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How to Become an Optician

Responsibilities, working hours, what to expect and qualifications needed

Career guides » How to Become an Optician

What does a optician do?

An optician is sometimes also known as a dispensing optician. They help customers select and fit new lenses (i.e. spectacles, contacts and other optical aids) in line with the prescriptions provided by an optometrist or ophthalmologist. They also advise customers on eye health and how to look after their lenses.

The word ‘optician’ also describes an optometrist. These are professionals who carry out eye examinations in a consulting room. They identify eye health issues, prescribe spectacles and conduct contact lens fittings and checks. Their role is not the same as a dispensing optician, as it requires further qualifications and training. Here, we will focus on how to become a dispensing optician.

A dispensing optician is a registered healthcare professional and an expert on lenses. They will work with various optical appliances and may also have further training and specialise in contact lenses or helping vulnerable people. They will also see customers of all ages, from children to the elderly, with various prescription requirements and issues. Therefore, what a dispensing optician does will depend on their daily tasks and specialisms.

A dispensing optician’s main aim is to dispense and fit optical appliances in line with the needs and prescriptions of the customer. They will be the first point of contact for customers and will play a pivotal role in helping them choose the most suitable frames and lenses for their daily activities. They also have an important role in providing advice and guidance to each customer to help them look after their eyes and optical appliances.

Dispensing opticians will carry out many tasks, including interpreting prescriptions, advising customers on numerous eye health and care topics, using various dispensing tools, measuring spectacles and contact lenses, fitting, repairing and adjusting spectacles, ordering from suppliers, checking deliveries, training and supervising recruits, referring clients to optical professionals, etc. The role may also involve administrative and computer work, e.g. keeping accurate customer records.

Dispensing opticians can work in various settings, such as high-street opticians/practices, hospitals (NHS or private), laboratories and manufacturing facilities. They will work with many people, including other dispensing opticians, optometrists, ophthalmologists, trainees, students and support staff. They will also liaise with many external stakeholders, such as customers and their families, manufacturers, product suppliers, sales representatives, prescription laboratories, the General Optical Council (GOC), etc.

Dispensing opticians can work in different-sized establishments, from small independent practices to large hospitals and high-street chains. There are also options for dispensing opticians to be self-employed and have their own business, work freelance or become a locum.

Responsibilities

A dispensing optician’s responsibilities depend on their day-to-day tasks and their specialisms.

Some examples of common duties for dispensing opticians can include (this list is not exhaustive):

  • Keeping up to date with advances in dispensing.
  • Interpreting optical prescriptions provided by optometrists and ophthalmologists.
  • Using various dispensing tools to measure customers for spectacles and contact lenses to ensure they fit properly and comfortably.
  • Calculating vision angles and distances.
  • Speaking with customers about what they use their glasses for and helping them choose the correct type.
  • Advising customers on options for lenses that most suit their needs, e.g. types, designs, coatings, tints, etc.
  • Helping customers to select and purchase spectacle frames.
  • Advising and dispensing low-vision aids to partially-sighted customers.
  • Fitting, repairing and adjusting spectacle frames.
  • Advising customers on how to look after their spectacles or other optical equipment.
  • Ordering lenses and other necessary items from product suppliers and prescription laboratories.
  • Checking stock quality on delivery and ensuring the items are correct.
  • Monitoring stock and arranging displays.
  • Contacting customers and advising them when they can collect their lenses (if ordered).
  • Advising customers on their eye health and how to manage any issues, e.g. dry eye.
  • Demonstrating to customers how to fit and remove contact lenses (with further training).
  • Referring customers back to optical professionals if further eye tests are needed or any issues are identified.
  • Training and supervising new students and new dispensing opticians.
  • Keeping accurate customer records.

 

With further training and experience, dispensing opticians may also be responsible for practice management, complaint handling and staff mentoring.

Working hours

Dispensing opticians can expect to work around 37–40 hours a week, but they can do more or fewer hours depending on where they work and their specialisms.

Optician practices are usually open Monday–Saturday, between 9am and 6pm. Some may also open in the evenings and on Sundays and bank holidays. Therefore, dispensing opticians may have to work unsociable hours on a rota.

Jobs tend to be full-time, but some employers may offer flexible options, such as part-time or job share. Some dispensing opticians may be able to work on a freelance basis as a locum and on temporary or fixed contracts. There may also be options to be self-employed, open a practice or work for a franchise.

Travel is not usually a requirement for dispensing opticians. However, some roles may require individuals to travel to different stores/practices, which can lengthen the working day. Overnight stays and overseas travel are not common, but there may be opportunities with charities and overseas aid schemes.

What to expect

There are many positives to being a dispensing optician, especially if an individual enjoys being in a public-facing role and helping people. They will advise customers on how to look after their eyes and help them to find the best possible lenses for their needs. Helping people with their vision and eye care can be rewarding, as it enables them to do jobs and activities that they may not be able to do without corrected vision. Dispensing opticians can go home at the end of the working day knowing their job makes a significant difference to people’s lives.

This job would suit individuals who are scientifically and technically minded. They will learn about eye biology and health and work with designs and measurements. Each customer will have different issues and needs, so dispensing opticians are unlikely to get bored in their roles.

There is decent job security and numerous roles available across the UK, especially in towns and cities. There are options to work in various settings, such as retail and healthcare. The salaries for an experienced dispensing optician are also competitive, with some earning over £30,000.

There are opportunities to be a self-employed or freelance dispensing optician. Being self-employed and being your own boss can be attractive, as it can give individuals the independence to take charge of their career progression and day-to-day tasks.

Even though there are positives to being a dispensing optician, there are challenges and cons, e.g.:

  • Mental demands – being in any public-facing role and dealing with customers can be mentally demanding. Some people may not want or follow advice, and others may be unpleasant and challenging, which can be stressful. Working in any retail or healthcare environment can expose workers to verbal/physical abuse from the public, especially when helping individuals with mental/physical health issues.
  • Indoors all day – if an individual is not fond of the outdoors, this would be a suitable role. Dispensing opticians will spend most of their working day indoors. They will also usually sit down for most of this time, which can impact their health if they fail to exercise.
  • Close contact with people – dispensing opticians will need to get close to customers, e.g. to measure them for frames and help with contact lenses. There is a risk of getting sick when working so close to people, e.g. cold, flu and COVID viruses.
  • Qualifications, registration and costs – individuals will need a degree to become a dispensing optician, which can cost thousands and take several years to complete. They will also need to register with the General Optical Council after graduation.

 

Every career choice has pros and cons, and individuals must know what to expect before deciding whether it is a suitable role. It is mentally demanding, and individuals will be in close contact with people indoors. They will also need specific qualifications and registration. However, there are many positives too. Individuals who become dispensing opticians love helping people with their vision and making a positive difference to their lives.

When considering whether to be a dispensing optician, individuals should look at the pros and cons. They should also ensure they have the right personal qualities to carry out the role and responsibilities required.

Personal qualities needed to be an optician

Some of the personal qualities a dispensing optician requires will include (this list is not exhaustive):

  • A passion for eyewear, eye health, lenses and helping people.
  • Caring, compassionate, approachable, empathetic and understanding.
  • Confident, assertive, motivated, determined, honest and trustworthy.
  • Knowledge of science and maths.
  • Knowledge of eye health and biology.
  • Commercially aware.
  • People-focussed.
  • Excellent communication skills, both written and verbal.
  • Customer service skills.
  • Technical and analytical skills.
  • Problem-solving skills.
  • Interpersonal skills.
  • Teamworking skills.
  • Sales skills.
  • Organisational and time management skills.
  • Being thorough, accurate and having excellent attention to detail.
  • The ability to work well with others and alone using own initiative.
  • The ability to understand customers’ eye health and lens needs.
  • The ability to sell services and products.
  • The ability to develop relationships with customers of all ages.
  • The ability to work under pressure, be patient and remain calm in stressful situations.
  • The ability to work well with their hands.
  • The ability to use various dispensing tools and instruments.
  • The ability to concentrate, especially when carrying out repetitive tasks.
  • The ability to be flexible and adapt to change.
  • The ability to provide appropriate guidance, support and advice.
  • The ability to accept criticism.
  • The ability to use IT and software packages.

Qualifications

To become a dispensing optician, individuals must register with the General Optical Council (GOC), the regulator for the optical professions in the UK. To qualify for registration, individuals must complete a GOC-approved course.

There are currently three main study modes to choose from, which are as follows:

  • A full-time two-year training course at a GOC-approved training institution, followed by one year’s salaried work in a practice under supervision.
  • A three-year day release training course at a GOC-approved training institution, combined with suitable employment (i.e. as a pre-registration dispensing optician).
  • A three-year distance learning qualification offered by ABDO (Association of British Dispensing Opticians), combined with suitable employment (i.e. as a pre-registration dispensing optician).

 

The entry requirements will depend on each institution, and individuals should check before applying. They will typically need five GCSEs grades 9 to 4 (A* to C) or equivalent (including English, maths and science) as well as one or two A levels (including a science). Some institutions may also invite applicants for an interview as part of the selection process.

Exams and tests

Individuals will need to successfully complete all necessary assessments to register with the General Optical Council (GOC). The exams and tests will depend on the course individuals decide to follow, i.e. ABDO Exams or Anglia Ruskin University.

 

Registration

As stated, individuals will need to register with the General Optical Council (GOC) to practise as dispensing opticians in the UK. They will also need to pay a fee for initial registration and annual renewal.

Individuals must undertake continuing professional development (CPD) to remain registered with the GOC, as it is a statutory requirement for all fully-qualified dispensing opticians.

Optical sales assistant

Work experience

Relevant work experience can help individuals become dispensing opticians. They could start work in an optician practice as an optical assistant, sales assistant or receptionist. They could also shadow people already in the role to see what it is like and if it is for them.

Volunteering can also provide valuable work experience. Individuals could volunteer for a vision/sight-related charity to gain further knowledge on eye health, care and welfare. They could also do voluntary work in a public-facing role, e.g. in retail and customer service, to gain the necessary skills. There is information on volunteering and local opportunities on Do-IT, NCVO, Volunteering Matters and Indeed.

Taking training courses

Training courses

Learning does not stop with experience or once someone becomes qualified. Attending relevant training courses and having additional certifications can help individuals enter the profession, enhance their employability and give them a competitive edge. Many colleges and accredited private training companies can provide relevant training courses.

Some examples of courses that may be useful for individuals looking at a career in optical dispensing include (this list is not exhaustive):

  • Safeguarding.
  • Equality and diversity.
  • Work-related stress.
  • Work-related violence.
  • COVID-19 awareness.
  • Disability awareness.
  • Personal protective equipment (PPE).
  • Office health and safety.
  • Display screen equipment (DSE).
  • Workplace first aid.
  • Data protection and the GDPR.
  • Complaints handling.
  • Infection control (e.g. when working in hospitals).
  • Customer service skills.
  • Time management skills.
  • Business management.

 

Professional bodies, regulators and associations, such as the Association of British Dispensing Opticians (ABDO), the Association for Independent Optometrists and Dispensing Opticians, the General Optical Council (GOC), and others, can also advise on reputable training courses. Some also provide memberships, events and support to help individuals become dispensing opticians and give those already in the profession the means to continue their professional development.

The type of training required will depend on who an individual works for and their specialisms. It is worth looking at several job advertisements to identify the training needed for roles. Jobs are on websites such as GOV.UK find a job service, Indeed, LinkedIn, Glassdoor, Optician Jobs, Optometry Today (OT) and individual companies, e.g. Specsavers, Vision Express and Boots. Also, look at specialist recruitment agencies, such as Flame Health, Prospect Health, Inspired Selections and Zest Optical.

More relevant training and competence (skills, experience and knowledge) will open up more opportunities for individuals. Refresher training is also advisable as it is a legal requirement and keeps knowledge and skills up to date. It is also a requirement for registration renewal (CPD).

Criminal records checks

Dispensing opticians must undergo an enhanced background/criminal record check, as they will have contact with children and vulnerable people. A criminal record, caution, warning, or conviction may put off prospective employers. However, employers should account for the seriousness of the crime, when it occurred and its relevance to the role. Having a record does not automatically mean being excluded from jobs.

The organisation that holds criminal records will depend on the country within the UK, for example:

Working in high street chain

Where do opticians work?

Dispensing opticians can work in various establishments and for different employers, including (this list is not exhaustive):

  • Independent optician practices.
  • High-street chains, e.g. Boots, Vision Express and Specsavers.
  • The NHS.
  • Private hospitals.
  • Prescription laboratories.
  • Manufacturers of frames, lenses and other optical equipment.

 

Dispensing opticians can also be self-employed with their own practice or do freelance work. They may also travel to different optician practices and be a locum or be part of a franchise.

Dispensing optician

How much do opticians earn?

The salaries for dispensing opticians vary and will depend on whether they are employed or self-employed, their location, the practice type, the size of their employer, their working hours, their experience and their specialisms.

According to Check-a-Salary (these figures are a guide only):

  • Dispensing opticians, on average, earn a minimum of £18,750 per year (usually for starters).
  • The average dispensing optician’s salary in the UK is £26,311.10 per year.
  • Dispensing opticians, on average, earn a maximum of £34,500 per year.

 

Individuals who specialise in contact lenses may earn more with experience, i.e. up to £40,000.

Dispensing opticians may receive other benefits, in addition to their salary, such as a pension, private healthcare, sick pay, training and development, generous annual leave, maternity/paternity/adoption leave, etc.

Specialising in paediatric optometry

Types of optometry roles to specialise in

Dispensing opticians tend to generalise in all aspects of dispensing. However, there may be opportunities to specialise in other areas.

Such as (this list is not exhaustive):

  • Dispensing to customers who have additional needs and are vulnerable, e.g. low vision.
  • Working with customers that require specific adaptations to their optical appliances.
  • Contact lens fitting and aftercare.
  • Diabetic screening.
  • Children’s clinics (paediatric dispensing).
  • Senior (elderly) dispensing.
  • Extended services, e.g.:
    – Minor eye conditions services (MECS) (England).
    – Glaucoma Repeat Measure IOP readings.
    – Covid urgent eyecare services (CUES).

 

There may also be opportunities to work in specific settings, such as hospitals.

All specialist roles will require differing knowledge, skills, experience and qualities. Some may need specific qualifications, additional training and registration for specialised areas, e.g. contact lens opticians. All dispensing opticians must have expert knowledge of lenses and understand eye health and care. They will also need to be technically and scientifically minded and have excellent customer skills. Any additional areas of expertise will depend on what an organisation is looking for (if employed) and the type of work a dispensing optician wants.

If dispensing opticians do not carry out their roles effectively, safely and competently, customers may purchase the wrong type of optical appliances for their needs, resulting in customer complaints. Poor and incorrect advice on eye health/care and lenses could result in customers having issues with their eyes and vision. In serious cases, people can have accidents if their vision is affected. They may also suffer eye issues or damage, especially if vulnerable. Therefore, whatever the type of role, dispensing opticians must have the necessary competence to carry out the work professionally and safely. They should also know the limits of their competency, i.e. asking for help when something is beyond their expertise.

Optician with knowledge of new technologies

Professional bodies

Standards, practices, techniques, ophthalmic and dispensing equipment and technologies are regularly changing. Therefore, dispensing opticians must keep abreast with the latest developments and changes to ensure they carry out their roles effectively, safely and correctly. Continuing professional development (CPD) gives dispensing opticians the knowledge and skills to keep up to date with these changes, understand their responsibilities, and progress in their careers. It is also a mandatory requirement for registration.

Joining a professional body or association, such as the Association of British Dispensing Opticians (ABDO), the Association for Independent Optometrists and Dispensing Opticians, and others can help individuals enhance their skills and overall career. They may offer different levels of membership, CPD, support, access to industry contacts and networking events.

There is ample opportunity for career progression for dispensing opticians. With more qualifications, training and experience, they could become a practice manager or manage/supervise a team. They could specialise in specific areas, such as contact lenses. Alternatively, they could become self-employed, open their own practice or run an optical franchise.

Knowledge, skills and experience in dispensing can also lead to a career in different areas. For example, if a dispensing optician undertakes further qualifications, they could become an optometrist. They may want to move into other sectors, such as lens manufacturing, sales or teaching.