Optometrist salary & career outlook

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but for the millions of Americans treated for vision problems each year, that just is not the case. Thankfully they can often turn to optometrists who are trained to diagnose and treat vision problems, eye diseases and related disorders. Here is a primer on how to become an optometrist, and what to expect once in the field.

What optometrists do

Optometrists care for patients' eyes by identifying and correcting vision problems with eye glasses or contact lenses, and by diagnosing and treating eye diseases, injuries or disorders. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov, 2012), optometrists typically perform the following duties:

  • Testing patients' vision to look for problems
  • Checking eyes for diseases
  • Prescribing vision aids, including eyeglasses and contact lenses
  • Prescribing medications for the eye
  • Providing care to patients who have had eye surgery
  • Providing eye treatments, like vision therapy
  • Counseling patients on how to care for their eyes, glasses and contact lenses

Because they are health professionals and work directly with patients, optometrists should have excellent decision-making, interpersonal and communication skills. The field's more practical and technical requirements are often mastered in optometrist schools.

How to become an optometrist

As with most health care specialties, optometry is a strictly regulated field -- and so are its practitioners. According to the BLS, optometrists must complete Doctor of Optometry (O.D.) programs, through accredited optometrist schools. These programs typically require about eight years of training: four at the undergraduate level, and another four at the postgraduate level. Optometry programs usually combine classroom and clinical training, and include courses in areas like anatomy, physiology, optics and visual science.

The BLS reports that all optometrist must be licensed to practice, which requires that they earn O.D.s from accredited optometrist schools, successfully complete all sections of the National Boards in Optometry and -- in some states -- pass an additional exam. Most states require optometrist to take continuing education courses throughout their careers as a condition of licensure renewal.

Key optometry salary trends, projections

Salary estimates can be tricky to calculate since they often depend on so many different factors, such as experience or location. According to the BLS (bls.gov, 2012), the median optometrist salary in 2012 was $97,820 nationally, with the middle 80 percent earning between $52,590 and $128,480. Not all optometrists work in private practice, so salaries also tend to vary by employer. According to the BLS, the following industries reported the highest mean optometrist salaries in 2013:

  • Physicians' offices: $127,380
  • Outpatient care centers: $113,470
  • Other health practitioners' offices: $107,860

Where you choose to work may also affect your earnings since salaries often -- but do not always -- correlate with cost of living. With that in mind, the BLS reports that the following states offered the highest mean optometry salaries in 2012:

  • Alaska: $160,080
  • Connecticut: $154,710
  • North Carolina: $142,800

Career outlook for optometrists

Because vision problems often occur later in life, aging baby boomers could generate more demand for optometrists. In fact, the BLS projects that employment of these professionals will grow by 33 percent between 2010 and 2020, which is much faster than the national average for all occupations. Because optometry training is so highly regulated, the BLS suggests prospects should be good for anyone who graduates from optometrist school with an O.D. and secures licensure. Other factors could affect your personal employment outlook, however, including geography.

The U.S. Department of Labor's CareerOneStop (careerinfonet.org, 2012) projects that employment of optometrists will grow the fastest in the following states and territories between 2010 and 2020:

  • Guam: 50 percent
  • Indiana: 38.5 percent
  • Utah: 37.2 percent

As with earnings, education -- and continuing education -- can also impact your career potential, making optometrist school an important investment. Not all programs are right for everyone, however, and according to the BLS, admission to these programs can be competitive. Research a number of programs to find those that suit your needs best.