How to become an optometrist

Most optometrists complete a BSc in Optometry, and then develop their practical skills through a year of assessed clinical training in practice, called the Scheme for Registration. If they pass the final assessment they are fully qualified and can register as an optometrist with the General Optical Council. The learning doesn’t stop there though! All optometrists commit to continual professional development throughout their career to maintain their professional status. And many will take higher qualifications so that they can work in specialised areas.

Different career paths in optometry

Once you’ve qualified, there are all sorts of opportunities and roles within optometry. You could be working in a high street optometrists or a hospital clinic, or carrying out essential research in a university or laboratory. If you have the right skills, you could work all over the world, or maybe you’d like to run own business?

Working in a small independent optometrists or for a large national organisation, you'll be carrying out eye examinations, giving advice on visual problems and prescribing glasses, contact lenses and low vision aids. You'll also be trained to detect eye disease and underlying health conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure.

You will be working with all sorts of people from the local community - from the very young to the very elderly - and with all sorts of conditions and requirements. So you'll need a full range of clinical, professional and personal skills to ensure that you deliver the very best in patient care.

You could also work as a domiciliary optometrist - making sure that those who can't visit the examining room can still receive high quality eye health care in their homes, care homes or community and day centres. Your patients may have dementia, learning difficulties or physical disabilities, so you’ll be using a range of specialised skills in order to communicate effectively and deliver a thorough eye examination in a way that meets their particular needs.

As a hospital optometrist you will be working in a busy, fast-paced environment, alongside ophthalmologists (medical doctors specialising in the eye) as part of a large team of eye specialists. You will have the opportunity to get involved in more specialised areas of optometry, such as treating and managing patients with glaucoma (an eye disease common among the elderly) or macular degeneration (the most common cause of blindness in western society).

Case study

Shahista Patel MCOptom

Omskirk Hospital

Why did you choose a career as an optometrist? I studied Biomedical Sciences as my first degree, after which I spent two years working at Manchester Eye Hospital. It was then I realised how much there is to learn about the eyes, and how much you can help a person by becoming an optometrist. From then ,I never looked back and I thoroughly enjoy my job now

What kind of people become optometrists? You have to be enthusiastic, caring and have an eye for detail.

What were your favourite subjects at school? Sciences (especially biology) and art

What was the degree course like? The actual degree is very challenging and requires a lot of hard work and dedication. But it's very rewarding and enjoyable at the same time.

Was it easy to find a job? Finding a pre-registration placement can be quite a challenge. My advice is to use your time at university to develop key skills to improve your employability, (eg, communication, organisational and management skills). You can those by taking part in all sorts of activities outside of your course - for example, I organised a bake sale to raise money for charity. It will also give you something unique to talk about at the interviews.

How is a typical day at work? I have two jobs so my days are always different. My day at hospital is divided in morning and afternoon sessions, In the morning I have a paediatric clinic where I test young children who may be struggling to see clearly at school and in the afternoon session I have a low vision assessment clinic. Here, I see patients who do not have very good vision and I try and help them make the most of the vision they have left with the aid of magnifiers. I also fit specialist contact lenses for patients who have very poor vision.

My other days are spent in a high street optometrist, where I spend most of my time testing eyes. This is quite exciting because you don't actually know why a patient has come for an eye test and I need to ask them relevant questions to find out and help them. I also fit contact lenses.

I work normal office hours (9-5) and my time at work goes really quickly, because I have a certain number of patients to see.

And the salary? Yes, all the hard work at university pays off when you have qualified.

What are the best things about being optometrist? Seeing people's faces light up when they can see clearly after you have performed an eye test on them.

And the worst? Well, I have to travel quite a distance to get to work, which means I have to wake up really early.

What's the most exciting thing that happened to you at university or at work? I met some amazing people during my time at university, and they will be my friends for a very long time. And I won 'best dressed optom' award at the Eye Ball in my second year!

If you weren't an optometrist what would you be? I think I would have been a cake decorator

Can you sum up an optometrist in three words? Yes! Attentive, enthusiastic and fun.

Any words of advice to those thinking about becoming an optometrist? Optometry is such a diverse profession. There are lots of different routes you can take including hospital optometry, high street optometry or becoming a lecturer or examiner. The list goes on. It is a profession which is always moving forward allowing optometrists to take part in extended, more clinically challenging roles.

There is so much still to discover about the eye and vision and researchers are helping to extend our knowledge and shaping the profession.

A career in research usually begins with a doctorate (PhD), which takes around three or four years to achieve, once you have graduated. You could be working in a university or hospital or in a lab. As well as carrying out research, you'll be writing papers, attending conferences or, maybe even, presenting your findings to colleagues all over the world. 

Case study

Dr Lesley Doyle MCOptom

Researcher and locum optometrist

Where are you working at the moment? I currently have two roles. During the week I'm a researcher at the University of Ulster, funded by the Department for Employment and Learning investigating vision in children with Down syndrome and to keep my skills (and finances) up-to-date, I work as a locum (providing cover for optometrists on leave or for busy practices) at the weekend.

Why did you become an optometrist? I was always quite good at science subjects at school and knew that I wanted to do something in health care. I was considering physiotherapy and optometry - but not medicine as I have a severe vomit phobia!

As well as having the right A' levels, what else is important when considering a career in optometry? I think you definitely need to be a people person to enjoy working in practice as you will be spending a lot of time talking one-to-one with patients. On the other hand, working in research you spend a lot of 'one-to-one' time with your computer. There's very little human interaction (apart from the morning coffee run!) and you need a lot of self-discipline to keep motivated.

What was the degree course like? The course was definitely challenging and there are a lot more teaching hours than on other courses but there's a nice balance between lectures and practicals/tutorials. I didn't only do science subjects at AS and A level but I'm really glad that I studied biology and physics as these were touched on a lot during my first and second year at university. Exam time can be quite intense and there is a lot of factual information to learn - so you definitely need to be self- motivated and self- disciplined.

Why did you choose research? There are more career paths in optometry than people think. I always advise those thinking about their future career to gain experience in as many areas as possible and that will guide you in the direction of what you enjoy most. For me that's a little bit of everything and that's why I'm currently undertaking research - but mixing it with clinical practice.

Was it easy to find a job? Most of the large multiple companies visit universities to recruit second years for their pre- registration placements. If you are willing to move away from home there are plenty of placements out there, and many students end up working where they have done their placement or work experience. In Northern Ireland there aren't so many opportunities so there is a lot of competition, but this isn't the case everywhere in the UK. 

There were also advertisements, posted within the university, for placements with a variety of practices including multiples, independents and hospital departments. I would recommend looking at as many options as possible. I was lucky enough to carry out my pre-registration year working part-time in two settings - a hospital and a practice and so got to know the pros and cons of each of them.

How would you describe a typical day in work? My day as a researcher is very different to my day in practice. In the first year of my PhD, I spent a lot of time reading around the subject to give me good background knowledge, as well as submitting applications for ethical approval of my research project (ensuring it is well designed and carried out). In my second year, I started to become familiar with the techniques I would be using and started collecting data from participants. I am in currently in my third year, finishing my data collection and analysing and writing up the results. I've also had the opportunity to teach and supervise undergraduate optometry students. In a research setting I work 9-5, Monday to Friday and occasionally locum at the weekends.

As a locum, a typical day is a lot more fast paced than a day in research and there's a lot more interaction with colleagues and patients. I see about 15 - 20 patients each day, spending 10 - 30 minutes with each patient.

Is the pay ok? I feel that the average UK optometrist's salary is good. However, I am based in Northern Ireland where this is a large population of optometrists and fewer posts so the salary is lower than in the rest of the UK.

What's the best thing about your job? The best parts of my job as a researcher are the fun, interesting people (especially the children) I meet and the travel. I get to attend and present my research at national and international conferences. Working as a pre-registration optometrist in a hospital setting was exciting because there was such a wide variety of weird and wonderful conditions to see and learn about resulting in every day being completely different. It's really rewarding when you detect a potentially sight-threatening condition where the patient goes on to receive treatment and retain their sight.

And the worst? Getting up in the morning - but I believe that you have to do that for most jobs!

Once, you have qualified as an optometrist, there are a number of career paths open to you that will enable to follow your interests, take on more responsibility and progress in your career. One of the most popular postgraduate qualifications in optometry is the Diploma in Therapeutics - Independent Prescribing (DipTP(IP)). You can take the qualification after two years in practice and it allows you to prescribe licensed medicines for conditions affecting the eye, and the tissues surrounding the eye. You will be able provide more eye care services in practice, or progress in your career in a hospital clinic. 

Case study

Dilraj Gumber MCOptom DIP TP (IP)

‘When I started in optometry, I didn't know exactly how much variety there was in optics and how far I could progress in the field.  But I knew I wanted to go as far as possible. I was keen to make the most of all opportunities as I knew they would enable me to progress within optometry and would add variety to the role.

‘The IP (independent prescriber) course includes a hospital placement, which gives me lots of hands-on experience of a variety of eye conditions and really boosted my confidence when managing acute eye problems. Now that I have qualified, I am able to manage more complex cases to resolution, avoiding unnecessary referrals. My patients (particularly the elderly or those who rely on public transport) really appreciate this as our local hospital is over 20 miles away.  Offering this service has increased patient loyalty and job satisfaction, and helps to drive the business commercially/financially, as we are remunerated for the extra services we provide. 

‘My future career ambitions include working part time in the eye casualty department so I get to see a wider range of acute pathology and gain experience managing these conditions alongside ophthalmologists. The IP qualification will be vital for this.’

Watch our career development guide video...