A common confusion is the difference between an ophthalmologist, an optician and an optometrist. All three professions are very important within the world of eye health, but they’re quite different from one another.
An ophthalmologist is an eye doctor who has completed medical school and other additional training such as a residency and fellowship. Ophthalmologists are able to prescribe medications and perform eye surgery. It’s recommended that you visit an ophthalmologist once a year for an eye health checkup even if you don’t wear glasses or need any form of corrective lenses.
An optician is someone who fits and dispenses eyeglasses or contact lenses. Some opticians are formally trained through certificate programs, but most learn the necessary skills on the job during an apprenticeship period. Twenty three states require opticians to obtain a license by passing a state administered exam. To get a job as an optician, you’ll need to have a high school diploma. Basically, opticians are salespeople. When you walk into an eyeglasses store and try on different pairs of glasses, the salesperson assisting you and adjusting the glasses so they fit properly is an optician.
An optometrist is an eye care professional who is licensed to perform vision tests, diagnose certain eye abnormalities and most importantly prescribe corrective lenses. Optometrists are not medical doctors; they can’t perform surgery or prescribe medications. They are doctors of optometry. Confusing, right? Basically, an optometrist goes to optometry school after college, not medical school. Once again, an optometrist can’t perform surgery or prescribe anything other than corrective lenses.
Why Become an Optometrist?
Optometry can be a good profession for those interested in health and wellness, particularly eye health, but don’t want to go to medical school. Medical school is expensive, super competitive and very demanding. Also, in order to be any type of medical doctor, you need to undergo at least four years of additional training after medical school. So the road to becoming a medical doctor is paved with at least eight years of crazy hours and intermittent all nighters treating stab wounds. If you want to be a surgeon, often you need to undergo another four years of training.
Optometrists are pseudo eye doctors who don’t undergo as rigorous a training period. Optometry school, like medical school, is four years long. Many universities, especially ones that are state run, have optometry schools, and admissions are very competitive. You need to have completed a four year college degree in order to even apply for optometry school. You also have to take a special standardized test called the optometry admissions test, and include your test scores in your application. Optometry degrees can be expensive, ranging anywhere from $50,000 to $150,000. You’ll probably get the best degree for the least money if you attend your state run program so that you qualify for in state tuition. UC Berkley’s in state tuition, for example, is $32,279 per year whereas the out of state tuition is $44,525. UC Berkley’s optometry school is perhaps the most prestigious in the country.
Optometry school largely consists of science courses with a focus on health sciences such as biology and eye health. A large part of the curriculum involves clinical work and field training which provides you with valuable experience. Once you complete optometry school, you’ll need to pass your state’s licensing exam which normally consists of a written section and an observed clinical examination that you need to perform.
The median salary for optometrists in the United States is around $100,000. BOOM! That’s why optometry school is so competitive, and optometry jobs are sought after. Over half of the people in the United States wear corrective lenses, so optometrists are in high demand. They’re well respected throughout their communities as professionals on par with doctors. Most people don’t realize that they aren’t medical doctors! Optometrists make a good living while helping people, but they rarely field emergency calls or deal with dire health situations, which allows them to set their own hours.
As mentioned above, optometrists are in great demand. Often, people who wear glasses will visit an optometrist yearly as opposed to an eye doctor because optometrists are cheaper. Note: it’s recommended that you visit an eye doctor once a year because an optometrist is not an eye doctor!
The vast majority of optometrists eventually start their own practice which means that they set up an office in which they check a person’s vision, diagnose that person’s eyeglasses prescription and then sell eyeglasses and/or contact lenses in house. This transaction flow is very convenient for the customer who only needs to make one trip to the optometrist in order to find the right pair of eyeglasses or contact lenses. Optometrists can make a lot of money through this workflow, especially if they cut deals with eyeglasses and contact lens companies to purchase products wholesale. The only drawback to owning your own practice is that you need to pay for things like overhead and insurance. If you employ people under you, they may expect you to provide benefits such as health insurance.
Optometrists can either start their own practice, join an existing practice or work for an eyeglass retailer as the “in house specialist.” When you’re first starting out, working for a retailer may help you find a steady stream of clients. Overall though, working for a retailer will limit the amount of money you make since the retailer will take a cut of every eye exam you give. Also, the retailer will profit from the sale of the eyeglasses themselves. Maybe you’ll get a commission for every sale of eyeglasses that you facilitate, but if you own your own practice, you’ll make 100% of the profit from every sale. That said, a retailer will probably cover certain benefits such as health insurance. You’ll also be guaranteed a base salary, probably around $40,000 per year.
In order to maximize your earning potential, however, you’ll probably want to join a small practice at first and then start your own practice once you’re experienced. In order to be successful at running your own practice, you need a steady stream of clients and an established reputation. If you join a smaller practice that’s already established, you can use that established brand to find clients and gain experience.
Optometry’s a good gig if you like helping people but don’t want to be a doctor. Optometry school is heavy on the science and can be expensive, but if you put the work in, you’ll be making pretty good money so the upfront cost of optometry school should be justified in the long run.
A big plus of optometry is that you help people but you never have to deal with serious illnesses or health emergencies. If when performing an eye exam, you notice something majorly wrong, you ship that person off to an ophthalmologist or the hospital. This aspect of the job makes it lower in stress relative to other jobs in the medical profession and allows for greater flexibility in work hours.