The profession of optometry involves much more than just prescribing and fitting eyeglasses and contact lenses. ODs are trained to evaluate any patient’s visual condition and to determine the best treatment for that condition. Optometrists are not medical doctors. The American Optometric Association’s definition of optometrists reads: “Doctors of optometry are independent primary health care providers who are trained and state licensed to examine, diagnose, treat and manage diseases and disorders of the visual system, the eye and associated structures as well as diagnose related systemic conditions.” The Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry has assembled a Career Guide that might be helpful to students who are interested in pursuing optometry or specializations within optometry as a profession.
Most optometrists are self-employed, receive relatively few emergency calls and can establish a flexible working schedule. Data from the American Optometric Association shows an average net income of $143,520 for optometrists (source: ASCO "Optometry a Career Guide," updated August 2020). The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook projects a 9% growth in optometrist jobs in the next 10 years.
The Accreditation Council on Optometric Education identifies 25 accredited schools and colleges of optometry in the US, Puerto Rico, and Canada. An optometrist completes a pre-professional undergraduate education at a college or university and then completes four years of professional education at a college of optometry. Students should examine the prerequisite courses for each school to which they will apply. All optometry schools require the Optometry Admissions Test (OAT). This standardized test is taken before the application cycle begins, and covers the Survey of the Natural Sciences, Reading Comprehension, Physics and Quantitative Reasoning.
While one four-year doctoral degree allows a student to begin a primary care practice, it is possible to enter residency programs and specialties. Completing a residency in optometry is a unique and invaluable experience. The rich rewards gained from the year of advanced clinical training under an experienced mentor serve to enhance career opportunities and add to the level of confidence the resident has when beginning his/her post-residency career. There are numerous types of optometric residencies from which to choose. These areas of emphasis include Family Practice Optometry, Primary Eye Care, Cornea and Contact Lenses, Geriatric Optometry, Pediatric Optometry, Vision Therapy and Rehabilitation, Low Vision Rehabilitation, Ocular Disease, Refractive and Ocular Surgery, Community Health Optometry, and Brain Injury Rehabilitation.
Optometrists and ophthalmologists are both eye doctors, and each play an important role in providing eye care to patients. However, these specialists follow different educational paths and have different scopes of practice. The range of services and procedures that can be performed by each provider also range by state, therefore, it is important to be aware of the rules and regulations of your state licensing board.
Optometrists: Optometrists perform comprehensive examinations of the internal and external structures of the eye, perform subjective and objective tests of visual function, and diagnose and treat medical and visual disorders of the eye. Optometrists are often referred to as a "primary eye-care provider." Although optometrists are not M.D.s, most current optometrists can prescribe certain medications, as well as diagnose and treat a broad range of medical conditions that impact the eye, including glaucoma, macular degeneration, cataracts, retinal disease and ocular disorders associated with diabetes and high blood pressure. In fact, it’s not unusual for a skilled optometrist to be the first health care professional to spot developing systemic conditions like diabetes during routine eye exams. Since optometrists are not physicians, they may refer a patient to surgeons for treatments beyond the scope of their legal practice whenever needed.
Ophthalmologists: The American Academy of Ophthalmology definition of ophthalmologists reads: “Ophthalmologists are medical and osteopathic physicians who provide comprehensive eye care, including medical, surgical and optical care.” An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor who completes college, has at least eight years of additional medical training, and is able to perform surgical eye care for trauma, crossed eyes, cataracts, glaucoma, and other problems. An ophthalmologist may also perform plastic surgery related to wrinkles and sagging eyelids. In order to become an ophthalmologist, acquisition of an M.D. or a D.O. (doctor of osteopathy) degree is necessary following the completion of college. After 4 years of medical school and a year of internship in general medicine, every ophthalmologist spends a minimum of 3 years in a university and hospital-based residency specializing in ophthalmology.
Listed below are some general similarities and differences between the two fields.
Optometrist – Doctor of Optometry
- General vision services like eye exams, and treatment of conditions like strabismus and amblyopia
- Diagnosis and basic treatment of eye conditions like glaucoma, cataracts, macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy and conjunctivitis (pink eye.)
- Prescribing medications for certain eye conditions (for example, antibiotics for eye infections)
- Eye disease and injury-prevention
- Prescribing and fitting eyeglasses and contact lenses
- Vision therapy services, such as eye exercises and low-vision aids
- Pre- and postoperative care for people who have had eye surgery or Lasik surgery.
Ophthalmologist – Doctor of Medicine (M.D. or D.O.)
- Provides vision services including eye exams
- Medical eye care for conditions such as glaucoma, iritis, and chemical burns
- Performs surgical eye care for trauma, crossed eyes, cataracts, glaucoma, and other problems
- Diagnosis and treatment of eye conditions related to other diseases such as diabetes
- May also perform plastic surgery related to wrinkles or sagging eyelids.
The optometry profession is growing, as is the expansion of scope of practice that requires greater expertise. With the growth of optometrists, there is a greater need for ODs to teach future generations of optometrists, as well as conduct ground-breaking research. After receiving your OD, you may choose to teach or conduct research rather than work in a practice. More information about career opportunities for doctors of optometry in academia may be found here.
Have you decided to pursue a career in optometry? These resources will answer many of the questions you may have about pursuing a career in optometry and the process of applying to optometry school:
- Join the Pre-Optometry Club
- Pre-Optometry Club Facebook
- Join the Pre-Health Listserv
- ASCO (Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry)
- American Optometric Association
- Texas Optometric Association
Important Links for Pre-Optometry Students
The links below provide basic information for students interested in attending optometry school. Please see the side-bar for additional links that contain more in-depth information about applicant credentials, required coursework, the OAT, and the process for applying to optometry school.
Resources for Pre-Optometry Students
- Pre-Optometry Quick Facts
- Optometry School Selection Worksheet
- OptomCAS Experience Section Excel Worksheet
- Pre-Health Matrix