How to Become an Ophthalmologist

October 12, 2023


Reviewed by:

Jonathan Preminger

Former Admissions Committee Member, Hofstra-Northwell School of Medicine

Reviewed: 10/11/23

Thinking about pursuing a career in ophthalmology? But how hard is it to become an ophthalmologist? In this guide, we’ll discuss how to become an ophthalmologist. 

A medical career requires many years of education and training, and a specialization often requires even more. Eyesight is a beautiful gift that people can take for granted, and doctors who wish to specialize in eyecare know how complicated it can be to treat those whose vision needs help. 

Read on to learn what ophthalmology is and what it takes to become an ophthalmologist!

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Becoming an Ophthalmologist: Step-by-Step

The typical education path for an ophthalmologist includes four years of college followed by eight years of medicinal training. After four years of medical school, an ophthalmology residency is four years long. Your first year is typically a transitional year, meaning your ophthalmology training doesn’t technically begin until year two.

However, some programs integrate the first year, so residents get more exposure to ophthalmology training earlier.

1.  Bachelor’s Degree

A career in ophthalmology requires a four-year college degree followed by eight years of additional medical training. It’s best to be informed and to prepare for the prerequisite courses required by medical schools.

2. Medical School

After graduating from college, you’ll need to get into medical school. Apply to medical school to obtain an MD or DO. This process also involves Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) scores. Taking the MCAT is a prerequisite for most medical schools. 

In North America, nearly 80,000 applicants take the MCAT exam annually. The MCAT evaluates your mastery of natural, behavioral, and social science concepts and principles and your critical thinking skills.

Here are the top 10 best schools for ophthalmology in the United States:

  1. John Hopkins University
  2. University of Miami
  3. Harvard University
  4. Thomas Jefferson University
  5. Duke University
  6. University of Michigan
  7. University of Iowa
  8. Cleveland Clinic
  9. UCLA
  10. Oregon Health & Science University

You must consider many factors when choosing a med school. Ultimately, it will be up to you to decide where you want to study ophthalmology and practice it.

3. Residency 

After finishing med school, you must complete an internship or residency. For ophthalmologists, this entails pursuing a one-year internship prior to completing a minimum of three years in an ophthalmology residency. 

Like other specialties, having publications, strong recommendations, and good USMLE or COMLEX scores make you a more competitive applicant.

4. Obtain a License to Practice Medicine

After completing a residency, ophthalmologists can join the workforce or get additional training in a subspeciality via a fellowship. Subspecialties include:

Table outlining the subspecialties ophthalmologists can puruse after graduating med school

About Ophthalmology

Ophthalmology deals with the diagnosis and treatment of eye disorders, and ophthalmologists are doctors who specialize in eye care. The more common eye doctors are optometrists, who differ from ophthalmologists in their level of training and what they can diagnose and treat.

Ophthalmology is unique in that it isn’t strictly a medical or surgical specialization but blends both. Its practice can be categorized into three main areas: medical, procedural, and surgical.


There are five main categories within the medical focus of ophthalmology. The following table provides an explanation and examples for each.

Table outlining the five main categories within the medical focus of ophthalmology.


These operations differ from surgical as they are performed in the office and not the operating room.

Table outlining several procedural operations that ophthalmologists complete


When performing surgical procedures in the operating room, ophthalmologists can perform on extraocular (outside the eye), periocular (around the eye), or intraocular (within the eye) cases.

Table outlining the extraocular (outside the eye), periocular (around the eye), or intraocular (within the eye) operations ophthalmologists can perform

Ophthalmologist Career Outlook and Salary

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary for all ophthalmologists (excluding pediatric ophthalmologists) is $265,450. The job outlook for ophthalmologists is included in the projection for all physicians: from 2021 to 2031, the employment growth rate is estimated to be 3%, slower than average.  

However, the employment growth rate should be taken with a grain of salt. Despite the data, about 23,800 openings for physicians are projected yearly from 2021 to 2031. This is mainly due to the number of physicians retiring each year. 

The best-paying industries for ophthalmologists include outpatient care centers and physician offices.

Cost to Become an Ophthalmologist

How much does it cost to become an ophthalmologist? It depends on the college and medical school you go to. The average cost of college (tuition, living expenses, fees, etc.) annually in the U.S. is ​​$38,768, but this price can vary greatly. The average yearly cost of medical school is estimated to be $57,574.

Is Ophthalmology Right for You? How to Decide

Ophthalmology is a rewarding path that can allow someone who wants to specialize in eye care to take care of another person’s ability to see the world. 

Part of the path is deciding which ophthalmology school is best for you. In determining whether this career path is appropriate for you, you must consider:


Ophthalmology is often assumed to be far more competitive than it is. This is due, in part, to the field’s participation in the SF Match residency and fellowship matching services rather than the traditional NRMP. For U.S. graduates, the recent match rate was 92.8%.


From SATs to MCATs to everything in between, aspiring ophthalmologists must be ready to demonstrate their mastery of the sciences before becoming responsible for someone’s eyesight.

Long Journey

As previously mentioned, becoming an ophthalmologist takes years of school: approximately eight years, followed by a four-year-long ophthalmology residency. Anyone who doesn’t have the energy or time for that should reconsider before taking on an ambitious goal.


As an ophthalmologist, you’ll inevitably need to work with your hands. Precision is important when working on a small and delicate organ, and openness to learning new technologies can prove advantageous.

Location, Location, Location

Depending on where you live, you may be near a school with a good ophthalmology program, or you may need to find one in another city. Moving is a big decision to consider, and you should plan if you will be taking this jump.

FAQs: How to Become an Ophthalmologist

Still have questions about how to become an ophthalmologist? Take a look at our answers to these frequently asked questions.

1. How Long Does It Take To Become An Ophthalmologist?

How long it takes to become an ophthalmologist depends on the length of internships or other professional training you obtain, but it generally takes approximately 12 years

2. How Hard Is It To Become An Ophthalmologist?

The optometric practice after graduation consists of working in an existing practice, working up to partnerships, buying other practices, or setting up an entirely new practice. It’s a long journey that comes with great responsibility, so it should not be an easy path to take on.

3. What Does an Ophthalmologist Do? 

Ophthalmologists specialize in diagnosing and treating all eye disorders. 

4. How Much Does an Ophthalmologist Make?

According to the BLS, an ophthalmologist's (not including pediatric ophthalmologists) average annual wage is $265,450.

5. What Are the Education Requirements to Become an Ophthalmologist? 

A typical ophthalmology education path requires earning a bachelor's degree, an MD or DO, and finally completing your residency. 

Final Thoughts 

Pursuing a career in ophthalmology requires a passion for helping others. Ophthalmologists are also entrepreneurs, having to manage their own practice and those that enter it. 

Leadership, relationship-building, and management skills are as necessary as expertise in vision and eye care. We wish you luck on your path to becoming an ophthalmologist! 

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