The process of becoming an ophthalmologist is similar to other medical career paths. It requires a medical degree, which first requires that you earn a bachelor’s degree. Then, you’ll undergo a medical residency.

Some ophthalmologists further specialize. This may require more education and involve more competition, but it can also lead to a higher level of pay and a greater focus on your preferred type of work.

ophthalmologist in his office

Ophthalmologist Overview

Ophthalmologists are full-fledged eye doctors. Whereas optometrists can conduct eye exams, diagnose eye health conditions, and often prescribe medications as they deem necessary to treat those conditions, they are not medical doctors.

Ophthalmologists go to medical school, train to diagnose eye and vision problems, and learn how to perform eye surgery. While optometrists must have a bachelor’s degree and complete an optometry program, they don’t need an advanced medical degree as ophthalmologists do.

As a result, ophthalmologists qualify as physicians and surgeons. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average ophthalmologist in the U.S. garners a salary of at least $208,000 per year.

Ophthalmologists focus on diagnosing and treating a variety of chronic eye conditions, such as glaucoma, cataracts, and retinal issues.

Recommended Ophthalmologist Career & Education Path

Some people discover their career path to ophthalmology in medical school whereas others plan their path much earlier. If you’re interested in becoming an ophthalmologist, these are the steps you’ll need to take:

Step 1: Get a Relevant Bachelor’s Degree

Once you’ve finished high school, pursue a relevant bachelor’s degree. This takes approximately four years.

Common majors for ophthalmology include pre-medicine and biology. Research appropriate majors and choose one that aligns with your interests and desired specialty. When possible, take courses that help build your skills and expertise in medicine, particularly medicine related to the eye specifically.

At the same time, make sure you take all prerequisite courses needed to pass your MCAT (discussed in the next step) and get into an appropriate medical college. If you’re unsure where to begin, talk with your school career advisor and research the most up-to-date requirements to enter medical school.

Applying for medical school is very competitive, so dedicate yourself to getting good grades as an undergrad.

Step 2: Take the MCAT

Becoming a doctor requires that you pass the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). This is a comprehensive test that covers many of the basics you need to know when you eventually become a doctor.

The MCAT isn’t easy. Be attentive as an undergraduate, study for the MCAT well, and take prep courses. Many prep courses have you take multiple practice exams to ensure you are ready come test day.

Step 3: Apply to Medical School

Once you pass your MCAT and have a bachelor’s degree, you can begin applying to medical schools. This process can be quite competitive, so prepare a solid academic resume and have multiple schools in mind in case your application is rejected by your initial favorites.

Medical school can be very expensive, so plan for how you will pay for it. While doctors can make a significant amount of money over the course of their careers, it is not uncommon for people to be in debt in the early to middle stages of their careers.

Step 4: Get Your Medical Degree

After about four years, a successful medical student can earn their medical degree. Work hard in medical school, not only because these programs can be rigorous but also because the skills you develop in school will directly impact the lives of future patients.

As an ophthalmologist, your educational path may focus on the eye, but you will still need to develop a significant amount of general medical expertise too. Much of what you’ll cover in medical school will serve you in your later practice.

Step 5: Take the National Licensing Exams

You’ll take the first part of these exams during your first two years in medical school. After passing those exams, you’ll be able to participate in rotations in medical school. You’ll take the second part of the exams after you have participated in rotations.

Step 6: Complete an Internship

For ophthalmology, you must complete a one-year post-graduate clinical internship prior to beginning your residency. This is outlined in the American Board of Ophthalmology’s requirements.

Step 7: Complete Residency

While you have earned your doctor of medicine (MD), you must still complete a residency. A residency is a hands-on training process medical doctors go through, where they cycle through working with various medical professionals and their patients. Residency takes approximately three to seven years.

First-year residents are often referred to as interns. After that point, they are called residents. If doctors opt for further training or specialization after residency, they are called fellows.

Residency helps you hone your skills. It is one of the most important parts of your medical training, as you directly treat patients while continuing to build your abilities. Treat this training process as critical, paying close attention to the advice of the professionals you work with and the needs of the patients you help care for.

Step 8: Get Your State License

You’ll need to be licensed to practice medicine in each state.

Research the licensing requirements in the state you want to practice in and take those exams. Requirements vary between states.

Step 9: Get Board Certified

You must secure your certification from the American Board of Ophthalmology (ABO). They require the following:

  • Medical degree
  • Internship prior to medical residency
  • Ophthalmology residency of at least three years
  • Unrestricted medical license
  • Passing oral and written exams
  • Commitment to ABO’s pledge to practice with compassion, integrity, and respect for human dignity

Step 10: Begin Your Practice as a Licensed Ophthalmologist

With your residency and licensing complete, you have essentially completed all the necessary steps to become a practicing ophthalmologist. You can apply to ophthalmologist positions. You may also decide to start your own practice or train to further specialize.

Further Specializations for Ophthalmologists

Many ophthalmologists choose to be general ophthalmologists, offering overall ophthalmology care to their patients. Some choose to further specialize, becoming experts in a more narrow aspect of ophthalmology.

These are some potential specialties for ophthalmologists:

  • Glaucoma concentration
  • Retina/uveitis concentration
  • Neuro-ophthalmology
  • Cornea/anterior segment surgery
  • Reconstructive/aesthetic surgery
  • Pediatrics
  • Ocular oncology

Research a specialty you’re considering to fully understand what it may entail. Some specialties may mean substantial salary increases, but they might also require significantly more education than a general ophthalmologist career path.

Many doctors begin their careers in general ophthalmology, and choose a more specific niche once they gain experience in the field.

Becoming an Ophthalmologist FAQs

  • How long does it take to become an ophthalmologist?

    The full path to becoming an ophthalmologist from high school to independent practice takes about 11 to 15 years. Remember that 8 of those years are your undergraduate and medical school, so the post-graduate work involved takes approximately 3 to 7 years.

  • Do ophthalmologists go to medical school?

    Yes, ophthalmologists are medical doctors.

References

Ophthalmology. American College of Surgeons.

Opticians. (April 2022). U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Physicians and Surgeons. (April 2022). U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Road to Becoming a Doctor. (November 2020). Association of American Medical Colleges.

Requirements for Certification. American Board of Ophthalmology.

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