What Is an Optician? (And How to Become One)

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Opticians work in the eye care segment of health care. Find out more about job duties, salaries, and career outlook in this guide.

[Featured Image]:  An optician, wearing a white uniform is giving a patient an eye exam.

An optician is an eye professional with expertise in fitting eyewear, including frames and contact lenses that correct problems with people’s vision. They are fully qualified to work with customers to find the eyewear that suits their needs based on a prescription ordered by an eye doctor.

You can become an optician by earning an optician certificate, getting a related associate degree, or serving an apprenticeship.

What does an optician do?

An optician generally takes a customer service-facing role in a vision care store to design, fit, and adjust eyeglasses, contacts, and prescription sunglasses. As an optician, you'll support people in finding appropriate eyewear with their prescription, ensuring they leave with something fitting for their individual needs. You'll use precision measuring instruments to fit eyewear to customers properly, and you may also arrange for repairs and educate customers on how to care for their eyewear. 

Most opticians work in eye care centers or stores, but some work alongside optometrists in medical settings and optometrist offices. You'll also usually be in charge of some administrative tasks related to running the eyecare center or office. These often include:

  • Making and keeping track of appointments

  • Recording and maintaining records of prescriptions and purchases

  • Ordering and stocking inventory

  • Submitting insurance information

  • Selling eyewear accessories

The difference between an optician, an optometrist, and an ophthalmologist

Opticians, optometrists, and ophthalmologists work with people to improve their eyesight, but they have different responsibilities. All three roles support each other and are a vital part of ensuring patients' eye care.

The chain starts with the optometrist, who performs vision tests and eye exams to write prescriptions for corrective lenses or eye medication and to uncover any abnormalities in the eye.

The optician’s role is to design suitable eyewear for the customer based on the prescription given by the optometrist.

An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor specializing in vision care. A person in this position can do everything an optometrist can do. Still, they are also licensed to practice medicine and perform surgical operations, whereas an optician and an optometrist are not doctors of medicine. 

Qualifying as an optician

You can qualify to be an optician in three main ways. For most optician training routes, you must have a minimum of a high school degree. To practice, you often need to have a license to work as an optician and the necessary training and certifications, but your state's requirements may differ. 

Those states that require a license will typically expect opticians to take a written or a practical exam, or they may grant a license on completion of an official certification program. As this varies, it is best to do some research to find out whether a license is needed in your area. 

Route 1: Optician certificate

An optician certificate allows you to enter a career as an optician and typically takes a year to complete. Numerous certifications are offered through community colleges, vocational institutes, technical schools, and online. You will take classes designed to train you in all of the skills you need as an entry-level optician, such as:

  • Ocular pathology

  • Ophthalmic materials

  • Contact lens fitting and modifying

  • Geometric optics

  • Opticianry sales techniques

  • Professional ethics

A certificate program typically includes clinical instruction, which you may complete at a nearby vision store or medical practice. By earning a certificate, you should have the preparation you need to take a certification exam or obtain state licensure, should you desire.

Route 2: Associate degree in ophthalmic dispensing

A second route to an optician job is an associate degree in ophthalmic dispensing. This includes the same or similar coursework as a certificate option, but it also includes core classes required by the school you're attending. Therefore, it typically takes two years to complete. You can look for an associate degree program at the same types of institutions that provide optician certificate programs.

Some programs offer internships, allowing on-the-job training, and you can even choose distance learning options. Selecting a course accredited by the Commission on Opticianry Accreditation is also recommended. 

An associate degree in ophthalmic dispensing typically involves a mix of coursework, practicals, and written exams, ensuring you're accurately able to translate a prescription effectively to meet the patient's needs. You'll learn how to adjust and shape eyewear and understand different infections and diseases of the eye.

Like a certificate program, an associate degree is also designed to prepare you for the exams you may choose to take for a state license or national certification.

Route 3: Apprenticeship

The third route is to take an apprenticeship. This is on-the-job training either in a vision center or medical practice, supervised by an optometrist or an ophthalmologist. Direct experience is a practical way to learn this type of role. A certain number of hours must be signed off to complete an apprenticeship and begin a career as an optician, typically taking at least two years.

Another draw for this option is that apprentices are paid while they learn, and options are available on national job boards with other optician vacancies. An apprenticeship may lead to continuing to work in your position at the same location after qualifying. 

Optician certification and licensure

After completing your certificate, associate degree, or internship, you may be required to take a licensing exam before working as an optician. About half the states in the US have this requirement. Your program of study should inform you of your state's requirements, or you can research your state's optician licensing laws.

You might also choose to pursue optician certification, offered by the American Board of Opticianry & National Contact Lens Examiners (ABO-NCLE). This could make it easier to qualify for certain jobs since certification validates your knowledge and skills as an optician. 

You'll take a series of exams and have your practical skills assessed to earn certification. You can seek certification at three levels of the hierarchy that attest to your skill level: basic, enhanced, and master. You'll need to renew your optician certification every three years to keep it current. 

Optician jobs

Following optician training, optician jobs are typically available in vision stores, private practices, and medical practices. It’s important to make sure you have followed one of the three routes, gained licensure if needed, and can demonstrate the relevant skills you need to succeed in an optician role to gain a position. These often include attention to detail, communication skills, dexterity, and empathy. 

Job boards offer roles at all levels, from apprenticeships to more senior positions. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that employment of opticians is set to grow by 6 percent between 2020 and 2030 [1], bringing with it new jobs and opportunities.

Optician salary

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for an optician is $37,570 per year as of May 2021 [1]. Glassdoor lists the average salary as $37,749 as of May 2022 [2], rising to up to $65,810 for those with management responsibilities. A career as an optician scores high on factors such as work-life balance and career outlook, with over 9,000 optician jobs in the United States listed on Indeed in May 2022 [3].

Opticians can specialize in a specific area, earn certification, take on supervisory roles, or opt for further study to move into optometry for higher paying salaries.  

Are you considering a career as an optician?

If you’re considering a career as an optician, you may want to start by learning about the physiology of the eye before deciding on the route that suits you most. Learning about visual perception can also give you a foundational knowledge of vision problems and how they're related to the brain.

In addition to pursuing the professional qualifications or training outlined previously, working on your professional development can help you when it comes to setting yourself apart in an interview. 

Workplace skills such as customer service and communication are essential to the role of an optician and are a great place to start. Take a look at the Improving Communication Skills course offered by The Wharton School, the University of Pennsylvania on Coursera as an option. 

Related articles

Article sources

1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Opticians, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/opticians-dispensing.htm.” Accessed May 3, 2022.

2. Glassdoor. “Optician Salaries, https://www.glassdoor.com/Salaries/optician-salary-SRCH_KO0,8.htm.” Accessed May 3, 2022.

3. Indeed. "Optician Jobs in United States, https://www.indeed.com/jobs?q=optician&l=United%20States&vjk=c545bc489770b02d." Assessed May 3, 2022

Written by Coursera • Updated on

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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