The Eyes Have It: Ophthalmologists Are Vision Experts

Becoming an ophthalmologist requires years of education and training beyond four years of medical school. Like most surgical specialties, hours can be long and reliable child care is a must. By limiting their practice to one type of procedure, such as cataract surgery, working mothers may be able to achieve a greater balance between work and family life.

Job Description

Ophthalmologists are medical doctors specializing in the diagnosis and surgical treatment of injuries and diseases of the eye in patients of all ages. In contrast, optometrists complete the doctor of optometry degree, typically after earning a bachelor's, and primarily test vision and prescribe medication for certain eye diseases. Opticians are technicians trained to fit devices designed to correct vision problems, as prescribed by an ophthalmologist or optometrist. Only an ophthalmologist can perform surgery. Ophthalmologists, because of their advanced training, can treat more complex conditions and prescribe a wider range of treatments and medications.

Education Requirements

Ophthalmology is a specialty that requires four years of postgraduate training beyond the completion of a medical degree (M.D.) This includes a three-year residency in eye surgery in an approved surgical residency program followed by a one-year internship. Additional training is required for ophthalmologists interested in pursuing a subspecialty, such as ophthalmic plastic and reconstructive surgery, corneal transplantation and laser treatments.

Most prospective doctors enter medical school with a minimum of a bachelor's degree. Although no specific degree is required, coursework should include advanced mathematics, life sciences, chemistry, physics, psychology, English and communications. Acceptance to medical school is competitive; you should have a high grade-point average (3.65 or higher) and a score of at least 508 on the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). Letters of recommendation are required, and your application may be given preferential treatment if you've had relevant work or volunteer experience.

Medical school requires four years of study. The first year consists of lecture and labs in advanced life sciences and pharmacology. In years two, three and four, students complete additional coursework but increasingly spend time in supervised clinical settings, rotating through specialties to gain knowledge and experience.

After completing the residency in ophthalmology, state licensure is required for practice. Specific requirements can vary somewhat, but most medical boards follow the same rules. Ophthalmologists may also become board-certified through the American Board of Ophthalmology. Continuing education is recommended, so you can stay up-to-date on research and advances in the profession, which is required to maintain certification. Continuing education credits can be earned through conferences and seminars sponsored by medical schools, the Board, and other professional organizations.

Work Environment

Ophthalmologists work in private practice, in hospitals, and in positions with the government and military. Although most work with patients, some work in research laboratories. Unless they are on call or responding to emergencies, ophthalmologists usually have regular work schedules during normal business hours. For this reason, ophthalmology is one of the most family-friendly medical specialties a physician can choose. A slight majority (65 percent) of ophthalmologists are male. In general, ophthalmologists report a high degree of job satisfaction.

Years of Experience

The median annual salary for an ophthalmologist is $279,586. Pay variation is most dependent upon geographic location and is also affected by specialization and years of experience. Typical salary ranges are:

  • Less than one-year experience: $246,983‒$272,932
  • 5‒6 years’ experience: $250,310‒$276,259
  • 10‒14 years’ experience: $262,952‒$286,794
  • 20+ years’ experience: $274,928‒$297,605

Job Growth Trend

Opportunities for all types of physicians, including ophthalmologists, are expected to grow faster than average in the coming years. Vision problems tend to increase as people get older, so with the aging of the large baby boom population, demand for ophthalmologists should remain strong.

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