Newly graduated optometrists embarking on their first year of clinical practice can potentially make a wide starting salary range depending on their practice modality, professional goals, and other factors. Some new grads already have job opportunities waiting for them, while others prefer additional training through residency in a particular discipline(s). In this article, we’ll explore a broad overview for optometrists’ salaries as of 2022 based on practice modality, geography, and clinical experience.
Average optometrist starting salary based on setting
ODs in residency
In 2022, the new grad OD opting to pursue a residency program can expect to earn anywhere between $34,000 and $64,000 depending on their specific program, discipline, and location. The higher-paying programs are typically in more rural settings such as Indian Health Services throughout the southwest. Though this lower starting resident salary can dissuade some ODs, our 2021 Optometrist Report revealed that 96.3% of our respondents who completed a residency felt it was worth it.
Private vs. corporate practice
The majority of new grad ODs who do not pursue residency usually opt for private practice or commercial settings like Pearle Vision, Lenscrafters, Target Optical, and a Walmart Vision Center. Other avenues for employment directly out of school include some OD/MD practices, correctional settings, consulting, or even becoming an expert witness in malpractice cases. In most cases, practicing community health or hospital based-optometry does require optometrists to be residency trained (i.e., pediatrics, low vision, or ocular disease).
According to data gleaned from the 2021 Optometrist Report, there is a noticeable difference between salaries for private practice vs corporate optometrists, with those in a corporate setting earning approximately 11% more. In their first year, ODs starting out at an independently-owned office average $109,000 while their counterparts in a corporate setting earn $120,700. Comparatively, for those who opt to enter a hospital setting, the average starting salary is $116,00. However, those employed by a Veteran's Affairs Medical Center (VAMC) may only garner $70,000.
In most settings, periodic bonuses are also possible based on optical sales or patient volume and can be discussed accordingly. If you are in one of these modalities and you feel you have worked toward a raise, here are some tips on how to ask for that raise as an OD.
New grads must also be cognizant of other expenses pertaining to their career and factor these into their overall compensation package. This includes paid vacation/sick time, health insurance, malpractice insurance, and retirement planning (i.e., 403b, 401k).
“Remember to look at potential job opportunities from all angles, not simply the hourly rate or salary.”
Also, keep in mind that some job opportunities may require an after-hours call schedule or certain quotas for optical sales/patient volume. While this is acceptable and realistic in some settings, it can become stressful and lead to burnout in others.
How does your salary compare? See average salaries by location, practice setting, and experience level with Eyes On Eyecare's optometrist salary calculator.
ODs in Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity/International® (VOSH)
As a quick side note, another non-traditional career opportunity for new grads is through a 1-2 year commitment with VOSH Corps. This program seeks to develop the optometric profession in other countries, usually requiring new grads to be proficient in a foreign language while teaching in academic and clinical settings. This program typically pays $34k-$43k/year with additional stipends for housing and travel.
Employee versus 1099 Independent Contractor
While some employment opportunities may seem attractive on the surface, especially independent contractor positions, new grads will soon find that after paying for their own malpractice policy, health insurance, and any additional social security/medicare taxes, their $70/hour position really is closer to $60/hour. The White Coat Investor blog recommends that 1099 doctors earn at least 10% higher than they would as a W2 employee, in order to cover the aforementioned expenses.
While 1099 contractors are able to take additional tax deductions such as mileage and/or home office expenses, in the end, these 1099 job opportunities may actually pay less than an employed position. Be sure to compare your prospective employment opportunities appropriately based on how you will be paid, including any benefits and consult a Certified Financial Planner if you need more in-depth assistance and really want to understand the key differences. We spoke to CFP Adam Cmejla and CPA Gary Topple to help us break down what each opportunity means.
Other factors that play into how much an optometrist makes
Optometrists at every stage in their career will find three factors that consistently influence salary:
Location, location, location
When negotiating salary as a new grad optometrist, the first step is to understand the market value in your desired region or state. For instance, optometrists reported the annual starting salary in Montana averages at a mere $78,000, while new grad optometrists in the neighboring state of Wyoming are pulling in $105,000 per year on average.
Where an optometrist chooses to practice has a significant bearing on the average optometrist salary they can expect; average optometrist salaries vary considerably by state, region, and even city. However, the results may surprise you. States within the same region were at both the top and the bottom of our lists. And, a bigger city doesn’t necessarily mean a bigger salary, as often metropolitan areas are more desired and therefore can afford to offer less. Optometrists practicing in rural areas often find these locales are willing to pay more to ensure their community's eyecare needs are met.
At the same time, it's important to take into consideration elements like cost of living, housing availability, transportation options, and overall convenience of a given location, as this will also impact how your salary translates to your everyday reality.
More experience, more money
When it comes to salary, the amount of time spent in the optometry field plays a significant role. As one would expect, as experience increases, typically, so does the average optometrist salary. For example, in a median market, a new grad will start out at $109,000 while an OD with 4-6 years experience will garner $123,600, and an individual will 10+ years experience will earn $166,800.
Gender also influences optometrist salaries
Though starting salaries specifically were not analyzed, our 2021 Eyes On Eyecare Optometrist Report discovered significant difference between salaries for male and female ODs—even in 2021. Based on salary data for all optometrists polled (including employed optometrists and practice owners), male ODs are taking home about $41,699 more per year than female counterparts when salaries are averaged by gender. The Review of Optometry’s 2021 Income Survey reported similar findings with male optometrists reporting an annual salary of $189,260 compared with $165,447 for female ODs. However, this is actually a step in the right direction; over 2021, the gender gap closed to an all time low of 14%.
Contract considerations and salary negotiation
An impressive salary cannot make up for a mediocre work situation that offers minimal satisfaction. Sometimes new grads can get excited to “see a lot of ocular disease” at a local private, commercial, or OD/MD practice, only to find they’re expected to exclusively refract 20+ patients per day instead. Or they realize their corporate employee expects them to work both Saturdays and Sundays. The most viable way to avoid conflict and disappointment is to discuss all the terms of employment upfront and to get each in writing in the form of a detailed contract.
Regardless of the job opportunity, it is important to put everyone’s expectations in a clear and legally binding document. To learn exactly what should be included and how maximize your benefits, read our article on tips for negotiating a better contract and better starting salary.
Negotiable benefits can include:
- Retirement savings plans
- Ownership/stock options
- Vacation time
- Patient-care hours
- Allotment for Continuing Education
Unfortunately, any opportunity where your prospective employer refuses to put things into a written contract is likely not the employment opportunity for you. While there is no right or wrong mode of practice, new grads need to have a solid understanding of the pros and cons of each modality and employment structure from a clinical, business, and income-tax perspective. There is nothing wrong with committing to numerous part-time opportunities to see what works best for your personal and professional goals.
On the subject of student loans
One of the most daunting issues for new grads is student loan debt. After polling 551 employed ODs, we found the average student loan debt to be $96,943.29. More specifically, 2019 grads reported an average $173,000 worth of student loan debt.
In 2020, the government declared a national emergency in response to the Coronavirus pandemic. As a result of COVID, student loan payments were temporarily suspended and interest rates were waived. For eligible loans, the student loan payment pause has been extended by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) through May 1, 2022. This extension includes a 0% interest rate, a suspension of loan payments, and a halt on collections on defaulted loans.
Also, there are upcoming opportunities for student loan forgiveness for people devoted to careers in nonprofit and public organizations through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF), a federal student loan forgiveness program. Some optometrists in the community health sector may find themselves eligible.
Also, in addition to negotiating a competitive starting salary, there are steps you can take early in your career to pay off student debt in a timely manner.
Use our Student Loan Calculator to jumpstart your payment plan!
It is also important to remember that most new grads’ first job opportunity may not be their last. Even though we’ve all had a diverse exposure to various clinical settings as third and fourth year students, the exposure may continue after graduation. It is not uncommon for new grads to periodically change practice modalities or geographical locations prior to finding their dream job and ultimate career path.
Taking all things into consideration, aside from just the hourly rate or salary, will better help you obtain your true dream job and ideal lifestyle.
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