According to the American College of Surgeons, ophthalmologists “Are the only practitioners medically trained to diagnose and treat all eye and visual problems including vision services (glasses and contacts) and provide treatment and prevention of medical disorders of the eye including surgery.” It's this specialized talent and training that allows them to provide exceptional care to millions of people across the globe in need of repairing vision problems. And for the student that wishes to learn how to become an Ophthalmologist, the path is filled with multiple layers which must be navigated in a highly competitive industry.
What is an Ophthalmologist?
An ophthalmologist has a wide array of responsibilities when it comes to caring for a patient’s vision and eyes. Ophthalmologists work with patients of all ages, treat glaucoma, may help patients with ocular cancers and provide services from eye exams to intricate surgery. The specialty of ophthalmology is good for physicians who want to study a challenging and fascinating field that involves a variety of disciplines, requires the doctor to develop a range of important skills, and is always intellectually challenging.
An ophthalmologist may perform cataract surgery and glaucoma surgeries, help children gain eye muscle strength to correct strabismus (crossed eyes), focus on optic nerve and neurological diseases that affect the eye, perform surgery or laser treatments for retina diseases, perform corneal transplantation, or do reconstructive surgery. Each of these may involve additional training or a specific fellowship, as discussed in the education section below, but they are all available to the trained ophthalmologist.
Ophthalmologists perform what are called “micro-surgeries” that involve materials and sutures that are not seen without the aid of special equipment. For this reason, ophthalmologists should have excellent hand-eye coordination for their training and practice on these very delicate surgeries.
Educational Requirements for Becoming an Ophthalmologist
The minimum educational requirement for becoming an ophthalmologist is a doctoral degree followed by specialized training in the physician’s subspecialty of choice.
Step-by-Step Educational Path to Becoming an Ophthalmologist
The bachelor’s degree is an important foundation for aspiring physicians and can set the pace and tone of the rest of education, especially through medical school, which immediately follows undergraduate graduation. Because medical training is so heavily science based, the depth of knowledge acquired at this level will serve the student well in both testing and further studies.
Some universities offer a pre-med program that is designed to ensure that the student gets all of the needed coursework and laboratory credits over the course of their four years of undergraduate study. The courses that are required by medical schools should be completed with the highest possible grade and most thorough knowledge as both the student’s cumulative GPA and science grades will be considered for medical school admission.
There is no specific requirement for the type of degree that the student pursues at this level, but there are some degree programs that are more efficient than others when it comes to getting the classes in that are needed. For example, a science-based degree like Biology will cover a number of the necessary credits and lab experience that is required for medical school admission. While a degree in communications might also interest the student, it will take a lot more planning and strategy to get all of the additional science courses in as electives and, in some cases, will require extra semesters or summer classes in order to pull it off. The student should weight all the possible avenues and come up with the plan that will best serve their career goals while meeting all of the needed levels of education in order to be a success.
Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT)
One of the key reasons that the undergraduate student should be focused on their science training is the MCAT. This exam is generally taken the junior year of undergraduate studies for all aspiring medical students. The MCAT tests the individual’s basic knowledge of the sciences, their critical thinking skills and their problem solving skills. The resulting score is an indication of their readiness to enter medical school and begin further training.
The MCAT score is submitted alongside all other application materials for medical college and plays a huge role in the school accepting the student. Most schools accept MCAT scores that are up to three years old, but all students should check with their choice medical school for details on what they expect, minimum scores accepted, and other qualifications.
The MCAT is taken by over 80,000 students a year and has been around for more than 80 years. The benefit of its popularity is that there are a large number of resources available for anyone wanting to take the test. From study guides and groups to tutoring sessions and practice tests, there is no reason for the content or format of the MCAT to catch anyone off guard. Students are encouraged to use as many of the resources at their disposal while preparing for this important test. The proper use of these resources can result in a higher score, which will be part of making them more competitive as they submit their medical school applications.
Admissions into medical school is competitive. Of the 80,000 students who take the MCAT, about 20,000 enroll in accredited medical colleges around the United States. In order for the applicant to stand out from the crowd, they should be prepared to submit the following:
Once accepted, the hard work and dedication that is associated with medical training begins.
The first two years of medical school take the student deeper into scientific knowledge and understanding. The courses and lab work during this time are designed to give every student a thorough understanding of the scientific basis of medical practice as well as introduce them to the concepts of clinical care, medical ethics and applicable law. The culmination of these two years is taking the first of a three-part exam series towards licensure as a physician.
The United States Medical Licensing Examination, Step One, tests the following (more details can be found at the USMLE website):
The USMLE, step one scores indicate whether the student is prepared to move on to rotations and the practical training that follows in the next two years of training.
Rotations are where students get their hands-on training in a variety of settings and with a variety of specialties. During rotations, the students work closely with and under the supervision of training physicians who carefully watch over their practice and provide insight and training. The core rotations that the student will likely complete include: internal medicine, obstetrics/gynecology, general surgery, pediatrics, psychiatry, family medicine, and neurology, though there may be some alterations depending on the school that is attended. Beyond the core specialties, students will have a chance to participate in elective specialties that are within their scope of interest.
After rotations, the medical students take the United States Medical Licensing Exam, Step 2. This exam ensures that they have obtained the clinical knowledge and the clinical skills that are necessary to move forward with training and practice patient care unsupervised.
In order for a physician to be board certified by the American Board of Ophthalmology, the next step is a one-year, direct patient care internship that is accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education. This year-long internship will be focused on providing direct patient care in a field such as emergency medicine, family medicine, internal medicine, neurology, surgery or others. The one-year internship is an important step as it will lead to the residency program that will allow the physician in training to begin to specialize their education in the field of ophthalmology.
Finally, the student gets to begin their specialized and focused training in ophthalmology with a three to four year forma graduated residency training program. This program must be at least 36 months[i] and accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education. The residency program will likely give the resident access to the many subspecialties that are available within this field and include inpatient consultations and ophthalmic pathology. Residency training also includes lectures and informational sessions for further the students understanding of the field and advancements within the field that may affect their work.
Special Training and Fellowships
There are several sub-specialties to ophthalmology that require additional training or fellowship experience. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, a doctor of ophthalmology can further specialize in the following areas:
Understanding the Career Path
Ophthalmologists, like a variety of specialties, can work in many settings. These settings affect pay, number of hours worked, time spent with patients, administrative requirements and more.
The largest percentage of ophthalmologists (43%) report spending 30-40 hours per week seeing patients. This is followed by another 24% who report spending 41-45 hours per week with patients. Hour spent seeing patients affect the number of patients seen which is broken down as follows:
Throughout the specialties there is differing time spent with each patient, due to the type of care that is needed. For ophthalmologists, the amount of time spent with patients is between 9 and 12 minutes, according to 42% of physicians in the specialty. An additional 26% of ophthalmologists report spending a bit longer – 13-16 minutes – with each patient.
The average earnings of an ophthalmologist are $291,000 annually. There are many factors that can affect pay, either up or down, within this specialty.
For example, male ophthalmologists earn more with an average salary of $300,000 while female ophthalmologists earn around $256,000 annually.
Another factor is geographic location where this is a range of average earnings based on location of practice. The highest earning geographical area for ophthalmologists is the Great Lakes region of the United States where the annual pay is reported around $333,000 a year. The lowest paying region is the Southwest where the annual pay is $94,000 less at $239,000 a year.
Self-employed ophthalmologists earn a great deal more money than those who are employed. The average pay for self-employed is $338,000 while their employed counter parts make closer to $224,000 – a substantial $114,000 difference every year.
Practice setting plays a key role in pay as well. The average pay by practice setting as reported by Medscape is as follows: