Optometry

How to Get an Optometry License

How to Get an Optometry License
Optometrists offer primary eye care, prescribe glasses and contact lenses, and treat issues like glaucoma and low vision. Image from Unsplash
Lucien Formichella profile
Lucien Formichella October 13, 2022

Optometrists must obtain a Doctor of Optometry (OD) and adhere to national and state-specific licensure requirements. Licensed optometrists typically enjoy high salaries, a fulfilling work-life balance, and encouraging employment prospects.

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According to US News & World Report, optometrist ranks 13th among best healthcare jobs; it’s also the 22nd-best-paying job of all professions in the U.S., and scores an 8/10 in work-life balance. This last piece of data is crucial: optometry is US News’ highest-paying profession to score so high in the work-life balance category. Physicians, in contrast, score a 4/10.

With a positive growth outlook, lucrative median salary, and above-average flexibility, the practice of optometry could be a real eye-opener; potentially worth examining for many a future health professional. Optometry puns are just icing on the cake. If these sorts of jokes catch your eye, check out our collection of optometry jokes.

Optometrists offer primary eye care, prescribe glasses and contact lenses, and treat issues like glaucoma and low vision. They are highly educated—they must earn a Doctor of Optometry (OD) degree to practice—but spend less time in school than medical doctors.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), optometrists earn nearly $125,000 annually. Demand for this profession is projected to grow by 10 percent from 2021 to 2031—5 percent faster than the national average.

To become an optometrist, you’ll need a doctoral degree and a license. So, how do you get an optometry license? This article explores that question and also discusses:

  • Becoming an optometrist
  • Earning a Doctor of Optometry (OD) online
  • State licensure for optometrists
  • Board certification (valuable, but not required)
  • How to earn a Doctor of Optometry (OD)

Becoming an optometrist

Becoming an optometrist requires an undergraduate degree (usually in a STEM discipline) and an accredited doctorate. It’s possible to earn your bachelor’s and doctorate in a single program but most optometrists earn the degrees separately. Optometry demands rigorous education and professional licensing requirements, but these are not as rigorous as for ophthalmologists, who must complete medical school.

OD graduates can pursue a residency to develop a practice specialization such as ocular disease, low vision, geriatrics, and neuro-optometry. Roughly 25 percent pursue this option; the majority dive directly into the credentialing process.

Earning a Doctor of Optometry (OD) online

Starting in 2023, New England College of Optometry (NECO) will offer a hybrid (combination online-live format) Doctor of Optometry (OD) program. NECO will be the first school of its kind to offer an online optometry education. Others may join the fold eventually; there are currently 23 accredited optometry programs in the U.S.

According to Inside Higher Ed, NECO plans to solve the distance clinical rotation puzzle by partnering with clinical facilities in different areas. In this way, it hopes to reach previously isolated students. Earning an optometry degree solely online might never be possible, but this expansion of partnerships with local clinical facilities could expand access significantly.

State licensure for optometrists

State optometry boards confer licenses. These governing bodies also effectuate disciplinary actions and offer license lookup services for patients. All states demand the same basic education requirement: complete an accredited Doctor of Optometry (OD) degree, which typically requires four years of full-time study to complete.

Additionally, most states require optometrists take a series of National Board of Examiners in Optometry (NBEO) examinations—NBEO parts I (foundational science topics), II (diagnosis and treatment), and III (simulated clinical test), plus Treatment and Management of Ocular Disease (TMOD). A handful of states also ask for Injections Skill Examination (ISE) scores. OD students can take part I as early as their third year.

The American Board of Certification in Medical Optometry (ABCMO), identifies the following among fields in which specialization certifications are available:

  • Ocular disease
  • Retinal disease
  • Glaucoma

Many states implement additional requirements. Licensing information for several states is detailed below.

California

All California optometrists must pass the California Laws and Regulations Exam (CLRE). Candidates who fail the exam can retake it in six months. Those who fail a second time must apply for special approval from the state board to retake it. Applicants also submit their official school transcripts and a photo of themselves, and agree to a background check. California optometrists must complete 40 hours of continuing education every two years as part of the license renewal process; those with certifications often complete more hours.

Kansas

Like California, Kansas requires optometrists to pass a statewide law exam. Applicants must also submit three character references, which board members review along with the rest of the license application. Licensed optometrists complete 24 hours of continuing education annually and renew their licenses biennially. Out-of-state licensees looking to transfer their license must have practiced for at least three years and have earned 48 or more hours of continuing education in the previous two years.

Louisiana

Louisiana optometrists complete the three-part, multi-day Louisiana State Board of Optometry Examiners (LSBOE) Licensing Exam. It covers law, advanced procedures (including lasers and injections), and clinical practice with live patients. Optometrists in the Pelican State must also earn certification to perform ophthalmic surgery procedures. Licenses are renewed annually.

New York

New York State optometrists must complete child abuse recognition and infection prevention coursework, including HIV and hepatitis B competency. They can take the Northeast Regional Clinical Optometric Assessment Testing Service (NERCOATS) exam instead of part III of the NBEO as an alternative licensure pathway. New York requires the TMOD only for those applying for TPA certification.

Oklahoma

Oklahoma requires optometrists to complete only parts I and II of the NBEO exam plus the TMOD. Oklahoma also requires a Northeastern State University course called “Laser Therapy for the Anterior Segment.” Optometrists complete 25 hours of continuing education per year. Training may be completed via online sources approved by the Oklahoma state board of optometry.

Board certification (valuable, but not required)

While board certification is not mandatory, it can be beneficial. Optometrist Danielle Kalberer cites two compelling reasons to earn board certification:

  • The self-confidence boost from completing the formidable certification process
  • The value of the credential when applying for jobs or, for those in private practice, attracting new clients

According to the American Board of Optometry, certification candidates must hold an accredited OD and valid license. Active candidates (those with verified applications) have three years to earn enough “points” to sit for the certification exam. The easiest way for active candidates to qualify is through an ACOE-accredited residency. Many candidates qualify by completing an ACOE-accredited residency. Other methods include completing a fellowship, pursuing continuing education, obtaining a graduate degree, or practicing as a clinician. Once certified, optometrists maintain their certifications by completing American Board of Optometry Maintenance of Certification (CAP) coursework.

How to earn a Doctor of Optometry (OD)

If you want to perform eye exams and treat vision impairments, you’ll need a doctoral-level degree. A Doctor of Optometry qualifies you to practice optometry; here’s how to earn the degree.

How long does it take to earn a Doctor of Optometry degree?

Full-time students typically complete OD programs in four years. Occasionally, schools offer accelerated undergraduate programs for students who are sure they want to become optometrists. Known as 3+4 programs, these pathways eliminate a year of undergraduate study; students graduate with both degrees in seven years.

What are the admission requirements to an optometry program?

Most OD programs require students to complete certain prerequisite coursework rather than a specific degree. Relevant subjects include organic chemistry, physiology, and microbiology. A few programs ask that applicants shadow working optometrists. The Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry (ASCO) reports that the average applicant has an undergraduate GPA of 3.36. Schools also ask for Optometry Admission Test (OAT) scores. Most applicants take this test as undergraduates.

What do you learn in a Doctor of Optometry program?

Optometry programs cover both didactic (i.e., classroom) and clinical coursework. Subjects include ocular disease, pharmacology, patient care, patient communication, clinical decision-making, optics, and vision science. Degree programs also include clinical hours to help students build skills alongside licensed healthcare practitioners. By graduation, students should be able to practice on their own. Many programs also offer opportunities to pursue a specialization. Relevant concentrations include pediatrics and low-vision rehabilitation. These tracks include unique coursework and training requirements.

OD graduates can pursue a one-year residency before licensure. Residencies allow students to specialize in a niche area of optometry.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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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.

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