Being an optometrist can be a very rewarding career but it is not right for everybody. In this article I want to detail the downsides and benefits of being an optometrist to balance the overly rosy picture painted by optometry school websites and student outreach teams. I believe it is important for students to know what real-world optometry is like before they get into it.
Keep in mind that I have worked my entire career in Ontario, Canada and I am just one optometrist. Everything I write reflects only my own experience in the field. I encourage anyone considering optometry as a career to speak to as many optometrists as possible before investing so heavily into it. If possible, talk to people who will speak honestly and candidly about both the good and the bad.
Benefits of Being an Optometrist
A typical optometrist yearly income is well above the national average. If you’re looking for a career that gives you the opportunity to own a home, raise a family, travel, drive a nice car, etc., then becoming an optometrist can offer you those opportunities.
The question you have of course is – exactly how much do optometrists make, right? I have written an entire article on this subject as it is not an easy question to answer.
Being an optometrist is not a Monday-Friday 9-5 job (unless you want it to be). Optometrists have the ability to craft the work schedule that suits their needs and lifestyle the most.
For optometrist to whom their work schedule is of utmost importance, they will actually make a work schedule before even looking for a job and then find positions that fit that schedule.
For example, if this is the desired work schedule:
You might find a clinic looking for an optometrist for Mondays and Fridays, but not Wednesdays and Thursdays. You would then take that opportunity and then look for a different clinic seeking an optometrist for Wednesdays and Thursdays, and so on. You might end up working in 2 or 3 different clinics on different days of the week, but you would have the exact schedule that you’re looking for.
Of course this is just an example, but it works regardless of what schedule you set for yourself.
Many Different Modes of Practice
Optometrists are not limited to a single type of work environment. There are many to choose from depending on you personal preference.
Full Scope Practice
Benefit: Full scope optometry practices really allow an optometrist to use their full breath of knowledge and skills.
Disadvantage: Income can be heavily dependent on selling additional tests, products, glasses, contact lenses, etc.
Benefit: Tend to be very busy and pay is based on seeing patients rather than selling glasses.
Disadvantage: Lower exam fees (after owner takes a cut) means seeing 3-4 patients/hour to make good money.
Independent Optical Stores
Benefit: You work for yourself and nobody takes a cut of your earning (except the government…)
Disadvantages: Patient volumes tend to be lower.
Benefit: Can focus on your particular area of interest within optometry, i.e., dry eye management, pediatric optometry, low vision, vision therapy, etc.
Disadvantage: Usually requires bigger investment and can take many years to build a steady flow of patients.
Benefit: Get to see many interesting cases and have access to latest technology.
Disadvantage: Will not be able to buy into the practice.
Meet Interesting People
As an optometrist you will be meeting and getting to know people every day. You will quickly realize how much you can learn just by listening to people talk. People from all over the world will be coming to see you and most of the time they are more than happy to share stories of where they come from with you.
Sometimes you even meet famous people. Everyone needs their eyes checked right? I have met several professional athletes, TV personalities, politicians, etc.
Of course, the biggest benefit of being an optometrist is being able to use your knowledge and clinical skills to prevent people from going blind. You will be making your living by helping people retain their most valued sense; that is an honorable endeavor.
Downsides of Being an Optometrist
Optometrist earn their pay by seeing patients. From month to month and year to year, the number of patients seen is never the exactly the same. This results in a somewhat unpredictable income.
Now, that’s under normal circumstances. Throw in economic shutdowns due to global pandemics and… well, that’ll put a pretty big dent in your income.
Income Depends on Selling
Any optometrist working in a dispensing practice (a practice that does eye exams and sells glasses) will most likely have their income tied to how many glasses and additional services they can sell. Students entering optometry school who don’t know this can be in for a shock if they are not the type who like to push for sales.
Additionally, in many offices the optometrist’s income is actually controlled by the office’s support staff.
How it Works: optometrists make a recommendation to patients in the in exam room and then hand the patient off to a staff member to complete the sale. If the staff member isn’t highly trained on retail techniques, educated different lens designs and technology, glasses trends and fashion, or simply isn’t interested in making the sale, the patient will walk away and purchase glasses elsewhere, which means you lose money.
No Sick Days
Feeling sick can be quite a conundrum for optometrists. On one hand they want to stay home, recover, and not spread any bugs around. But on the other hand, if they do they will lose an entire day of pay, as well as have to anger and potentially lose an entire day’s worth of patients by cancelling on them last minute. If an optometrist is sick for several days, you can see how this problem can compound quickly.
Being sick as on optometrist is a lose-lose situation.
No Paid Vacation Days
Going on vacation as an optometrist is not cheap. Not only do you have to pay for the vacation itself, but you also have to give up any income that could have been earned on all those vacation days.
Whether optometrists are practice owners or associates, they are self employed, not employees. This means that they don’t have an employer to provide them with work benefits. So no dental, vision, medication, massage therapy, physiotherapy, chiropractor, etc., etc.
The majority of patients that optometrists see are quite pleasant and a joy to have in the office. But every optometrists has horror stories about patients that get under everyone’s skin, take up everyone’s time, act aggressively or violently, show up under the influence of drugs and alcohol, etc.
Insurance Companies Dictate Prices
Most people are covered for their eye exam by either the government, their university health plan, work benefits, personal insurance plans etc. Depending on the areas that you practice in, you may not be allowed to charge more than the what the insurance plan covers for the patient. If you do, you will simply be removed from the insurer’s doctor network and lose all the patients from that insurer.
Whatever the case, more and more optometrists are losing control over their prices to insurance companies.
While the benefits of being an optometrist are many, there are also some important downsides to know about before choosing it as a career. Surely I have missed many of this benefits and downsides here in this article, as one could write an entire book about being an optometrist. If you have any specific questions about the profession, let me know in the comments below and I will be happy to answer them.