Optometry pays well. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), optometrists earned a median annual income of $124,300 in 2021 (which works out to an hourly wage of over $60).
Averages, of course, are just that—aggregates of data across a wide range. In fact, the BLS reports a significant pay range for optometrists—from $61,590 to $192,390 in 2021. Entry-level practitioners typically earn less than experienced professionals, naturally. Factors like state, locale, and employer also impact earnings.
How does a budding optometrist increase their odds of raking in the big numbers? This article explores that by providing a detailed answer to the question how much do optometrists make? It covers:
Optometrists practice primary eye care; they conduct eye exams, prescribe glasses and contacts, and diagnose and treat eye diseases. The American Optometric Association (AOA) reports that optometrists are responsible for 85 percent of primary eye care nationally.
Optometrists differ from ophthalmologists and opticians. Ophthalmologists have medical doctorates (MDs). This means they can perform surgeries (including LASIK) and treat advanced conditions. They can also perform any procedures optometrists can perform. Optometrists hold a Doctor of Optometry (OD) degree but are not medical doctors (MDs). Opticians fill lens and contact prescriptions but they cannot write them. They do not need a graduate degree (nor an undergraduate degree, for that matter).
Ophthalmologists earn the most of these three professionals, with a mean annual income of $270,090, according to the BLS. The average optometrist’s salary is typically over six figures as well, though how much they earn depends on several factors.
According to 2021 BLS figures, optometry offices employ the greatest proportion of optometrists (59 percent), followed by offices of other physicians (17 percent), and health and personal care stores (11 percent). Only 5 percent are self-employed. Offices of physicians pay the highest median annual wage ($128,390), followed by health and personal care stores ($126,780), and optometry offices ($106,260).
Though the BLS does not offer salary data for self-employed professionals, optometrists who run a private practice can also earn an excellent living. However, this career path presents additional challenges. Eyes on Eyecare advises optometrists to consider avoiding a private practice early in their careers if they have substantial student debt. Typically, an optometrist accrues several years of experience before opening up a shop for themselves. Many also opt to buy a share of an established group rather than work alone. Buying into a successful group may be costly but can lead to higher profits.
Additional challenges of running a private practice include obtaining insurance, managing advertising and marketing, and paying rent or a mortgage for an office. These challenges require additional funds, time, energy, and planning.
The states with the highest annual mean income for optometrists according to 2021 BLS data include Connecticut ($155,070), Maryland ($144,570), Alaska ($143,260), North Carolina ($141,140), and Louisiana ($138,520). States employing the greatest number of optometrists in 2021 include California (6,730), Texas (2,980), Florida (2,310), Pennsylvania (2,090), and Illinois (1,770).
The following states had the lowest annual mean income according to the BLS: Idaho ($85,200), South Carolina ($101,050), West Virginia ($105,210), Utah ($105,510), and Delaware ($106,090). The BLS did not include information for Rhode Island or the District of Columbia. Note that, in many cases, low annual mean income correlates to low cost of living (according to the Bureau for Economic Analysis, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Idaho among the cheapest dozen states in which to live).
The top-paying metro areas by mean annual income according to the BLS include Wilmington, NC ($198,370), Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, CT ($172,190), Norwich-New London-Westerly, CT-RI ($169,140), Dothan, AL ($166,950), and Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, CT ($163,590).
Those who work in rural areas often earn lower annual salaries than those in urban areas, regardless of job title. Cost of living, however, is typically lower in rural areas. That said, optometrists can earn high salaries in certain nonmetropolitan areas, according to the BLS. The top paying areas in this category are Piedmont, North Carolina ($187,820), Hawaii / Kauai ($148,210), Southwest New York ($145,490), Southeast Minnesota ($139,110), and Northeastern Wisconsin ($137,680).
The lowest-paying metropolitan areas by annual mean income according to the BLS are Bloomington, IL ($79,440), Boise City, ID ($81,110), Charleston-North Charleston, SC ($91,070), Myrtle Beach-Conway-North Myrtle Beach, SC-NC ($91,850), and Youngstown-Warren-Boardman, OH-PA ($92,560).
The lowest-paying nonmetropolitan areas by annual mean wage according to the BLS are Central Missouri ($87,780), Southeast Missouri ($90,710), Northwest Lower Peninsula of Michigan ($93,420.00), Northwest Oklahoma ($97,090.00), and Southeast Oklahoma ($99,800.00).
A Doctor in Optometry (OD) is the only degree pathway that leads to licensure in optometry. Programs typically take four years to complete, according to the AOA. Only 23 optometry programs are accredited in the US.
According to the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry (ASCO), the average OD applicant is 22 years old and has a 3.36 undergraduate GPA. Exact prerequisites differ by school; program applicants may need to complete undergraduate coursework such as calculus, anatomy, physiology, organic chemistry, biochemistry, microbiology, statistics, psychology. They typically earn a bachelor’s degree in a STEM subject.
They also take the Optometry Admission Test (OAT), which evaluates the applicants’ knowledge of natural sciences (including organic chemistry, biology, and general chemistry), reading comprehension, physics, and quantitative reasoning. Students typically take the OAT as undergraduates—after at least two years in school, according to the ASCO. The test is available year-round.
Over four years, OD programs provide the necessary education to become a licensed optometrist. Programs take students from fundamentals through advanced coursework and clinical training. Relevant topics include clinical decision-making, patient care, vision science, optics, general medicine, ocular disease, and pharmacology. Students also learn general medical practices such as patient care and communication.
Schools may offer the opportunity to specialize. At the New England College of Optometry (NECO), students can pick from three concentrations—pediatric optometry, cornea and contact lens, and low vision rehabilitation. Each concentration requires unique coursework and clinical training. To concentrate at NECO, you must have at least a 3.0 GPA.
NECO students complete clinical rotations throughout their education. First-year students work in local schools conducting vision screenings while shadowing licensed optometrists. Second-year students work between four and six hours of rotations per week. Third-year students must complete three primary-care rotations. Fourth-year students work in a full-time setting; the school splits these externships into four three-month periods at different facilities.
Finally, students can decide to complete a residency program after school; they work at a facility (typically for a year after completing their program) and focus on a specific area of optometry. NECO offers residencies in cornea and contact lens, ocular disease, pediatric optometry, primary care optometry, and vision rehabilitation. Options offered at other institutions include geriatric optometry and occupational vision. According to the ASCO, there is an increasing demand for optometrists who have completed a residency.
After completing their education, optometrists must earn a license. They do this by passing National Board of Examiners in Optometry (NBEO) examinations. Part one of the test tackles applied basic science, part two covers patient assessment and management, and part three addresses clinical skills. Scores range from 100 to 900; 300 is the minimum passing score. Most states also require the Treatment and Management of Ocular Disease (TMOD) exam.
States may impose additional licensure requirements, even after the candidate passes all their exams According to US News & World Report, these may include additional clinical requirements and legal or ethical tests. The licensure process varies by state, as do continuing education requirements.
NECO is launching the first optometry hybrid degree in the fall of 2023. More schools will likely follow suit. Other institutions offer continuing education opportunities through online platforms, helping optometrists renew their license from a distance.
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