Eye diseases, visual impairments, and eye injuries are all too common. More than a third of the population of the US wears some form of corrective eyewear, 24.4 million Americans have cataracts, and 1.3 million are legally blind. On top of this, there are 2.4 million eye injuries each year, of which 90 percent of them could have been prevented with protective eyewear. 

Medical eye experts, called ophthalmologists, have completed the necessary medical education and training to handle everything from surgery to emergency cases, eyeglasses prescriptions, and disease diagnosis.

According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (2022), there are 19,216 active ophthalmologists in the US and more than 213,000 worldwide. While ophthalmology is already a specialized field of medicine, there are subspecialties as well, including pediatrics, ocular oncology, glaucoma, and more. 

In order to become an ophthalmologist, students must first complete a bachelor’s degree and four years of medical school. After medical school, aspiring ophthalmologists must complete an intern year of residency followed by three years of ophthalmology residency. Some ophthalmology residencies offer all four years, so residents don’t have to switch programs. 

While these extensive education and training requirements take at least 12 years to complete, this is a lucrative career. The Bureau of Labor States (BLS May 2020) estimates the average wage for ophthalmologists (and other physicians, except pediatricians) to be $218,850 per year. 

Continue reading to learn more about this detail-oriented patient-centric career, including program admission requirements, accreditation standards, certification eligibility, and top residency programs.

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Ophthalmologist Specializations & Degree Types

Ophthalmology is a specialty field of medicine that is specifically related to the eye. Ophthalmologists can treat vision issues, perform surgery, diagnose diseases, and prescribe treatments. They must earn a doctor of medicine or doctor of osteopathic medicine degree and complete a three- or four-year ophthalmology residency. 

Within the field of ophthalmology, there are several specializations physicians can pursue. In order to specialize, doctors must complete a fellowship in their chosen specialty. Specializations in ophthalmology include:

  • Glaucoma
  • Neuro-ophthalmology
  • Cornea and external disease
  • Ocular oncology
  • Ophthalmic pathology
  • Oculoplastics and orbit surgery
  • Pediatrics
  • Vitreo-retinal surgery
  • Uveitis and immunology
  • Cataracts and refractive surgery

Admissions Requirements for Ophthalmologist Programs

There are two admission processes all ophthalmologists must undergo. The first is admission to medical school, and the second is admission, or a match, with a residency program. 

Admission to medical school is highly competitive. For most programs, candidates will need to submit Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) scores, official transcripts, letters of recommendation, and a statement of purpose. Applicants must also submit proof of extensive prerequisite coursework in math and science. Extracurricular activities such as volunteer experience or clinical observations can help boost applications. 

Upon completing medical school, students will apply for a residency through the National Resident Matching Program (NRMP), also called “The Match.” Students must attend in-person visits to the programs they are most interested in as well as complete extensive interviews. Then, both the applicant and the program input their desired choices, and the NRMP creates the matches.

Ophthalmologist Program Accreditation

Aspiring ophthalmologists need to ensure that the schools and residencies they attend are accredited by the appropriate agencies, as this is required for board certification and may be required for state licensing. Medical schools are licensed by either the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME) for doctor of medicine programs or by the Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation (COCA) for doctor of osteopathy programs. 

Residency programs are accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME), and they will only accept a candidate who has attended an accredited medical school.

On-Campus Ophthalmologist Degree Programs

Harvard Medical School

The ophthalmology department at Harvard medical school has a four-year residency program. Starting in 2021, they included the first transitional year of residency in their program, allowing residents to only have to apply to one program and not have to relocate. Residents in this program will gain both clinical and surgical experience at a variety of facilities, including the VA, the emergency department, and the operating room.

During residents’ final year, they have the opportunity to participate in a six- to seven-week rotation at the Aravind Eye Hospital in Madurai, India. During this rotation, residents will have the opportunity to see unusual cases as well as perform numerous cataract surgeries. Travel expenses are covered by the program. 

  • Location: Boston, MA
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME) and Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME)
  • Tuition: Paid salary of $66,500 to $75,000 per year 

University of Miami Health Systems – Bascom Palmer Eye Institute

At the University of Miami Health Systems Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, the ACGME accredited ophthalmology residency is a three-year program. Residents can complete their first (intern) year through the internal medicine department at the University of Miami, allowing them to complete all of their training at one institution. 

While this program covers ophthalmology as a whole, there are subspecialties residents can pursue, including neuro-ophthalmology, ophthalmic plastics, ophthalmic pathology, and pediatric ophthalmology.

Each year this program accepts seven residents. Including all three years of the program, there are 21 residents on rotation at any one time. While most of the training is completed at the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, residents also rotate through the VA hospital for a more diverse clinical experience. 

  • Location: Miami, FL 
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME) and Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME)
  • Tuition: Paid salary of $59,612 to $64,622 per year

Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine – Wilmer Eye Institute

Residents in the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine have the unique experience of working in the residency continuity clinic where they will see and care for their own patients from their very first year in the program. This allows residents to learn long-term care. 

In addition, all surgical cases that originate out of these patients are performed by the resident under the supervision of a surgical preceptor. 

Because of the large volume of patients seen in the Wilmer Eye Institute, residents have the opportunity to see a variety of cases as well as gain extensive surgical experience. Second-year residents perform complicated surgeries such as open globe repairs much more frequently than residents in other programs. 

  • Location: Baltimore, MD
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME) and Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME)
  • Tuition: Paid salary of $59,570 to $65,051 per year

The Wills Eye Hospital

The Wills Eye Hospital is part of the Jefferson Health System in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Jefferson Health is the sixth-largest medical system in the US, translating into a large volume of patients, diverse research opportunities, and expertly trained faculty for ophthalmology residents. This program has been around for 185 years, with the first ophthalmology-trained physician arriving at this hospital in 1839. 

After the first year of internship, the subsequent three years of the ophthalmology residency at Wills are structured with ever-increasing responsibilities to help create competent and trained physicians. Residents start with general clinics and emergency room rotations, then progress to surgeries, subspecialties, and independent supervised practice in that order.  

  • Location: Philadelphia, PA
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME) and Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME)
  • Tuition: Paid salary of $61,341 to $68,547 per year

Oregon Health & Science University – Casey Eye Institute

Located in Portland, Oregon, the Casey Eye Institute at Oregon Health and Science University trains ophthalmology residents in a state-of-the-art eye care facility. This department is a recipient of National Institute of Health (NIH) funding and is nationally recognized in the subspeciality areas of ophthalmology. Since this is the only ophthalmology residency program in the state, residents will be exposed to a varied patient population from all over the pacific northwest. 

Clinical rotations for residents in this program happen primarily at the Casey Eye Institute. However, students will also complete rotations at the VA hospital and at the urban Devers Eye Institute to learn to care for patients in diverse settings. OHSU offers students the opportunity to complete their first (intern) year as part of this program, allowing them to jump-start their training. 

  • Location: Portland, OR
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME) and Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME)
  • Tuition: Paid salary of $60,364.98 to $69,533.88 per year

University of Colorado – School of Medicine

The University of Colorado School of Medicine Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Institute faculty is dedicated to teaching residents how to become excellent ophthalmologists. This eye institute focuses on patient care, surgery, and cutting-edge research, which makes it the perfect facility to grow and learn about this field. In addition to working directly with patients, residents participate in didactic learning, grand rounds, conferences, and lectures. 

The first year of this program is spent in internal medicine, so residents gain a broad medical background. The second year focuses on basic ophthalmology and clinical skills, while the third year focuses on advancing skills and performing a first surgery. The final year is surgically intensive and an opportunity for residents to hone their skills in any chosen subspeciality. 

  • Location: Aurora, CO
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME) and Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME)
  • Tuition: Paid salary of $61,927 to $70,394 per year

Mayo Clinic – College of Medicine and Science

The Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science ophthalmology residency has a state-of-the-art surgical simulation and wet lab to provide program participants with the best possible training. Other benefits of this program include a high patient volume with ample surgical cases, international rotation options, and a continuity-of-care experience where residents can carry their own patient load, allowing them to develop meaningful relationships. 

A residency at Mayo Clinic is highly sought after because of the prestige associated with it. There are only four residents accepted into this program each year. Residents are accepted into this program after their intern (first) year of residency is complete. 

  • Location: Rochester, MN
  • Duration: Three years
  • Accreditation: Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME) and Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME)
  • Tuition: Paid salary of $60,859 to $68,327 per year

George Washington – School of Medicine & Health Sciences

The residents in the department of ophthalmology at the George Washington School of Medicine & Health Sciences will complete their clinical rotations at The National Eye Institute, the VA, and the Children’s National Health System. 

This is a three-year residency, so applicants should have already completed their first (intern) year. Since this is both a clinical and a surgical program, residents will receive comprehensive training. During the first year of this program, residents spend a third of their time covering the walk-in clinic to help them develop the ability to diagnose eye issues as well as manage emergency situations. The second year is focused on first surgeries and the third on performing over 100 surgeries to develop competency. 

Upon completing this program, residents will be eligible for board certification. This residency has a 20 percent higher pass rate than average, so residents in this program are well prepared for the exams. There are several international clinical rotation opportunities as well, allowing residents to travel and further hone their skills.  

  • Location: Washington, DC
  • Duration: Three years
  • Accreditation: Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME) and Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME)
  • Tuition: Paid salary of $62,786.16 to $71,075.52 per year

Online or Hybrid Ophthalmologist Degree Program

There are no fully online or hybrid options for ophthalmology education. In order to become an ophthalmologist, students must complete in-person medical school and an ophthalmology residency. 

However, to maintain ophthalmology board certification, ophthalmologists must complete continuing medical education (CME) credits. Here are two online options for CME courses in ophthalmology.

American Academy of Ophthalmology

Members of the ​​American Academy of Ophthalmology have access to 120 CME courses. All of these courses are online and can be completed asynchronously. The courses cover a variety of topics from ethics to diagnosis problems, new procedures, and case studies. 

If an ophthalmologist has an interesting case or curious patient experience, they can submit the story to the academy to be included as a CME course. While most of the courses provide one CME, more in-depth ones can provide up to five CMEs. 

  • Location: San Francisco, CA 
  • Duration: Varies
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education
  • Tuition: Free for American Academy of Ophthalmology members

Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology

The Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO) offers its members several benefits, including CME courses. Some of these CME courses are free for members, while others do have a fee associated with them. 

In addition to courses on specific topics, ARVO keeps a library of past conferences available on-demand that can also count as CME credits. For example, the Health Economics and Outcomes Research Conference is available online and can count for up to 10.25 CME credits.  

  • Location: San Diego, CA
  • Duration: Varies
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education
  • Tuition: Free to $129

How Long Does it Take to Become an Ophthalmologist?

Ophthalmologists must complete a bachelor’s degree, four years of medical school, and a four-year ophthalmology residency. At a minimum, it takes 12 years of education and training post-high school to become a board-certified ophthalmologist.

How To Become an Ophthalmologist – Step-by-Step Guide

Step 1: Graduate from High School or Obtain a GED (Four Years)

A high school diploma or GED is the first step towards becoming an ophthalmologist. Students interested in this career should focus on science and math classes in order to prepare them for additional studies. 

Step 2: Complete a Bachelor’s Degree Program (Four Years)

Aspiring ophthalmologists must earn a bachelor’s degree as it is required in order to attend medical school. Typical majors for students aspiring to attend medical school include biology, pre-med, health sciences, biochemistry, nursing, and even public health. 

Step 3: Take the MCAT (Timeline Varies)

In order to apply for admission at most medical schools, students will need to take the Medical College Admission Test. Students who intend to attend medical school immediately after graduating with their bachelor’s degrees will need to take the MCAT in the spring or early summer of their junior year.  

Step 4: Apply for Medical School (Timeline Varies)

The most common way for students to apply for medical school is with the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS) This is a single application that can be submitted to multiple schools. Students only have to upload one set of documents such as transcripts, letters of recommendation, and test scores. Applications are due late summer or early fall of the year prior to enrollment.  

Step 5: Attend Medical School (Four Years)

Medical school is a four-year-long program. Students can either earn an MD or DO, depending on the school they attend. During these four years, students will learn the basics of medical care as well as rotate through a variety of medical specialties to help them decide on what type of residency they wish to pursue. Training during medical school includes didactic classes, lab courses, and hands-on clinics. 

Step 6: Apply for an Ophthalmology Residency (During Medical School)

During the final year of medical school, students must apply for residency. Residency is the additional training completed post-medical school. Ophthalmology residency is three years long and is preceded by an intern or first year of residency. 

Step 7: Fulfill Residency Requirements (Four to Five Years)

During residency, doctors will gain the skills necessary to care for a patient’s eyes, including diagnosing diseases, handling emergencies, and performing surgery. While residency is a lot of hands-on patient care, there are also lecture classes, grand rounds, seminars, and conferences residents must attend to learn the didactic side of this practice. 

Step 8: Sit for the National Licensing Exams (Timelines Vary)

All physicians must pass a licensing exam in order to practice medicine. They must pass one of two exams. The first is the United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE) for those who have completed an MD. The second is the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination of the United States (COMPLEX-USA) is for doctors who have completed a DO. 

Step 9: Obtain State Licensure (Timelines Vary)

All doctors must have a license to practice medicine in the state where they see patients. However, licensing is done on a state-by-state basis, so requirements can vary. See the certifications and licensure section below for more details. 

Step 10: Become Board Certified (Timelines Vary)

Ophthalmologists are certified by the American Board of Ophthalmology (ABO). Requirements for board certification can be found in the certifications and licensure section below. 

What Do Ophthalmologists Do?

Ophthalmologists diagnose and treat eye injuries, disorders, and diseases, as well as vision problems. They primarily work in hospitals and clinics, although some may establish a private practice. Day-to-day duties for ophthalmologists include:

  • Meeting one-on-one with patients 
  • Evaluating a patient’s eye for injuries, disorders, diseases, or vision problems
  • Diagnosing eye issues
  • Prescribing glasses or contact lenses to correct vision problems
  • Prescribing medications as necessary
  • Making surgical recommendations when needed
  • Performing eye surgery for cataracts, glaucoma, macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, and more.  
  • Managing eye emergencies
  • Performing biopsies 
  • Applying therapeutic treatments to the eye
  • Maintaining careful client records

Ophthalmologist Certifications & Licensure

In order to practice medicine and care for patients, ophthalmologists must have state licensure as well as board certification. While requirements for state licensure vary by state, most licensing boards require candidates to have the following qualifications: 

  • Graduate from an accredited medical school with either a doctor of medicine or doctor of osteopathic medicine degree
  • Complete a residency of at least one year
  • Pass the required examinations

Candidates for a physician’s license will need to submit proof of their qualifications to the licensing board along with other documents such as a current resume, a birth certificate, and explanations for any derogatory remarks that may be included in official documents from schools or residencies. 

To use the title ophthalmologists, doctors must earn board certification from the American Board of Ophthalmology (ABO). The requirements for this certification are:

  • Graduate from an accredited medical school with either a doctor of medicine or doctor of osteopathic medicine degree
  • Complete an internship prior to the start of residency
  • Complete a residency in ophthalmology of at least 36 months 
  • Hold an unrestricted medical license 
  • Pass a written and oral examination

How Much Do Ophthalmologists Make?

According to the American Board of Ophthalmology (ABO), there are 19,216 active practicing ophthalmologists in the US. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2020), ophthalmologists, who are classified as “physicians, all other, except pediatric” earn an average salary of $218,850 per year. The percentiles for wages are: 

  • 10th percentile: $61,380  
  • 25th percentile: $126,470
  • 50th percentile (median): >$208,000 per year
  • 75th percentile: >$208,000 per year
  • 90th percentile: >$208,000 per year

Please note that the BLS does not give specific figures for ranges in excess of $208,000.

Ophthalmologists Career Alternatives

Here are alternatives to a career as an ophthalmologist. 

Become a Neurologist

Neurologists are physicians who have the training and expertise to treat neurological problems. They work with patients who have a variety of conditions, including Alzheimer’s, seizures, migraines, strokes, meningitis, muscular dystrophy, and sleep disorders. 

  • Typical Education: Doctor of medicine or doctor of osteopathic medicine 
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN)

Become a Gynecologist

Physicians who care for women are called gynecologists. Gynecologists who provide preconception, pregnancy, birth, and postpartum care are called obstetric gynecologists. These doctors can care for women over their entire lifespan, including adolescence and post-menopause. 

  • Typical Education: Doctor of medicine or doctor of osteopathic medicine
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ABOG)

Become a Dermatologist

Doctors who specialize in medical conditions related to skin, hair, and nails are called dermatologists. Dermatologists can work in many different settings, including private offices, group clinics, hospitals, and outpatient clinics. Typical duties can include meeting with patients, evaluating skin conditions, diagnosing disorders, prescribing medication, and administering treatment. 

  • Typical Education: Doctor of medicine or doctor of osteopathic medicine
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: American Board of Dermatology or the American Osteopathic Board of Dermatology
Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson


Kimmy is a freelance writer with extensive experience writing about healthcare careers and education. She has worked in public health, at health-focused nonprofits, and as a Spanish interpreter for doctor’s offices and hospitals. She has a passion for learning and that drives her to stay up to date on the latest trends in healthcare. When not writing or researching, she can be found pursuing her passions of nutrition and an active outdoors lifestyle.

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