The potential for vision loss, whether partial or complete, due to eye injuries or conditions can be daunting for individuals facing such challenges. That’s where the expertise of ophthalmologists becomes indispensable. With their extensive training and skills, these specialized doctors play a key role in safeguarding and restoring one of our most precious senses: sight.

If you’re intrigued by the idea of contributing to ocular health and vision, continue reading as we explore what a career as an ophthalmologist entails. We’ll provide a step-by-step guide on how to become an ophthalmologist, discuss financial considerations, and explore other aspects of this rewarding profession.

What Is an Ophthalmologist?

Ophthalmologists are doctors who specialize in eye care and treatment. They make diagnoses and provide medical treatments that are critical in safeguarding eye health and preserving vision. 

Unlike other eye care professionals, like opticians who assist with selecting frames and lenses and optometrists who conduct eye examinations and prescribe corrective lenses, ophthalmologists are also ophthalmology surgeons as they are qualified to perform surgical interventions when necessary. Their expertise allows them to provide personalized treatment plans tailored to each patient’s unique needs, ensuring optimal eye health and vision outcomes.

What Do Ophthalmologists Do?

Ophthalmologists have a wide range of daily responsibilities aimed at preserving and improving eye health. Some of their key tasks include:

  • Conducting comprehensive eye examinations to assess vision and eye health
  • Diagnosing various eye conditions and diseases, such as cataracts, glaucoma, and macular degeneration
  • Prescribing and fitting glasses or contact lenses to correct vision problems
  • Performing surgical procedures, including cataract surgery, LASIK, and retinal surgery
  • Collaborating with optometrists and other specialists to provide integrated care for patients with complex eye issues
  • Administering treatments for eye injuries, infections, and disorders, which may include medications, laser therapy, or surgery

How to Become an Ophthalmologist:

Aspiring ophthalmologists must pursue the necessary education and training that begins with earning a bachelor’s degree and progresses through medical school, clinical rotations, residency, and, ultimately, the start of their professional careers. Each step in this process, as further explored below, is designed to provide them with the knowledge, skills, and hands-on experience essential for delivering high-quality eye care to patients.

1. Earn a bachelor’s degree

To begin, aspiring ophthalmologists must first earn a bachelor’s degree. Pursuing majors such as biology, chemistry, or related fields is highly recommended to ensure a thorough understanding of fundamental scientific principles essential for advanced medical studies. Additionally, engaging in extracurricular activities and gaining experiences related to healthcare or research can provide valuable insights into the practical aspects of the profession and demonstrate a commitment to the field of medicine.

2. Take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT)

The MCAT is a crucial component of the admission process for medical school. This exam consists of four parts:

  • Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems;
  • Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems;
  • Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior;
  • Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills.

Preparation strategies, including review courses, practice exams, and study resources, are essential to achieve a competitive score and increase the chances of admission to medical school. 

3. Apply to medical school

Medical school provides aspiring ophthalmologists with the specialized knowledge, skills, and clinical experience necessary to practice ophthalmology competently and ethically. Prospective students must navigate the complex application process, which usually includes submitting transcripts, letters of recommendation, and a personal statement. Selecting a medical school aligned with career goals and values is crucial, as it sets the stage for future training and specialization in ophthalmology.

Typically, during this phase, students also sit for steps 1 and 2 of the United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE). The exam evaluates foundational medical knowledge essential for practice through multiple-choice questions and clinical scenarios.

4. Complete clinical rotations

Hands-on clinical experience is invaluable for aspiring ophthalmologists, providing exposure to different medical specialties and patient populations. Clinical rotations during medical school offer opportunities to work alongside experienced physicians, gaining practical skills and insights into various aspects of patient care. 

The exposure to diverse patient cases during this phase enhances diagnostic abilities and equips future ophthalmologists with the expertise to effectively diagnose, treat, and manage various eye disorders.

5. Apply for residency

After completing medical school, aspiring ophthalmologists can apply for residency programs in ophthalmology, which typically span three years in addition to a preliminary year. Aspiring residents usually register and participate in the National Residency Match Program (NRMP) to find a suitable program for their internship and residency phase.

6. Start your internship

The internship or preliminary phase of residency training provides aspiring ophthalmologists with practical experience in a supervised clinical setting. During this period, residents build essential clinical skills, develop diagnostic proficiency, and learn to manage patient care under the guidance of experienced mentors. This step serves as the transitory phase from medical school to residency for ophthalmology, laying the groundwork for future specialization.

7. Complete ophthalmology residency


The next three years of residency offer further opportunities for enhancing knowledge and hands-on experience in diagnosing and treating eye disorders. Residents work closely with attending physicians to develop expertise in various ophthalmic subspecialties, such as retina, cornea, and glaucoma. 

Additionally, Step 3 of the USMLE is usually taken during the first or second year of residency training. This step focuses on and assesses patient management and decision-making. 

8. Obtain board certification

Board certification signifies that an ophthalmologist has met specific educational, training, and competency standards established by the American Board of Ophthalmology (ABO). The process typically involves passing both the Written and Oral Qualifying Examinations administered by the ABO, demonstrating proficiency in various aspects of ophthalmology practice, and confirming readiness for independent practice in the field.

Finally, ophthalmologists can explore job opportunities within the field of ophthalmology and pursue roles in private practice, academic medicine, or hospital settings, depending on their career aspirations and interests.

Strategies for a successful job search include networking with colleagues, attending professional conferences, and utilizing online resources. Building a strong professional network and seeking mentorship opportunities can facilitate career advancement and ensure long-term success in the field.

How Long Does It Take to Become an Ophthalmologist?

Becoming an ophthalmologist requires a significant investment of time, typically around 12 years. The whole process encompasses four years of undergraduate education, followed by four years of medical school, a one-year internship or preliminary residency phase, and a three-year residency program in ophthalmology. Additionally, obtaining board certification may require additional time for exam preparation and completion.

Career Growth and Opportunities

Ophthalmology offers a range of career paths and opportunities for professional growth. Upon completing residency training, ophthalmologists can pursue various subspecialties within the field, such as retina, cornea, or pediatric ophthalmology. Advanced training through fellowship programs provides opportunities to develop expertise in specific areas of interest and further enhance clinical skills. 

Additionally, ophthalmologists may explore leadership roles within healthcare organizations or academic positions that offer avenues for teaching, mentorship, and conducting groundbreaking research in ophthalmology, contributing to advancing the field and shaping the future of eye care.

Essential Skills for an Ophthalmologist

To excel as an ophthalmologist, one needs a combination of medical expertise, technical proficiency, and interpersonal abilities, including:

  • Proficiency in conducting eye examinations and diagnostic tests
  • Surgical dexterity and precision
  • Ability to interpret diagnostic imaging and test results
  • Strong communication skills
  • Empathy and compassion
  • Collaborative teamwork skills
  • Attention to detail and critical thinking
  • Commitment to ongoing learning and professional development

The Financial Perspective

Becoming an ophthalmologist entails a significant financial investment, much like other medical professions, with the average cost of medical school ranging from $52,483 per year for public institutions to $65,453 per year for private institutions, averaging $58,968 annually. However, despite the substantial costs associated with medical education, the return on investment for ophthalmologists is notable as they earn a mean annual wage of $265,450, reflecting the lucrative nature of the profession. 

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, while the process of becoming an ophthalmologist may be lengthy and demanding, the opportunity to make a significant and positive impact on countless lives is truly unparalleled. The ability to restore vision, alleviate suffering, and improve the quality of life for patients is immensely rewarding and fulfilling. 

Ready to take one of the most crucial steps toward becoming an ophthalmologist? Join our medical school today and gain the foundational knowledge needed to excel in healthcare and ophthalmology, laying the groundwork for a career contributing to improving eye health and vision care for your patients.

Frequently Asked Questions(FAQs)

Which ophthalmology specialty makes the most money?

General Ophthalmologists, Glaucoma Specialists, and Refractive Surgeons typically earn among the highest salaries in ophthalmology due to the specialized nature of their work and the demand for their services.

Does ophthalmology require a lot of math?

While basic math skills are necessary for tasks like interpreting diagnostic tests and understanding medication dosages, ophthalmology primarily relies on clinical reasoning, medical knowledge, and surgical skills rather than advanced mathematical concepts.

Is it hard being an Ophthalmologist?

Becoming an ophthalmologist requires years of rigorous education, training, and dedication. The workload can be demanding, with extended hours and intense patient care responsibilities, but for many, the rewards of improving patients’ vision and quality of life outweigh the challenges.

Is Ophthalmology better than Optometry?

The choice between ophthalmology and optometry depends on individual career goals and preferences. Both professions offer fulfilling career paths but with different scopes of practice and educational requirements.