Optometry (ARBO) website.

Maintaining an Optometry License 

Once licensed, optometrists must complete continuing education to keep their credentials current. Most states require optometrists to complete between 25 and 50 hours of continuing education over a 1-2-year period for license renewal.

Specialty Certifications

Optometrists can also pursue voluntary specialty certifications in areas like vision therapy, low vision rehabilitation, and ocular disease management. These demonstrate advanced expertise in certain optometry subfields. Learn more on the American Optometric Association website.

Becoming a licensed optometrist requires graduating from an accredited OD program, passing national and state board exams, and maintaining continuing education. Voluntary specialty certifications are also available to demonstrate advanced expertise. Following state licensing requirements is essential for legally practicing as an optometrist.

Skills and Qualities of a Successful Optometrist

Becoming an optometrist requires dedication, compassion, and specialized skills. An optometrist must be able to provide excellent patient care while running an efficient practice. Though the road is long, rewarding careers await those willing to invest the time and effort.

Communication Skills

Effective communication is vital for optometrists. They must listen attentively to patients, understandably explain conditions and treatments, and describe often complex healthcare concepts to those with no medical background. Optometrists collaborate with ophthalmologists, technicians, and other healthcare professionals, so communicating clearly is essential.

Analytical Ability

Optometrists must analyze symptoms, test results, and examination findings to diagnose conditions and formulate treatment plans. They combine information from various sources to identify issues and make decisions. Strong analytical skills help optometrists provide accurate diagnoses and appropriate solutions.

Attention to Detail

Meticulous attention to detail is paramount in optometry. Doctors must detect subtle changes in patients’ eyes and vision. They rely on careful and precise work when examining the eyes, prescribing corrective lenses or treatments, and evaluating test results. Missing small details could lead to inappropriate solutions.

Technical Aptitude

Today‚ optometrists use specialized instruments and advanced technology, including ophthalmoscopes, slit lamps, and digital imaging systems. They must skillfully handle delicate equipment and aptly interpret results. An optometrist should feel comfortable learning and working with complex healthcare technology.


A sincere desire to help patients is what draws many to optometry. Excellent optometrists correct vision problems and counsel and support patients making difficult health decisions. They understand that vision loss can significantly impact their patient’s quality of life. Compassion is instrumental to providing exceptional eye care.

Business Savvy

Though optometry is first and foremost about providing eye care, running a profitable practice is essential. Successful optometrists have business acumen and understand concepts like billing processes, inventory management, marketing, and accounting principles. They make fiscally sound decisions that keep their practice operating smoothly.

Lifelong Learning

Optometry is a quickly evolving field with continuous technological advancements and treatment options. Exceptional optometrists never stop building their knowledge. They read optometry journals, attend conferences, take continuing education courses, and seek mentorships from experienced leaders. Committing to lifelong learning ensures they can provide the best possible care.

The road to becoming an optometrist demands dedication and perseverance, but helping patients achieve better vision and eye health makes the effort worthwhile. With a compassionate heart, strong interpersonal abilities, sharp analytical skills, and a commitment to expanding their knowledge, future optometry professionals can establish rewarding careers that brighten the world.

Optometrist Salary

Optometrists can expect strong compensation packages. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for optometrists in the United States as of 2020 was $125,440. However, salaries can vary considerably based on factors like location, experience, and practice setting.

In general, optometrists tend to earn higher salaries working in metropolitan areas compared to rural regions. Those working in certain states and cities may earn especially high wages. For example, optometrists in Alaska earn an annual mean wage of $173,530, according to 2021 BLS data. The top-paying metropolitan areas include Urban Honolulu, Hawaii ($188,220) and San Francisco, California ($178,660).

Years of ExperienceAverage Salary
Entry-level (0-5 years)$95,000 – $115,000
Mid-career (5-10 years)$110,000 – $135,000
Experienced (10-20 years)$125,000 – $160,000
Late career (20+ years)$140,000 – $180,000

Career Opportunities and Advancement

Optometry offers diverse career paths and ample room for advancement after completing an OD degree and obtaining state licensure.

Private Practice

Many optometrists open their private practices, allowing for more flexibility, independence, and earnings potential. Over time, private practice owners may expand in various ways. Per the Bureau of Labor Statistics, around 43% of practicing optometrists were self-employed in 2020.

Hospital and Specialty Settings

Optometrists working in hospitals, research institutes like Schepens Eye Research Institute, and specialty clinics can gain experience with complex eye diseases and treatments, access mentorships, and collaborate with ophthalmologists. These settings also provide opportunities to participate in advancing the optometric field through research.

The Military

Military optometry roles involve caring for service members and families, treating combat-related eye trauma, addressing vision issues from environmental exposures, and holding leadership and administrative positions.

Public Health

The Indian Health Service and health agencies hire optometrists to increase eye care access for vulnerable, underserved groups.

Academic Education

Optometrists can lecture at optometry colleges like the UC Berkeley School of Optometry, develop continuing education programs, author scholarly articles, supervise student training, and potentially pursue college professorships.

The Optical and Pharma Industry

These companies utilize optometrists’ clinical insights for product design feedback, research and clinical trials, and marketing and sales leadership.


In conclusion, becoming an optometrist requires dedication and many years of specialized education and training. The journey begins with obtaining a bachelor’s degree with prerequisite courses, a 4-year Doctor of Optometry program, and passing national and state board exams. After graduation, aspiring optometrists often complete a 1-year residency program to gain further clinical experience. Ultimately, with hard work and perseverance, this rewarding career path allows you to make a difference in patients’ lives by providing vision care and correcting refractive errors. If you decide to pursue this field, many resources, such as guidance from the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry (ASCO), are available.

Additional Resources

American Optometric AssociationAOA• Professional association representing optometrists in the U.S.
• Information on optometry careers, education, licensing, and more
Association of Schools and Colleges of OptometryASCO• Represents optometry degree programs and colleges
• Details on admissions requirements for optometry programs
• List of accredited optometry degree programs
Optometry Admission TestOAT• Standardized exam required for entry to optometry school
• Registration, test dates, fees, and prep materials
American Board of OptometryABO-NCLE• Administers competency exams to licensed optometrists
• Maintains certification standards in optometry specialties
State Optometry BoardsVaries by state• Regulates the licensing and practice of optometrists in each state
• List of license requirements and application process for each state


How much does an optometrist make?
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for an optometrist in the United States is around $125,000 per year. However, salaries can vary quite a bit based on factors like geographic location, years of experience, and type of practice. New optometrists tend to start around $60,000-$80,000 in their first year.

What degree do you need to be an optometrist?
You need a Doctor of Optometry (OD) degree to practice as an optometrist. This is a 4-year postgraduate program that includes classroom learning and clinical rotations. Before entering an OD program, students must complete at least three years of undergraduate pre-requisite biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, and more courses.

How long does it take to become an optometrist?
The typical timeline is:
– 3-4 years for a bachelor’s degree
– 4 years for an OD degree
– Optional 1-year residency program
So, the total time can range from 7-9+ years, including education and training. However, some students enter accelerated joint OD/bachelor programs, which can shave 1-2 years off the timeline.

What undergraduate major is best for optometry school?
No single best major exists, but common choices are biology, health sciences, biochemistry, or chemistry. As long as you complete the necessary prereq courses for optometry school, your undergrad major does not necessarily matter. Focus on getting excellent grades in your science courses.

Does an optometrist need to do a residency program? 
No, a residency is optional after receiving your OD degree. However, completing a residency allows for additional specialized training and can lead to better career opportunities. Many optometrists choose to do a 1-year residency program focused on a specialty like ocular disease, low vision rehabilitation or primary care.