Medicine

How Many Years Does It Take to Become an Optometrist?

How Many Years Does It Take to Become an Optometrist?
Optometrists examine and diagnose ocular diseases and can detect more severe health issues such as diabetes, cancer, and other conditions through a comprehensive eye exam. Image from Pexels
Courtney Eiland profile
Courtney Eiland September 20, 2022

Earning a Doctor of Optometry typically takes four years, although accelerated programs are available. You may want to add a one-year residency to develop an area of specialization.

Article continues here

What do medical doctors (MD), licensed nurse practitioners (LPN), and doctors of optometry (OD) have in common? Years of education, clinical training, licensure, and board certifications to earn those esteemed credentials—and potential six-figure salaries.

According to new research conducted by Indeed, healthcare jobs are on the rise. The website’s list of ten best jobs for 2022 includes registered nurse (RN), optometrist, pharmacist (PharmD), and nurse practitioner (NP).

Becoming a licensed or certified healthcare professional requires a significant commitment that continues beyond classroom instruction. Completing the journey can take 9 to 15 years, including:

  • A four-year undergraduate degree program
  • Four years of graduate-level, advanced education or medical school with clinical training
  • A one-to-seven-year residency program (the length varies depending on specialty)
  • An optional fellowship for additional focused training
  • Lifelong learning to maintain skills and professional credentials

Optometry—the profession Indeed ranks second among its best jobs—serves an essential function in the healthcare industry. That’s because eye health ties into overall health. Optometrists examine and diagnose ocular diseases and can detect more severe health issues such as diabetes, cancer, and other conditions through a comprehensive eye exam.

Much like other healthcare professionals, doctors of optometry must complete advanced education, clinical training, and a residency program, all of which can tack on an additional four to five years following undergraduate study. Fortunately, optometry schools embed their clinical training requirement within the four-year program, with an optional one-year residency program for continued training in a specific focus area within the eye care industry.

So, how many years does it take to become an optometrist? This article delves into that question and discusses the following:

  • What does an optometrist do?
  • What’s the difference between an optometrist and an optician?
  • What’s the difference between an optometrist and an ophthalmologist?
  • What academic degrees and licensure do optometrists need?
  • Can you learn optometry online?

What does an optometrist do?

The role of a practicing optometrist extends much further than your annual eye exam. Their range of practice can cover routine appointments like vision screenings or more complex responsibilities like examining, diagnosing, and treating ocular diseases like glaucoma, cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, and other vision problems. Additional duties include:

  • Detecting common eye diseases and severe abnormalities through comprehensive eye exams
  • Prescribing corrective lenses (eyeglasses and contact lenses)
  • Providing vision therapy and low-vision rehabilitation
  • Treating eye diseases, excluding eye surgery procedures
  • Referring patients to an ophthalmologist for specialized treatment or eye surgery, when necessary

Optometrists—often confused with opticians or ophthalmologists—are the leading primary vision care providers who assess overall eye health.

Optometrist/optician: what’s the difference?

When you walk into your eye doctor’s office—whether a retail chain or private practice—the first person you interact with upon check-in for your appointment is likely an optician. Opticians are customer-service-oriented eye care industry professionals. Some of their services include:

  • Adjusting and repairing eyewear/glasses frames
  • Filling prescriptions as directed by optometrists or ophthalmologists
  • Keeping accurate patient information and order history
  • Managing eyewear inventory
  • Taking measurements to fit patients for corrective lenses

Unlike optometrists, opticians are not doctors; their role does not require extensive education through optometry school or residency training. Instead, most opticians carry a high school diploma or an associate’s degree and have one to two years of on-the-job training.

Optometrist/ophthalmologist: what’s the difference?

Optometrists and ophthalmologists share some duties and responsibilities. The primary distinction between these roles is that ophthalmologists can conduct eye surgery and other specialized treatments. Dr. Robert C. Layman, president of the American Optometric Association, explains the difference this way: “Think of the optometrist as the internist of the eye, diagnosing and treating early disease and the ophthalmologist as the surgeon treating more advanced diseases of the eye.”

Education requirements for the two professions also differ. In addition to an undergraduate degree, optometrists must also obtain a Doctor of Optometry (O.D.) degree. Ophthalmologists must have an undergraduate degree, four years of medical school, and four to five years of residency training. At least 36 calendar months of the residency program must focus on ophthalmology training.

How many years does it take to become an optometrist?

Aspiring optometrists can expect to dedicate approximately eight years of classroom instruction combined with clinical training, followed by an additional one-year residency program to focus on a specialization.

  • Step 1: The quest for a career in optometry begins with the courses you take during your first year of college. Although no specific undergraduate degree is required, many optometrists obtain their bachelor’s degree in pre-medical or science-related fields such as biology, chemistry, or physics. This path is helpful as optometry schools require undergraduate coursework in anatomy, biochemistry, microbiology, organic chemistry, statistics, and other sciences.
  • Step 2: Upon completing your undergraduate degree, you’ll need to prepare for the Optometry Admission Test (OAT) for admission into optometry school. The OAT assesses your competencies in four categories: natural sciences, reading comprehension, physics, and quantitative reasoning. Some programs accept the Graduate Record Exam (GRE).
  • Step 3: After passing your Optometry Admission Test, you can apply to one of the 23 accredited colleges and schools of optometry in the United States. Students can save time by utilizing the Optometry Centralized Application Service (OptomCAS), a one-stop-shop to submit one application to multiple optometry schools. Some programs recommend shadowing an optometrist to view the day-to-day functions firsthand during this time before committing to an optometry program.
  • Step 4: Once accepted to an accredited optometry school, you’ll begin taking a combination of fundamental and advanced coursework and embedding clinical training throughout the four-degree doctoral program. After successfully passing your optometry courses and completing your clinical training, you’ll receive your Doctor of Optometry (OD) degree.
  • Step 5: Graduates can opt to take an additional year of residency training to gain hands-on knowledge and skills in a focused practice area within the industry. Specialized concentrations include pediatric optometry, geriatric optometry, low vision rehabilitation, ocular disease, cornea contact lenses, vision therapy, or occupational vision, among others.
  • Step 6: Prepare for and pass the National Board of Examiners in Optometry (NBEO) exam to become licensed in optometry. Additional licensure vary by state.

Academic degrees

Optometrists must have a bachelor’s degree, preferably pre-medical or science-related. Alternatively, you can take undergraduate coursework that satisfies the prerequisites of most optometry programs.

You’ll also need to obtain a Doctor of Optometry degree from an accredited program. The New England College of Optometry (NECO) offers this typical roadmap to your doctorate.

  • The first year: Learn the fundamentals, taking courses related to anatomy, physiology, vision science, optics, public health policy, clinical decision-making, and patient care.
  • The second year: Deepen your knowledge and understanding of advanced optics concepts, ocular disease, general medicine, pharmacology, and patient communication.
  • The third year: Take more advanced coursework and put your learning into practice through a supervised clinical experience. You can also begin taking electives or choose a concentration for a more targeted focus.
  • The fourth year: Build your skills through four full-time clinical rotations in primary care, advanced care, specialty care, and an elective area of choice. You’ll also prepare for the NBEO exam upon graduating.

While most optometry programs take four years, few optometry schools, including the New England College of Optometry and the Salus University Pennsylvania College of Optometry, offer accelerated OD programs that take three years to complete.

Licensure

All states require optometrists to obtain a license to practice. State boards have varied licensure requirements in addition to the three-part National Board of Examiners in Optometry exam. This comprehensive exam covers many skills and competencies learned during optometry school, including applied basic science, patient assessment and management, and clinical skills. Once you receive your license and the applicable certifications, you’ll need to maintain continuing education courses and credits to renew your license every two years.

Can you learn optometry online?

Currently, the 23 accredited colleges and schools of optometry only offer on-campus learning without an online or hybrid option. However, membership-based associations, such as the American Optometric Association (AOA), the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry (ASCO), and the American Academy of Optometry (AAO), offer educational opportunities online. Though these offerings cater more to practicing optometrists seeking continuing education credits needed to renew their licenses, aspiring optometrists can get a glimpse into optometry as a career.

The landscape is changing, however. The New England College of Optometry is taking steps toward becoming the first optometry school and doctoral-level institution to provide an O.D. through a hybrid program. The school hopes to launch its first online class in the fall of 2023.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects an annual average of about 1,700 openings for optometrists over the decade. If you’re considering a career in optometry, now is the time to decide whether you’re willing to commit to the years of education, clinical training, and lifelong learning to land a role in the growing healthcare industry. It’ll take time to earn your credentials but there should be opportunities available when you do.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

Questions or feedback? Email editor@noodle.com

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

To learn more about our editorial standards, you can click here.


Share