You'll need a background in maths and science, as well as strong interpersonal and communication skills, to become a successful optometrist

As an optometrist you'll examine patients' eyes, test their sight, give advice on visual problems and prescribe and fit spectacles or contact lenses when needed.

You'll be trained to recognise diseases of the eye, such as glaucoma and cataract, as well as general health conditions such as diabetes. You will refer patients to medical practitioners when necessary and sometimes share the care of patients with chronic conditions. Most of these activities involve the use of specialist equipment.

Types of optometrist

You can work in a:

  • high street company (either in a large national chain or small independent practice) - carrying out eye examinations, giving advice on eye problems and prescribing spectacles and contact lenses;
  • hospital or clinic - working alongside ophthalmologists to treat and manage patients with a range of eye conditions;
  • university or laboratory - undertaking research into diseases and treatments that can help improve or restore sight.

Responsibilities

Depending on your area of work, you may need to:

  • speak to patients to get detailed case histories from them;
  • examine patients' eyes to detect signs of injury, disease, abnormality or vision defects;
  • be aware of signs and symptoms of general health conditions (e.g. diabetes);
  • fit spectacles or contact lenses;
  • offer advice and reassurance about vision-related matters;
  • offer help and advice to patients when choosing frames and lenses;
  • write referral letters to doctors;
  • liaise with other medical practitioners and sometimes share the care of patients with chronic ophthalmic conditions;
  • meet sales targets with regard to selling spectacles or contact lenses.

In addition, you may have to:

  • manage and train staff, including dispensing opticians and clerical staff;
  • manage the retail aspects of spectacles, contact lenses and other vision care products;
  • administer, organise and plan the development of the practice;
  • liaise with sales representatives from vision care product suppliers;
  • own or manage a practice;
  • manage and prescribe medicines for people with eye conditions;
  • advise NHS England or local clinical commissioning groups on the development of eyecare services.

Salary

Private practice

  • There is no set minimum salary for the pre-registration year in private practice but most employers pay at least the national living wage (if you're 25 or over) or the national minimum wage (if you're under 25), which is around £13,000 to £14,000. Many employers in community practice pay additional expenses such as course costs and Scheme for Registration fees.
  • Starting salaries for newly qualified optometrists are typically around £25,000, depending on your employer and location.
  • With experience you can earn from £28,000 to £60,000+ Earnings for company directors, partners and sole practitioners depend on business performance.

Salaries depend upon supply and demand, so you may earn more in areas where there are fewer optometrists.

National Health Service

  • Jobs in the NHS as a hospital optometrist are usually covered by the Agenda for Change (AfC) Pay Rates consisting of nine pay bands. Typical salaries for the pre-registration year start at £19,217 (band 4) but you will need to meet course costs and Scheme for Registgration fees yourself.
  • As a qualified optometrist you can earn between £26,302 and £35,225 (band 6).
  • Salaries for specialist optometrists can go up to £41,373 (band 7) with salaries for consultant optometrists rising to £82,434 (band 8c/8d).

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours are usually 9.00am to 5.30pm and you'll typically work between 37 and 40 hours per week. In community practice weekend and evening work is common, particularly in the larger chains.

Part-time and temporary locum work is available, often working in a variety of practices.

Career breaks are possible, but unless you're intending to take a significant amount of time off you may wish to remain on the General Optical Council (GOC) register, which means doing a certain amount of continuing education and training (CET) during your break.

What to expect

  • You'll spend large parts of the day in a small room with no natural light and will have to make fairly close contact with people to examine their eyes.
  • Jobs are available throughout the UK in hospitals and all types of practice. If working in private practice, you'll usually work in a shop comprising a retail section and private consulting rooms, while hospital work is carried out in consulting rooms or cubicles in hospital trust buildings.
  • Self-employment through a franchise, partnership or sole trader operation is possible, usually after some years' experience.
  • Some optometrists prefer to work in different practices throughout the week but for others most work will be undertaken in one location. You'll usually need to travel for training purposes or to attend conferences.
  • UK-registered optometrists can find work abroad. Some countries require you to take further examinations.

Qualifications

To work as an optometrist, you must be registered with the GOC, the regulator for the optical professions in the UK. In order to do this, you must:

  • get a 2:2 (or above) degree in an optometry course approved by the GOC;
  • complete 12 to 15 months salaried pre-registration training under the guidance of a GOC registered optometrist who is a member of the College of Optometrists;
  • pass the College of Optometrists' GOC work-based and final assessments.

There are several universities currently running approved degree courses and competition for places is strong. Entry requirements vary between universities but you will typically need a minimum of AAB at A-level, or equivalent, with at least two science subjects.

Graduates with a 2:1 degree or above in a health-related subject (e.g. pharmacology, chemistry, biomedical science) may also be considered for entry on to an approved undergraduate course.

Degree courses usually last three years full time (four years in Scotland), although some providers offer an integrated four-year Master of Optometry (MOptom), which incorporates the pre-registration year. Students who successfully complete this course are fully qualified and able to register as optometrists with the GOC. See the GOC website for a list of approved course providers.

Once you've got a 2:2 or above from an approved provider and have a valid Certificate of Clinical Competency, which is awarded on graduation and is valid for two years, you can undertake pre-registration training. If you fail to achieve a 2:2 or if your certificate expires you must successfully complete the GOC's Optometry Progression Scheme before entering a pre-registration placement.

Before starting you'll need to find a training placement. These are often advertised on:

You can also contact local optometry practices to see whether they're willing to offer training placements.

The pre-registration period includes a series of assessments and enables you to build on the knowledge that you gained at university and apply it to real practice in the workplace. Successful completion of the pre-registration training and final assessment examination allows you to register as an optometrist with the GOC.

Skills

You will need to show:

  • clinical decision-making skills and an ability to use your professional judgement;
  • excellent communication skills to deal with a range of people;
  • strong interpersonal skills, with the ability to put anxious patients at ease;
  • the ability to understand and apply scientific principles and methods;
  • confidence in using complex equipment;
  • team work skills;
  • manual dexterity, precision and accuracy;
  • good organisation and administrative skills;
  • attention to detail;
  • a willingness to undertake continuing professional development (CPD) to keep up to date;
  • that you're comfortable working in close proximity to patients;
  • patience to carry out repetitive tasks.

Work experience

Competition for pre-registration positions is high so it's important to get some work experience. Some students work in practices at weekends or during university holidays.

Some of the larger chains also run summer programmes for students between their second and third year. Visit company websites for details of these schemes.

Employers

Most optometrists work in high street practices which may be independent or part of a regional or national chain. If you have a strong interest in the medical side of optometry, you may decide to work in hospitals alongside other healthcare professionals such as ophthalmologists and orthoptists.

It's also possible to work in academic settings doing research and/or teaching, and also in the optical manufacturing industry working for spectacle lens, contact lens and ophthalmic instrument manufacturers. This may be in research and development, or in a professional services role, giving technical support.

Companies offering laser refractive surgery also employ optometrists in a pre-operative consultation and post-surgical follow-up role. Other employers include charities, local government, the army and public health bodies.

Self-employment through a franchise or partnership, or as a sole practitioner, is also possible.

Look for job vacancies at:

Specialist recruitment agencies also handle vacancies. Look for details in the optometry press.

Professional development

Working as a professional in the field of optometry means that you will never stop learning and CPD is an important part of the role.

As a qualified optometrist you must renew your registration with the GOC annually in order to practise. Undertaking continuing education and training (CET) is a statutory requirement for continued registration with the GOC.

The GOC's CET scheme is a points-based system, run over a three-year cycle, which ensures that you keep up to date with the knowledge and skills needed to practise safely throughout your career. You can gain CET points through a variety of learning activities, including attendance at lectures and workshops, supervising, teaching and assessing, developing business skills and studying for a postgraduate qualification. You'll need to achieve a minimum number of CET points by the end of each cycle to stay on the register.

Masters courses and opportunities for research at PhD level are available via the GOC-approved undergraduate degree providers. The College of Optometrists also accredits a range of professional qualifications in areas such as glaucoma, low vision, contact lens practice and medical retina:

  • Professional Certificate;
  • Professional Higher Certificate;
  • Professional Diploma.

See their list of accredited courses.

You can also train to become a specialist practitioner following extra study and clinical practice. Once qualified, you can register your specialty, which allows you to be an independent prescriber.

Career prospects

Optometry has a flexible career structure and it's possible to move between sectors and also to combine a number of roles.

Opportunities for career progression within corporate practice can include promotion within the clinical and/or management structure. Transfer between practices may help you to progress.

Some optometrists choose to go into practice management where salaries may be higher. You will usually be responsible for practice direction and overall business management, as well as the routine work of an optometrist (e.g. sight testing).

It's possible to buy into an optometry practice (franchise or joint venture) so that you have a direct influence on the running of the business. You can also set up an independent practice, which may be of particular interest if you want to develop a specialist optometric service.

If you're working in an NHS hospital, there's a defined career structure and you can work your way up from basic optometrist to specialist and principal optometrist and then, ultimately, consultant optometrist.

There are options to specialise in areas such as prescribing optical aids for people who are visually impaired or pre- and post-operative care. It may also be possible to get involved in the education of ophthalmic nurses and medical students.

You may choose to develop your career by going into lecturing and research. Some optometrists become involved in supervision of pre-registration students and full training is provided by the College of Optometrists.

There are also opportunities to work abroad in countries such as New Zealand, Australia and Canada, where the structure of optometric practice is similar.

Optometry may well change over the coming years with some functions becoming more automated. This means the role may move further towards interpreting test results and making clinical decisions. Increasingly, there are opportunities to manage certain eye conditions and prescribe for them and there may be more multidisciplinary working in the future.