Career Development

How To Become an Ophthalmologist: Education and Career Requirements

February 22, 2021

If you are fascinated by vision, eye disorders and how they're treated, a career as an ophthalmologist could be right for you. Ophthalmologists work directly with patients to cure diseases or pain they're experiencing related to their vision.

In this article, we explain the regular tasks an ophthalmologist completes, the requirements needed to pursue this career and how to become an ophthalmologist.

What does an ophthalmologist do?

An ophthalmologist is a doctor who specializes in treating, diagnosing and researching various eye and vision diseases. Some tasks an ophthalmologist may regularly complete include:

  • Diagnosing and treating glaucoma
  • Performing complex eye exams
  • Conducting cataract surgery
  • Practicing eye exercises to help people with crossed eyes
  • Completing reconstructive surgeries
  • Studying different neurological diseases that can affect vision

Some of these tasks are considered subspecialties. In addition to the general education ophthalmologists receive, they also gain training in a subspecialty.

Ophthalmologists have a variety of locations they can choose to work in. Some will work in a single-specialty group practice while others will work in multi-specialty group practices. They can also work in clinics, hospitals, solo-practices or they can primarily conduct research in an academic setting. Most ophthalmologists will see approximately 100 patients a week to treat or diagnose their eye and vision disorders.

Related: Learn About Being a Doctor

Ophthalmologist requirements

Below is the education and training needed to become an ophthalmologist:

  • A bachelor's degree with an impressive GPA
  • A competitive score on the medical college admission test (MCAT)
  • Approximately four years of medical school
  • Passing score on two United States medical licensing exams
  • Completion of a one-year internship
  • Successful completion of a 36-month residency

How to become an ophthalmologist

Follow the steps below to become an ophthalmologist:

  1. Enroll in a four-year institution.
  2. Study for the MCAT.
  3. Apply to medical school.
  4. Enroll in medical school.
  5. Take the first part of the United States medical licensing exam.
  6. Begin participating in rotations.
  7. Take the second part of the U.S. Medical Licensing exam.
  8. Start your internship.
  9. Receive training from a residency program.
  10. Discover your subspecialty.
  11. Begin your job search.

1. Enroll in a four-year institution

When beginning a career as an ophthalmologist, students must earn their bachelor's degree. There isn't a required field you must major in but it's highly recommended that you attend a school with a pre-med program to gain experience in the medical field early on. If your school doesn't have a pre-med program, you should major in a science-focused field of study.

Majoring in fields such as anatomy or biology will allow you to study undergraduate courses that will prepare you for medical school courses.

While participating in your undergraduate degree, you should work to achieve a cumulative 3.5 or higher gpa, as medical school admissions seek high grades for admission into their programs.

2. Study for the MCAT

As an undergraduate, you will also study for the medical college admission test (MCAT). This test is often offered to students participating in their junior or senior year of undergraduate school. Since admission to graduate school is often highly competitive, receiving a high score on the MCAT can make your application more competitive.

The MCAT will test you on your knowledge of general sciences, critical thinking skills and problem-solving. There are many materials and resources available to study for this test. Study with other students hoping to enter the medical field and quiz each other on questions that could appear on the test. Once the test is completed, you will submit your scores alongside other required materials when you apply to medical school.

A competitive MCAT score is often a score of 25 or higher. You can check with the schools you're applying for to learn the average MCAT scores applicants typically receive.

3. Apply to medical school

At the end of your undergraduate program, you should be researching different medical schools and their qualifications. You can then gather the materials needed for the application process.

Medical school applications require the following materials:

  • Letters of recommendation
  • A cumulative 3.5 GPA in your undergraduate program
  • A cumulative 3.5 GPA earned from all science courses and labs
  • A strong MCAT score
  • Any extra-curricular activities related to the medical field or related to leadership

4. Enroll in medical school

Once accepted into medical school, you will begin learning more about medicine and receiving hands-on training. Throughout the first year of medical school, students will closely study science-based subjects. You may spend time both in the lab and classroom.

Other subjects studied throughout the first few years of medical school are ethics in medicine, applicable law and basic clinical care studies and concepts. These first few years often help you prepare for the upcoming medical licensing exam.

5. Take the first part of the United States medical licensing exam

This test is typically taken within the first two years of medical school. Once you successfully pass this test, you can participate in rotations where you will receive hands-on training and experience in the medical field.

The first part of the United States medical licensing exam will test you on the following subjects:

  • Social sciences
  • Different disorders
  • Abnormal and normal processes
  • Therapeutics
  • Epidemiology
  • Tissues and systems
  • Biostatics

6. Begin participating in rotations

After passing part one of the medical licensing exam, you should be ready to participate in rotations. During rotations, you will work with different doctors and physicians as they provide you training and insight into the regular tasks completed in a medical practice. This is where you can gain more knowledge and experience in various specialties within the medical field.

Rotations give you more experience in the following medical specialties:

  • Neurology
  • Internal medicine
  • Gynecology
  • Pediatrics
  • Surgery
  • Family medicine

7. Take the second part of the U.S. Medical Licensing exam

Once you finish rotations, you will be tested to ensure that you gained enough knowledge from your hands-on training. This test will quiz you on your experience in a clinical setting and will ensure you're ready to work in a hospital or clinic setting with little to no supervision.

8. Start your internship

After passing the exam, you will participate in a year-long internship. You will work directly with patients and your supervisor to learn more about how to diagnose, treat and examine patients regularly. Your internship is often the final stage of the introduction to different medical field specialties. Once you finish your year-long internship, you can pursue the ophthalmology specialty in your residency program.

Related: Definitive Guide To Internships

9. Receive training from a residency program

You will now spend 36 months in a residency program gaining hands-on experience in ophthalmology. You will work directly with patients to treat and diagnose their wounds, disorders and diseases. In addition to the experience you gain, you may also attend more lectures or courses to learn more about cures for various diseases and disorders.

10. Discover your subspecialty

Your experience during your residency should have helped you realize your subspecialty in ophthalmology. Possible ophthalmology fields of study include:

  • Ophthalmologic plastic surgery
  • Cornea diseases
  • Pediatric ophthalmology
  • Retinal diseases
  • Neuro-ophthalmology
  • Ophthalmic pathology

11. Begin your job search

Once you've completed your education and training, you can begin your job search and apply for positions within your subspecialty. Some ophthalmologists are often hired in their current hospital or clinic where they gained their subspecialty training. Others choose to pursue different work environments. Previous supervisors may recommend you to other hospitals or clinics. They may also have resources to help you find offices or hospitals that are hiring.

Related: The Essential Job Search Guide

You can search for online job postings to learn what experience and skills are needed for ophthalmology positions. From there, you can build your resume to include relevant skills, work experience, education and training, certifications and any professional affiliations.

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