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How to Become an Ophthalmologist

April 29, 2022
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About OphthalmologyBecoming an Ophthalmologist: Step-by-StepCost to Become an OphthalmologistIs Ophthalmology Right for You? How to DecideOther ConsiderationsFAQs: How to Become an Ophthalmologist

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

A career in the world of medicine requires a long journey of 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. 

The study of eye care has stretched all the way back to ancient times in different civilizations, ranging from the Egyptians and Babylonians to the Chinese. This article will explain a little bit about what ophthalmology is and what it takes to become an ophthalmologist.

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About Ophthalmology

Ophthalmology is a branch of medicine that deals with the diagnosis and treatment of eye disorders. An ophthalmologist is a medical or osteopathic doctor who specializes in eye care. The more common eye doctors are optometrists, and they differ from ophthalmologists with 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 a blend of both. Its practice can be categorized into three main areas: medical, procedural, and surgical.

Medical

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.

Procedural

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

Table outlining several procedural operations that ophthalmologists complete

Surgical

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

How long does it take to become an ophthalmologist? It takes 12-13 years of training and education to become an ophthalmologist, who is also licensed to practice medicine or surgery. Now that you have a good sense of what ophthalmology is all about, let’s take a look at how to become an ophthalmologist.

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Becoming an Ophthalmologist: Step-by-Step

Typical training for an ophthalmologist career includes a four-year college degree followed by eight years of additional medicinal training.

After completing medical school, ophthalmology residency is four years, with the first year historically being a transitional or preliminary year. This means a resident wouldn’t actually start ophthalmology training until the second year. There are programs that are now integrating the first year so that interns get some exposure to ophthalmology training.

Competitiveness

Ophthalmology is misunderstood as being far more competitive than it actually 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 (National Resident Matching Program). 

For US graduates, the match rate in 2021 - the success rate at which the residency and fellowship matching service places medical students into residency training programs - was 92.8%. The higher than usual number of international applicants deflates the overall match rate, making it seem much more daunting than it is.

1. Bachelor’s Degree

As previously mentioned, a career in ophthalmology will require you to take up a four-year college degree with a major in sciences (biology, chemistry, physics, etc.) and mathematics followed by eight years of additional medical training. It is best to be informed and to prepare in advance for the prerequisites required by medical school programs.

2. Med School

After completing your Bachelor’s Degree, you will need to get into medical school to start working towards getting your credentials as a medical professional. Apply to medical school (four years) to obtain a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathy (D.O.) degree

This process also involves Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) scores or your country’s exam equivalent. These standardized medical examinations are prerequisites for admission for nearly all medical schools. 

In North America, nearly 80,000 applicants take the MCAT exam annually. Standardized medical examinations like the MCAT are made to evaluate your mastery of natural, behavioral, and social science concepts and principles, as well as your problem solving and critical thinking skills pertaining to medical school.

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 (tied with #8)
  10. Oregon Health & Science University

Many factors will be important to take into consideration when choosing your medical school. Some factors will be more personal than others; from judging whether it is feasible for you to travel abroad for a medical program, to determining which program has the highest rates of graduates who end up becoming professionals. 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 your specialization. For ophthalmologists, this entails the pursuit of a one-year internship prior to completing a minimum of three years in an ophthalmology residency. Like other specialties, having publications, strong letters of recommendation, and good step scores make all the difference in helping your chances of landing a residency.

It should be noted that going to a US allopathic (MD school) is much more advantageous than going to an osteopathic (DO) or international medical school; DO or international medical school grads should expect an uphill battle with match rates around 20-40%, much lower than that of the US grads mentioned earlier.

4. Obtain a License to Practice Medicine

After completing a residency, ophthalmologists can choose to either 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

Cost to Become an Ophthalmologist

How much does it cost to become an ophthalmologist? According to CostHelper, the tuition cost of programs can range from $15,000-$30,000 annually or $60,000-$120,000 for the full four-year program. 

Additional costs include books and supplies, which can range from $6,000-$16,000 in total depending on the school. There are financial aid options such as scholarships, awards, and grants that can help alleviate some of the cost, and becoming a resident might also help those abroad who are thinking of applying.

Is Ophthalmology Right for You? How to Decide

Ophthalmology is a serious vocation that takes on a great responsibility. It is also 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 physical world. 

Part of the path is making a decision on which Ophthalmology school will be the most appropriate for your journey, and if you are looking for additional support with making such a big decision, we can provide additional information on choosing a medical school. In determining whether this career path is appropriate for you, here are some things to consider:

Grades

It is no surprise that a career in ophthalmology will require a scholastic journey through the sciences, and the highest grades will be a requirement. From SATs to MCATs to everything in between, an aspiring ophthalmologist must be ready to demonstrate their mastery of the required studies before becoming responsible for someone’s eyesight.

Long Journey

As previously mentioned, the path to become an ophthalmologist will take over a decade, so anyone who does not have the energy or time to invest into this craft should re-consider before taking on an ambitious goal.

Hands-On

As an ophthalmologist, you will 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 areas for school is a big decision to consider if needed, and you should plan ahead if you would be taking this jump.

Other Considerations

Another thing to consider is that a career as an ophthalmologist means being a business owner in its own right. Studying your way through the sciences is one thing, but managing people, balancing budgets, and making business decisions are a part of the job that can catch aspiring ophthalmologists by surprise. Being your own boss is both rewarding and intensely challenging, so keep this in mind when making your decision.

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 on how to become an ophthalmologist.

1. How Long Does It Take To Become An Ophthalmologist

It takes around 12 years of academic training to become an ophthalmologist, with the possibility of taking more years depending on the length of internships or other professional training.

2. How Much Does It Cost To Become An Ophthalmologist?

The cost of studying optometry in Canada is approximately $100,000, which can be financed via Canada Student Loans, personal bank loans, and other financial aid. Comparatively, studying optometry in the US is much more expensive, ranging around $250,000.

3. How Hard Is It To Become An Ophthalmologist?

The optometric practice after graduation consists of working as associates in an existing practice and working up to partnerships, buying other practices, or setting up an entire new practice. It is a long journey that comes with a great responsibility, so it should not be an easy path to take on. People who are called to become ophthalmologists will not find the trials of this journey to weigh more than the love they have for what they wish to do.

4. How Much Does an Ophthalmologist Get Paid?

According to Indeed, the base salary of an ophthalmologist is almost $290,000 CAD annually in Canada, and reported salaries reach up to $370,000. In the US, the base salary for ophthalmologists is around $225,000 USD and reported salaries reach up to $291,000.

5. What Kind of Lifestyle Can be Expected With a Career in Ophthalmology?

For the most part, it is a regular 8-5 job. If you are on-call, your schedule will likely be light and you probably won’t have to come in on weekends. Depending on what your specialty is, you may be called in for various reasons.

6. What Is Something that People May Neglect To Mention About a Career in Ophthalmology That I Should Watch Out For?

Willingness to adapt is vital from the time you take up your residency to the moment you step foot into a real world practice. Steep learning curves come from keeping up with new technologies and updated medical trends. Additionally, you will probably need to specialize if you want to work in larger cities. It becomes more difficult to become a general ophthalmologist in dense metropolitan areas.

Final Thoughts 

Becoming an ophthalmologist is becoming a doctor, so a passion for helping others is a key attribute for anyone who is curious about the field. Ophthalmologists are also entrepreneurs in their own right, having to manage their own practice and those that enter it. 

Leadership skills, relationship-building skills, and management skills are also part of the career path just as much as an expertise in vision and eye care is. The journey to become an ophthalmologist is over a decade long, so it is meant for those who can persevere and have a real interest in helping people with their sight.

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