How to Become an Ophthalmologist

An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor or doctor of osteopathy who specializes in treating the eye and helping patients maintain their vision. Since ophthalmologists are highly-trained physicians, they need to undergo extensive education, including many years of medical school, a one-year internship and residency training. In addition, an ophthalmologist will need to undergo medical licensing in the state or states in which they plan to practice. In this article we discuss how to become an ophthalmologist and career options.

Ophthalmologists diagnose and treat all eye diseases and disorders. Their expertise is extensive, and they are licensed to prescribe medicine and perform surgical procedures on the eyes. The job requires an ability to apply critical thinking, listen actively and provide simplified explanations for complex medical problems. In addition, doctors need to make decisions quickly and confidently, manage a demanding workload and find time for continuing education.

What Can You Expect from a Career as an Ophthalmologist?

Those who work as ophthalmologists enjoy the career for its variability. While most doctors need to choose between a career specializing in surgery or a career specializing in medicine, ophthalmology has aspects of both. Depending on where they work, ophthalmologists are also less likely than other medical specialties to be called in to perform a procedure or work off-shift hours like nights and weekends.

Ophthalmology is a delicate specialty, which requires fine motor skills and a keen eye for detail. The eyes can be the window to the rest of the body, and by examining them an ophthalmologist will often be the first to notice symptoms of sometimes undiagnosed health problems. For instance, illnesses like diabetes, high blood pressure, multiple sclerosis and cancer can all show up on an eye examination before being caught by other clinical evaluations.

Ophthalmologists work closely with their patients and, as a result, are often able to form uniquely strong bonds with them. They usually have the chance to get to know the patients they treat due to the frequency with which they see them, both during clinic appointments and in surgery. In addition, some of the procedures ophthalmologists have available can restore a patient’s vision, allowing for a high degree of job satisfaction.

Like all medical careers, becoming an ophthalmologist takes a very long time. A typical trajectory for those entering the career is high school followed by a four-year undergraduate degree, typically a bachelor’s degree, and four more years in medical school.

After becoming a fully qualified doctor, medical doctors will generally undergo a one-year internship and two years of a residency program. Upon completing your medical school training, internship and residency, you can work as a general practitioner or hospitalist without additional training.

Those who wish to become specialists will need to apply to a specialty fellowship after the completion of their residency program and complete several years of training in their specialty area. However, someone who is planning on becoming an ophthalmologist will typically go directly into a three-year residency program on the completion of their internship.

For more specifics on how to become an ophthalmologist, keep reading below.

Pre-Medical College Undergraduate Education Requirements and the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT)

If you are planning to become an ophthalmologist, you should expect to be a student for many years before beginning your career. This career choice carries a great deal of responsibility, and you will need to incur a great deal of knowledge to back that up. The decisions you will need to make to reach the culmination of this career will likely begin as a high school student.

It probably goes without saying that a high school diploma or equivalent is a necessary pre-requisite for any undergraduate pre-medical school degree you might want to take. Still, it should be noted that medical school admission is highly competitive, and if you are a high school student who is considering a career in medicine, the choices you make now could easily affect your future admissions.

If you are not currently in high school, however, there is no need to panic. You can still get the grades you need through a two-year college and subsequently transfer to a four-year college for undergraduate studies in a pre-medicine discipline. You don’t necessarily have to earn a specific degree in Pre-Medicine. A Bachelor’s degree in Biology, Human Physiology, Biochemistry or a related science might be a better choice for you.

Whichever four-year degree program you choose, you want to be sure it will help you prepare for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). When applying to medical schools, your MCAT scores will be weighted heavily, along with your grade point average. The MCAT exam is considered to be a predictor of your ability to succeed in medical school. There are four sections on the test:

  • Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
  • Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
  • Psychological Social and Biological Foundations of Behavior
  • Critical Analysis and Reason

The MCAT takes about seven and a half hours to complete, and candidates are awarded points up to the highest grade of 528. The average score for all who take the test is around 500. However, you will want to score in the 75th percentile (approximately 510) to increase your chances of getting accepted into medical school.

Medical School, Internship and Residency for Ophthalmologists

Once you’ve taken the MCAT test and passed in the 75th percentile, you will be ready to apply to medical school. If your grades and test score are high enough to give you some choice in schools, you may want to research which schools will best meet your needs.

If you have already decided that you want to become an ophthalmologist, you may want to search for a school with a highly reputable program. The top 10 rated schools for ophthalmologist education programs in the United States include:

Once accepted into a medical program, you will need to complete four years of medical school training, during which you will learn extensive anatomy and physiology, biochemistry and pathophysiology. Medical students also do clinical rotations through several core areas including internal medicine, surgery, obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics, family medicine, psychiatry, neurology and radiology. You can also choose elective rotations in the specialty of your choice.

After you have completed a full four years of medical school and earned your degree, you will have earned the title of “Doctor.” However, your training will be far from finished. For the next several years, you will be performing patient care under the supervision of attending physicians and more senior residents.

In order to become an ophthalmologist, you will need to apply for an internship and residency program together in your final year of medical school. The one-year internship consists of patient care training in both general medicine and surgery rotations. Once you have completed the first year of training, you will enter an ophthalmology-specific residency program for three years.

How to Become an Ophthalmologist with a Subspecialty

If becoming an ophthalmologist isn’t specialized enough for you, you can explore additional career skills through a subspecialty. Ophthalmologist subspecialties include the following:

  • Neuro-Ophthalmology: Neuro-ophthalmologists diagnose and treat vision problems that stem from neurological problems like those caused by a traumatic brain injury or stroke. Treatments may include glasses, surgery or rehabilitation.
  • Ophthalmic Pathology: Ophthalmic pathology specialists provide analysis of tissues from the eyes and ocular adnexa. This specialty focuses on diseases that can affect the eye and the neighboring tissues. These diseases can include conditions such as eye and orbit cancer or illnesses of other systems that affect the eye, such as kidney disease or diabetes.
  • Ophthalmic Reconstructive and Plastic Surgery: Ophthalmic reconstructive and plastic surgery specialists reconstruct damage that has been caused by disease, fracture or evisceration. These reconstructions include the eyelids, eye sockets, tear ducts, eyebrows and mid-face.
  • Pediatric Ophthalmology: Pediatric ophthalmologists are trained to work specifically with children. They provide diagnostic exams, test for problems in the eyes, perform surgical procedures and care for injuries.
  • Uveitis and Ocular Immunology: Uveitis and ocular immunology specialists treat ocular inflammatory diseases caused by uveitis. Uveitis can be indicative of a systemic autoimmune disease, an infectious pathology, a medication side effect or an injury. These ophthalmologists are highly specialized in the diagnosis and treatment of patients with inflammatory eye disease.

An ophthalmologist who chooses to pursue a subspecialty will generally need to apply for an additional two years of training through a fellowship to gain the necessary skills for each specialty.

When deciding whether to pursue a subspecialty, you will want to research each respective specialty’s various pros and cons. In some cases, the salary may be lower and the work more repetitive, whereas other subspecialties may have a higher salary and offer more exciting work. Your personality and preferences will have a significant role to play in your decision.

Ophthalmology Medical Licensing and Board Certification

So, you’ve learned all the skills, attended university for a total of eight years, completed an additional year of internship and three years of residency, and, if you have chosen a subspecialty, completed another two years of fellowship. By now, you are definitely ready to begin your career. Now is the time to settle down and open a medical practice, right?

Unfortunately, the answer is no. Before starting to practice on your own, you will need to pursue medical licensing in the state or states in which you expect to practice. Medical licensing procedures can vary from state to state, but in general you will need to prove that you have met the expected educational requirements and are qualified and pass a state-approved examination.

After attaining your license, you can begin working, but you may want to take the extra time to pursue board certification. Becoming board certified is a gold standard in the medical community and attaining it is a distinction you need. Accreditation will help you attract patients to your practice or open up opportunities for jobs if you prefer to apply to an established practice.

Wherever you choose to work, this professional distinction is an accreditation that patients recognize and trust. Therefore, many patients will search for a doctor who has proved competence through credentialing.

The American Board of Ophthalmology governs board certification for ophthalmologists. The process involves meeting specific education and training requirements, sitting for a written examination and passing an in-person test to assess your patient care skills.

Salary Data for Ophthalmologists

After all of the time you have spent in training, the good news is that ophthalmologists can expect to make a decent wage. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average annual salary for physicians in May of 2020 was $218,850. For those who own and operate a private practice, the pay potential could be much higher depending on the practice’s location and size. The BLS reports that the highest-paid physicians live in Maine, Montana, South Dakota, Alaska and Wyoming. The top-paying cities for physician jobs were listed as New York, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia.

Although the physician salaries reported by the BLS are higher than the average worker makes, it should be noted that physicians need to attend extensive educational programs, which can come with an enormous monetary cost. Many students in the United States must incur a large amount of debt in order to attend college, and physicians are no exception. As such, when considering potential salary information, it is essential to consider the cost of the necessary education and the potential for incurring an enormous debt that will need to be repaid when you begin your career.

The Day-to-Day Life of an Ophthalmologist

Once you have obtained the skills you need to diagnose and treat patients, completed your time as a student, passed your credentialing exam and become licensed, you are finally ready to begin your career as an ophthalmologist. When you’ve reached this point in your career, you are probably ecstatic to stop being a student and begin your new job. As an ophthalmologist, you can expect an exciting career with new things to discover for every patient who walks into your office.

There are so many advantages to this career, but one of the most satisfying aspects is knowing how your work improves the ongoing health and visual abilities of your patients. Ophthalmologists can provide concrete interventions that significantly add to a patient’s quality of life. The job also offers opportunities to work in versatile settings, doing tasks that require a plethora of skills from deductive reasoning to fine motor coordination to communication and teaching. As an ophthalmologist, you can choose from several subspecialties that can be done full-time or concurrent with your regular duties.

As careers go, ophthalmology seems to hold a lot of promise. The career not only allows for opportunities to grow and continue learning, but it can also allow you to build a stable and lucrative business. With so many positive aspects of this career, it’s hard to imagine that becoming an ophthalmologist won’t enrich your life in a meaningful way.