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Medical Optics Jobs: Career Options and Requirements

Degrees in medical optics typically cover ophthalmology, optometry, and optical engineering. Find out about the curricula of these programs, and learn about career options, job growth and salary info for medical optics graduates.

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There are several career choices available in the medical optics field and graduate degrees are required for many of them. Some positions that graduates may qualify for include ophthalmologists, optometrists and optical engineers. Various residencies, certifications and license are required to qualify for a job in this field, depending on the type of employment that's pursued.

Essential Information

Medical optics includes careers that involve treating patients in their vision care or performing research with the goal of improving vision testing and treatments. These careers typically require graduate education.

Career Ophthalmologists Optometrist Optical Engineer
Required Education Bachelor's degree & four years of medical school Doctorate Minimum of bachelor's degree
Other Requirements Residency; pass U.S. Medical Licensing Exam Licensure by National Board of Examiners in Optometry Classroom instruction & laboratory experience
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024) 14% (for all physicians and surgeons)* 27%* 2-4% (for photonics engineers)**
Median Salary $271,536 (2016)*** $103,900 (2015)* $85,936 (2016)****

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; **O*NET OnLine; ***Salary.com; ****PayScale

Career Options

Individuals can choose to become an ophthalmologist, optometrist or an optical engineer. Ophthalmologists diagnose and treat eye conditions in addition to performing eye surgery. They have the option to concentrate on a particular specialty or practice general ophthalmology. Ophthalmologists attend medical school and complete a residency as well. Optometrists are the main doctors for general eye care and may also treat patients after surgery. A doctorate in optometry is obtained in for this field. A third option in medical optics is optical engineering. These individuals perform research in the effort to improve diagnosing and treating eye conditions and diseases. They can enter the field with a bachelor's degree but usually need a graduate degree to perform research in academic institutions.

Ophthalmologists

Ophthalmologists are medical doctors who diagnose and treat vision-threatening diseases, including performing surgical operations on the eyes. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO), cataract removal surgeries are the most common ophthalmic surgeries. Others include glaucoma, refractive, corneal, vitro-retinal, eye muscle and laser surgeries.

Ophthalmologists also perform comprehensive vision tests and prescribe corrective lenses. They can practice general ophthalmology or concentrate in a sub-specialty, such as:

  • Cornea and external disease
  • Glaucoma
  • Cataract and refractive surgery
  • Vitreoretinal disease
  • Ophthalmic plastic surgery
  • Pediatric ophthalmology
  • Nero-ophthalmology

Ophthalmologist Requirements

Ophthalmologists complete four years of undergraduate studies and four years of medical school. The AAO suggests that medical students determine by their fourth year of medical school if they want to specialize in ophthalmology. After completing medical school, ophthalmology students participate in a residency program, through which they gain practical work experience at a medical center.

After completing their residencies, prospective ophthalmologists must pass the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) before they can practice. Ophthalmologists also can obtain voluntary board certification from the American Board of Ophthalmology (ABO). Certified ophthalmologists have met accredited medical training requisites, pledged to practice morally and completed an evaluation process, according to the ABO.

Ophthalmologist Career and Salary Information

Ophthalmologists, counted along with all other physicians and surgeons, can expect to see the number of jobs in the field increase 14% from 2014-2024, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS); this is a rate that's seven percentage points higher than the average for all occupations. In general, the BLS reported that doctors who want to care for aging populations and in rural or low-income areas are expected to have better career opportunities. According to Salary.com the median salary for ophthalmologists as of October 2016 is $271,536.

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Optometrist

Optometrists are the primary doctors for eye care. They test for vision problems such as astigmatism and color-blindness, in addition to diagnosing and treating eye conditions such as glaucoma and cataracts. Optometrists prescribe corrective lenses and other vision aids, medications and vision therapies. When necessary, optometrists refer patients to specialists. Some optometrists provide pre- or post-operative care to patients who've had eye surgery.

Optometrists may opt to work in general optometry or specialize in a field like vision therapy, contact lenses or pediatrics. Some have private or group practices, and others work in hospitals, community health centers and government services.

Optometrist Requirements

Optometrists must earn a Doctor of Optometry. Most students first earn a bachelor's degree, although this isn't required by all optometry schools. However, the BLS notes that an undergraduate science program can equip students with a strong foundation before entering a 4-year optometry school.

The American Optometric Association (AOA) lists accredited optometry schools throughout the U.S. Before applying, students must take the Optometry Admissions Test, which assesses students' knowledge of natural sciences, physics, quantitative reasoning and reading comprehension. Other admission requirements vary by school.

Once accepted into optometry school, students complete coursework and clinical training in geometric, physical, physiological and ophthalmic optics. Studies also cover topics in ocular disease, ocular myotology, ocular pharmacology and neurophysiology of the vision system. Classes may delve into vision perception, vision performance and vision screening. In order to practice, optometrists must become licensed, which requires them to pass tests administered by the National Board of Examiners in Optometry. Many states also require optometrists to pass an exam regarding state laws.

Optometrist Career and Salary Information

The BLS predicts that the number of jobs for optometrists will increase 27% from 2014-2024, due in part to an aging population needing more vision care and many aging optometrists reaching retirement age. Optometrists earned a median annual salary of $103,900 in May 2015, according to the BLS.

Optical Engineer

Optical engineers, or photonics engineers, seek ways to control light and matter so that they can make discoveries and create inventions that aid in the diagnosis of various diseases. Lasers and optical imaging devices are some of the inventions created by optical engineers. They develop these devices from prototypes, test that they're operable and record the findings. Optical engineers conduct research to aid them in discovering new medical optic inventions.

Optical Engineer Requirements

According to the BLS, a bachelor's degree is the minimum requirement for entry-level optical engineering jobs. Coursework for optical engineering majors usually consists of physics, photonics, control systems, biomedical optics and mathematics. Classroom instruction and laboratory experience is usually required. Graduate degrees are often needed for optical engineers who work as researchers or at academic institutions, the BLS stated.

Optical Engineer Career and Salary Information

According to O*NET OnLine, the BLS predicted that photonics engineers could expect slower than average job growth, with an increase in jobs of 2-4% during the period 2014-2024. These engineers earn a median annual salary of $85,936 as of 2016, reports Payscale.com'.

Job prospects are higher in the medical optics field than they are in other lines of work. To become an ophthalmologist, optometrist or optical engineer, graduates will be required to obtain the necessary licensing and certification that's required by the state. Salary may vary depending on the specialty that's being pursued, but graduates should expect anywhere from $85,000-$271,536.

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