Optician Certification can Take Two Paths
You can enroll in a college or you can learn on the job. College programs for opticians are usually two year Associates degrees that are usually offered at Community Colleges or Technical Schools. They can also be part of a four year degree program at a traditional college. Some colleges may also have on-line courses, even although practical training is still required.
Requirements for learning on the job can vary with the State. Some states have official Apprenticeship Programs, others do not. States requiring apprenticeship are usually licensed states, states that require opticians to hold a valid license to practice their trade. There are about 26 licensed states. To become an apprentice involves finding a “master” willing to sponsor and train you. Mentor opticians have to let their students practice under their licenses. Not all opticians want to do that.
Both paths to certification (and/or licensure) end in the same way. The applicant has to take (and pass!) at least one major National Exam, sometimes two. The exams are given by the ABO/NCLE (American Board of Opticianry/National Contact Lens Examiners). The opticianry exam is given by the ABO, and the contact lens exam is given by the NCLE. Some states require opticans only to have one certification, others require dual certification. There are even some states with their own Practical Exams. The good thing about practicing in a THREE EXAM state is that wages tend to be higher!
The College Path to Optician Certification
There are those in the industry that look down upon opticians who haven’t been to college. But, to be fair, there are also those who look down upon the college grads! The truth is, getting a degree in opticianry is an excellent way to enter the field. If you can afford it, it’s a straightforward, easy path. The colleges know you have to pass your certification exams, and they tend to teach TO the test. If you are in a degree program, chances are you’ll pass the National Boards the first time. All your classes are set up to make sure you do.
The major benefit of going to optical school is that you will taught things you just can’t learn on the job. A lot of your training will be medical. You will also learn theory. There’s a great deal of physics and math involved in lens design and geometric optics. Learning all that in a traditional classroom can be easier than trying to get it from a book. A classically trained optician knows MORE than just practical matters.
Conversely, you do need the practical, and there is only so much practical training you can get in a college program. Theory and reality may not even be CLOSE in day to day practice. Opticians have to DO, they can’t just know. When you land your first dispensing job after graduation, be prepared to keep on learning!
Learning Optical Dispensing by Doing Optical Dispensing
There are plenty of opticians who have learned our trade on the job. For some, college just wasn’t affordable. Others had no Opticianry program offered nearby. Then there are the thousand of dispensing opticians who “fell into” the field from somewhere else. My perennial joke is that children don’t grow up saying: “Someday I want to be an optician!” Our field isn’t that glamorous, or even that well known. Many trainees stumble across opticianry looking for a better career. Many already have degrees in other fields. These people don’t want to go back to school, and they need to work NOW.
There are benefits to learning on the job. The first is that by the time you achieve your certification, you are already work trained. You have DONE all the day to day “hands on” procedures. You’ve already got the skills. There are some manual skills ESSENTIAL to dispensing that you just can’t learn in school. Sure, they have frame workshops in college where you practice adjusting frames on each other. But it really takes years to know how to do it right. A seasoned optician has the skill in his or her hands. The more frames you work with, and the more patients you work with, the better your value as a dispenser will be.
The same goes for troubleshooting. Every patient is different, and they are not all going to react in a textbook-like manner. Patients are going to have trouble with their glasses. IT WILL HAPPEN! And a knowledgeable optician will have to use his/her skills to diagnose the source of the patient’s trouble and know how to fix it. Theory helps, of course. But experience is the true teacher. Just dealing with multiple types of difficult patients is a learning experience. There are lots of employers who want to see experience more than schooling.
Apprentices face their one major hurtle when it comes to their exams. An apprentice will most likely ACE a state practical exam, but the National Certification Boards are more problematic. This is “book-learning” they need to know, not all practical knowledge. Most apprentices buy books and study guides, take on-line courses, and look for practice tests.
The Best of Both Worlds
The most valuable opticians I ever worked with were those who managed to get both kinds of training. They apprenticed AND took some college courses, mostly at night. Or they attended a college that had a good work-study or internship program. Getting this synthesis of educational experience can be key to mastering both the physical skills and the sort of knowledge that lends itself to multiple choice tests. If you have the opportunity, this is the way to go.
But whichever way you train it’s still a good idea to take practice tests to prepare for certification. We recommend our own UNLIMITED exams at www.passyouropticalboards.com. There are over 5,000 questions in the database and every test is unique. You’ll never get the same question twice! We even provide you with the answers to the questions you missed and explanations to help you learn. Practice makes perfect!