If you're scientifically-minded, have a combination of technical and customer services skills and enjoy helping people, consider a career as a dispensing optician

As a dispensing optician you'll dispense and fit spectacles and other optical aids, to both adults and children, working from the prescriptions written by optometrists and ophthalmologists.

You'll advise patients on various types of lenses and spectacle frames, including style, weight and colour. You'll also advise on how patients should wear and care for their spectacles and, with further training as a contact lens optician, their contact lenses.

Responsibilities

As a dispensing optician, you'll need to:

  • interpret optical prescriptions written by optometrists or ophthalmologists
  • give advice to patients on lens type, frames and styling
  • with further training, fit contact lenses and give advice on their care and use
  • take frame and facial measurements to ensure correct fit and positioning
  • advise partially sighted patients on the use of low vision aids
  • advise patients when adjustments or repairs to spectacles are needed
  • select, manage and order a range of optical products
  • order lenses from prescription houses
  • check lenses on delivery to ensure that they meet the required specifications
  • arrange and maintain shop displays
  • liaise with sales representatives from vision care product suppliers
  • supervise and train trainee dispensing opticians.

If you're a practice manager, you'll also need to:

  • recruit staff and manage their training and professional development
  • undertake the day-to-day management of the practice
  • take responsibility for meeting sales targets
  • maintain stock levels
  • plan and administer business development, including marketing activities
  • keep accurate patient and business records.

Salary

  • Pre-registration students should earn around £14,000 to £18,000 a year.
  • As a qualified dispensing optician, your salary can range from around £18,000 to £30,000, depending on your experience. Contact lens opticians may earn more.
  • Practice managers can earn in the region of £30,000 to £45,000.

There is no set pay scale for dispensing opticians, and salaries can vary widely between employers. In addition to your salary, you may also have a bonus package and other benefits such as a pension scheme, private medical insurance, professional insurance and staff discounts.

Working hours

Working hours are usually 9am to 6pm, although large multiple-chain stores are sometimes open during the evenings. You'll typically work between 35 and 40 hours a week, Mondays to Saturdays, with one day off in the week. Many practices are also open on Sundays and bank holidays, so weekend work is common.

Part-time and temporary locum work is sometimes available.

What to expect

  • Jobs are available in most parts of the UK, primarily in towns and cities.
  • Most work is undertaken in one location, but you may need to visit other practices in the local area.
  • With experience it's possible to set up as self-employed through franchise, partnerships or sole trader operations.
  • You'll need to dress smartly and maintain a high level of courtesy and professionalism with customers.
  • You may be able to find work abroad, as registration with the General Optical Council (GOC) is recognised in some overseas countries.

Qualifications

To qualify as a dispensing optician you must pass a three-year course of study (four years in Scotland) in ophthalmic dispensing at one of the six training institutions approved by the GOC. These are:

  • Anglia Ruskin University
  • Association of British Dispensing Opticians (ABDO) College
  • Bradford College
  • City University
  • City and Islington College
  • Glasgow Caledonian University.

There are three modes of study to choose from:

  • a two-year, full-time training course at a GOC-approved training institution followed by one year's salaried work as a dispensing optician in a practice under supervision
  • a three-year day release training course with a GOC-approved training institution, combined with suitable employment as a pre-registration dispensing optician
  • a three-year distance learning course offered by a GOC-approved training institution, combined with suitable employment as a pre-registration dispensing optician.

You must usually also pass all parts of the professional qualifying examinations, which are run by the Association of British Dispensing Opticians (ABDO) in conjunction with the training establishments.

However, if you take the Ophthalmic Dispensing Registerable Award FdSc at Anglia Ruskin University, you're eligible to register with the GOC without taking any further assessments or examinations.

You'll need to register with the GOC, as it's illegal to practise if you haven't.

Check with individual course providers for details of which mode of study they offer and entry requirements.

Skills

You'll need to show:

  • an aptitude for science and maths
  • the ability to handle ophthalmic instruments
  • a strong commitment to customer care
  • confidence in dealing with people
  • communication skills, to give clear advice to customers
  • listening skills, to ensure you're giving the customer the best advice
  • sales skills, and the ability to inspire customer loyalty
  • commercial awareness
  • teamworking skills, and the ability to lead and motivate staff
  • a flexible approach to work and the ability to adapt to change
  • self-motivation
  • attention to detail.

Work experience

New entrants to the profession may have experience working in an optical environment in roles such as optical assistant, receptionist or sales assistant.

Sending speculative applications to independent practices or large multiple chains can be a good way to find out about work experience opportunities.

Employers

The majority of dispensing opticians work in high street outlets for large, multiple-chain optician stores or for independent practices. There are also a number of dispensing opticians who are self-employed or in partnerships.

A small number of dispensing opticians work in hospitals - in these roles, you're more likely to specialise in areas such as low-vision aids. It's also possible to work in prescription houses or for manufacturers of frames, lenses and other vision aids.

There are a limited number of opportunities to teach at a GOC-approved training institution.

Look for job vacancies at:

Specialist recruitment agencies such as Flame Health and Inspired Selections also handle vacancies.

Most large employers advertise vacancies on their own websites. You could also try making a targeted speculative application to independent practices or large multiple chains.

Professional development

You must undertake mandatory continuing education and training (CET) in order to keep your skills and knowledge up to date and to remain registered with the GOC. Your GOC registration must be renewed annually for as long as you wish to practise in the UK.

The GOC CET scheme is a points-based system and you must earn a minimum number of CET points by the end of each cycle to stay on the register. You can gain CET points from taking part in a range of activities, including attending:

  • ABDO CET events
  • conferences, workshops and lectures
  • peer review or discussion events.

Once qualified, you can do further study and clinical practice to become a specialist practitioner qualified to supply and fit contact lenses. Approved training for the contact lens specialty is provided by the ABDO College, Bradford College and City and Islington College.

If you have a specialist interest in patients with low vision, you could take the ABDO College Low Vision Honours course.

Some dispensing opticians decide to become optometrists. The University of Bradford offers a programme of study that allows dispensing opticians to graduate with a BSc Optometry in 18 months (six months of distance learning, followed by 12 months of study at the university). This BSc (Hons) Career Progression Programme provides the theory and practical knowledge you need to practise as a pre-registered optometrist.

Career prospects

After qualifying, many dispensing opticians choose to take on additional management responsibilities. Opportunities to move up the management ladder and become a branch manager are most often found in high street multiple chains or independent practices. It's also possible to take on a supervisory role, supervising trainee dispensing opticians.

You can also progress clinically by undertaking additional responsibilities in areas such as contact lens dispensing, minor eye conditions, low vision, glaucoma and diabetic screening.

After gaining experience, you can enter self-employment or partnership, running your own practice or a franchise business. However, competition from the large multiple chains can make setting up in private practice challenging, so some dispensing opticians are now opting to take on a franchise with one of the major chains.