A dispensing optician is trained to dispense and fit spectacles and other optical aids, working from the prescriptions written by optometrists and ophthalmologists.
Dispensing opticians advise patients on various types of lenses and spectacle frames, including advice on style, weight and colour. They advise patients on how to wear and care for their spectacles and, with further training as contact lens opticians (CLOs), their contact lenses.
The majority of dispensing opticians work in high street outlets for large, multiple-chain optician stores or for independent practices.
The role requires extensive use of technical expertise and good customer service skills. Selling is an important part of the job.
The role of a dispensing optician may include:
- interpreting optical prescriptions written by optometrists or ophthalmologists;
- giving advice to patients on lens type, frames and styling;
- with further training, fitting contact lenses and giving advice on their care and use;
- taking frame and facial measurements to ensure correct fit and positioning;
- advising partially sighted patients on the use of low vision aids;
- advising patients when adjustments or repairs to spectacles are needed;
- selecting, managing and ordering a range of optical products;
- ordering lenses from prescription houses;
- checking lenses on delivery to ensure that they meet the required specifications;
- arranging and maintaining shop displays;
- liaising with sales representatives from vision care product suppliers;
- supervising and training trainee dispensing opticians.
Dispensing opticians who choose to take on additional store management responsibilities may also undertake the following activities:
- recruiting and overseeing the professional development of staff;
- administering, organising and planning the development of the business;
- keeping accurate patient and business records;
- undertaking management and marketing activities.
There is no set pay scale for dispensing opticians, and salaries vary enormously between employers.
- Optical assistants and pre-registration students can expect to earn around £16,000 a year.
- Typical salaries for newly-qualified dispensing opticians start at around £18,000.
- Experienced dispensing opticians, specialists and managers can earn in the region of £25,000 to £35,000+.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
Working hours are usually 9am to 6pm. Dispensing opticians generally 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.
Large, multiple-chain stores are sometimes open during the evenings and dispensing opticians may then work alternative shifts (e.g. four ten-hour days with three days off).
Part-time and temporary locum work is sometimes available after qualification.
What to expect
- Self-employment through franchise, partnerships or sole trader operations is possible for qualified dispensing opticians with some years' experience. Earnings can then be significantly higher.
- Jobs are available in most parts of the UK, primarily in towns and cities.
- There are roughly equal numbers of male and female dispensing opticians in the UK.
- Dispensing opticians are expected to dress smartly and maintain a high level of courtesy and professionalism with customers.
- Most work is undertaken in one location, but there may be some travel to other practice premises in the local area.
- Overnight absences from home due to work are very rare.
- Dispensing opticians registered in the UK may be able to find work abroad. Registration with the General Optical Council (GOC) is recognised in some overseas countries.
For entry to a dispensing optician course, a minimum of five GCSE passes (grades C or above) or the equivalent are normally required, including English, maths and a science-based subject.
If applicants can provide evidence that they have a minimum of ten years' optical experience, the entry standard may be waived. In addition, a series of access courses in English, general science, human biology, mathematics and optics and dispensing for students who do not have the required GCSEs, or for those who have been out of education for some time, have been developed by the Association of British Dispensing Opticians (ABDO). Each passed access course is the equivalent of one GCSE.
To qualify as a dispensing optician you must complete and pass a three-year course of studying dispensing optics at a training institution approved by the General Optical Council (GOC). These are:
- ABDO College, Canterbury;
- Anglia Ruskin University;
- Bradford College;
- City and Islington College;
- City University London;
- 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 in a practice under supervision;
- a three-year day release training course with a GOC-approved training institution, combined with suitable employment;
- a three-year distance learning course offered by a GOC-approved training institution, combined with suitable employment.
Trainees must pass all parts of the professional qualifying examinations, which are run by ABDO in conjunction with the training establishments, and then register with the GOC and become ABDO members. You will then be a Fellow of ABDO (FBDO).
In addition to the academic qualifications, you will need to show evidence of the following:
- scientific and mathematical aptitude;
- manual dexterity and attention to detail;
- ability to handle ophthalmic instruments;
- pleasant manner and interest in working with people;
- interest in style and fashion;
- a strong commitment to customer care and confidence in dealing with people;
- good problem-solving skills;
- business awareness and management skills.
Relevant pre-entry experience is desirable as many individuals who enter the profession already have experience working in an optical environment through holding relevant positions such as optical assistants, receptionists or sales assistants.
It is therefore advisable to gain some relevant experience. Sending speculative applications to independent practices or large multiple chains can be a good way to find out about work experience opportunities.
The majority of dispensing opticians are employed by the large multiple chains or independent practices. There are also a large number of dispensing opticians who are self-employed or in partnerships.
A small number of dispensing opticians work in hospitals where they are more likely to specialise in areas like low-vision aids.
A few dispensing opticians are employed in prescription houses or work for manufacturers of frames, lenses and other vision aids.
There are a limited number of opportunities to teach as optical course lecturers with further and higher education institutions offering training courses for opticians.
There are currently over 5,700 registered dispensing opticians in the UK.
Look for job vacancies at:
- British Optician Jobs
- Dispensing Optics - monthly membership journal of the ABDO.
- Flame Health
- Inspired Selections
- Optician Jobs
- Optometry Today (OT)
- Local press.
There are numerous recruitment agencies which deal with dispensing optician positions.
Most large employers advertise vacancies on their own websites. Speculative applications to independent practices or large multiple chains are a recognised way to find out about opportunities.
For financial reasons, many graduates wanting to pursue the profession prefer to enter employment and undertake part-time study rather than enrolling in a full-time course. Securing work as a trainee dispensing optician is therefore an ideal option - allowing individuals to study on a part-time and/or distance learning basis while working.
Most employers are willing to cover the cost of study and examination fees, although in a few cases, students are expected to pay their own fees.
It is important to check exactly what an employer is willing to contribute before starting training. Sponsorship for full-time courses is rare, and most full-time students take out student loans.
Successful completion of the course, the pre-registration year and the qualifying examinations with the ABDO, leads to registration with the GOC. Registration must be renewed annually for as long as individuals wish to practise in the UK.
Continuing education and training (CET) is now a statutory requirement for continued registration with the GOC.
The CET scheme exists to ensure registrants maintain up-to-date knowledge and skills. This is done by gaining CET points through participation in a number of activities including:
- attending conferences;
- completing assessments;
- completing distance learning modules.
Once a dispensing optician has qualified and gained some professional experience, many go on to take further professional training in order to specialise in a particular area or add to their portfolio of skills. The most well-known advanced course is the Contact Lens Certificate, which qualifies dispensing opticians in the supply and fitting of contact lenses.
Another possible specialist area is the supply of low-vision aids, though this expertise is likely to be more useful in a hospital setting than in a high street outlet. Additional courses are available through ABDO, who are hoping to introduce more specialist subjects in the future.
The market is competitive, but prospects are good, particularly if individuals are willing to relocate.
After qualifying, a large number of dispensing opticians choose to take on additional management responsibilities. As responsibility for practice direction and overall business management is usually taken on alongside the dispensing optician role, the stress and pressure of long hours has to be balanced against the increased financial rewards.
Opportunities to move up the management ladder are most often found in high street multiple chains or independent practices.
It is possible for qualified dispensing opticians to take on a supervisory role - supervising trainee dispensing opticians. This can be a time consuming yet rewarding role, which often has to fit in around the routine dispensing optician role and management responsibilities.
After gaining some years' experience, a large number of qualified dispensing opticians enter self-employment or partnership, running their own practice or a franchise business. However, it is important to be aware that increasing competition from the large multiple chains has made running an independent practice much more challenging.
This has resulted in a decrease in the number of dispensing opticians setting up in private practice and more opting to take on a franchise with one of the major chains.