Training facility for ophthalmology students with large microscope over examination table

How Long Does It Take to Become an Ophthalmologist?

Get the facts on ophthalmologist education requirements

Individuals who are interested in pursuing an ophthalmologist career often have the same primary question: how long does it take to become an ophthalmologist? Unfortunately, it’s not a quick or particularly easy process. Ophthalmologist education requirements are standardized and driven by the fact that these professionals are licensed medical doctors.

This is a key difference between ophthalmologists and optometrists. Although both are called eye doctors, an optometrist can earn their OD in four years while ophthalmologists complete a more holistic medical education program before taking additional training to specialize in eye care, diseases of the eye, and surgery.

Here’s the quick summary: After completing an undergraduate degree, aspiring ophthalmologists must take the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT), earn a doctorate degree from medical school, and complete a one-year internship along with a three-year residency.

Do you have what it takes to satisfy these ophthalmologist education requirements? Read on to learn more about how to become an ophthalmologist.


Undergraduate student reading books next to a window


Undergraduate Degree

Before you can begin preparing for your MCAT or shopping for medical schools, you will need to complete your undergraduate degree. Technically, you are not mandated to major in a specific subject for your bachelor’s degree. Whether your degree focus is in communications, philosophy, economics, nursing, or pre-med studies should have little impact on your ability to gain admission to medical school.

However, there is a large caveat here. While you can major in any subject for your undergraduate degree, you will still need a proper foundation in science to be able to score well on your MCAT to make it into your preferred medical school. This means if you don’t choose a science-based major for your bachelor’s degree you may have to take extra courses to satisfy certain prerequisites and gain the knowledge you’ll need to succeed.



If you want to apply to medical school, your university grades will affect your eligibility. However, it will not be the only factor. Another component of the medical school application process is the MCAT. This standardized test is used in a number of countries including the US and Canada, and nearly 85,000 students take this exam annually. This test will cover various aspects of the medical sciences as well as your critical reasoning skills.

Every future eye doctor will prepare for the test in their own way. Some students take weeks or even months off school and work to study and many engage the help of tutors to ensure they get the best score possible. Others study on their own using online tools and textbooks to prepare in their free time. If you are unsatisfied with your first score, it’s not the end of the world, but you may wish to speak to an advisor about the benefits and disadvantages of retaking the test.


Group of medical students smiling in a classroom


Medical School

Once you have finished your undergraduate degree and taken your MCAT, it is time to begin applying to medical schools. As you determine your top choices and prepare your applications, there are lots of factors to take into consideration, including:

  • Total tuition and available scholarships
  • Location and proximity to home/work
  • Reputation in ophthalmology
  • Faculty, equipment, and other resources offered
  • Residency opportunities in the area of ophthalmology
  • Grades, MCAT scores, and medical experience needed to gain admission

While at medical school, you will learn about a wide range of medical specialties through both lectures and hands-on experience. This is to prepare you for another important test, the US Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE). Your score on the USMLE Step 1 will gauge if you’re ready for practical training and rotations. After approximately two years of rotations, you will take the USMLE Step 2, which will test whether you have obtained the clinical knowledge and skills necessary to move on to your internship and residency.


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Internship & Residency

For a physician to be board certified by the American Board of Ophthalmology (ABO), they must complete a year-long, direct patient care internship that is accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME).

After your internship, you can begin your residency, which will last for 3–4 years and must also be ACGME accredited. As a resident, you will not be fully licensed to practice medicine, and will, therefore, work under the close supervision of another doctor. Fortunately, residents are paid, although their salaries are minimal compared to fully licensed doctors, often making between $40,000 and $50,000.

If you are looking for the right residency training program for you, the best place to start is the American Medical Association’s online database. While applying for residency programs you must consider the specialty that you wish to pursue (in this case, ophthalmology). You may decide to focus your efforts on the best hospitals for ophthalmology.

Unlike university education, residency programs are not decided with a student applying and being accepted or rejected. Instead, after an application and interview process, students will rank their top programs, while the programs rank their top interviewed applicants. Based on this data, a computerized system will match applicants and programs.


Young ophthalmologist with group of fellows


Specialization & Fellowships

Throughout your medical education, internship, and residency, you will be exposed to many different areas of patient care and subspecialties within ophthalmology. You may even choose to take your training a bit further by pursuing a fellowship or additional certification in one of these areas:

  • Cornea and External Disease
  • Glaucoma
  • Neuro-Ophthalmology
  • Ophthalmic Pathology
  • Ophthalmic Plastic Surgery
  • Pediatric Ophthalmology
  • Vitreoretinal Diseases


If these ophthalmologist education requirements seem daunting, that’s because they are. It takes a lot of hard work to finish medical school and launch an ophthalmologist career. But if eye care is your passion then take your training one step at a time until you become an ophthalmologist and find your dream job.

by: Freddie Rohner, iHire
March 11, 2019

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