Ophthalmology Programs: Residency & Fellowship Info

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What will you learn in an ophthalmology training program? Read about program requirements, the pros and cons of a residency and fellowship and potential careers.
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Study Ophthalmology: Degrees at a Glance

Ophthalmologists are medical professionals who provide eye and vision care, including diagnosis, preventative medicine and surgical procedures. Like any other physician career, this job requires you to complete four years of undergraduate school, four years of medical school and 4-5 years of postgraduate residency/fellowship training. The postgraduate training portion of this process is when physicians gain instruction in the ophthalmology specialty and subspecialties. All physicians must be licensed to practice medicine, and many obtain board certification in their specialties.

While becoming an ophthalmologist can take up to 13 years, the job prospects after obtaining employment are stronger than average. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), openings for these workers, as well as other physicians and surgeons, were projected to increase 24% from 2010-2020. Expansion of healthcare and the aging population will contribute to this growth; however, keep in mind that healthcare reform may affect employment rates.

Residency Fellowship
Who is this degree for? Medical students training for the ophthalmology specialty Medical students who want expertise in a subspecialty of ophthalmology
Common Career Paths (with approximate median annual salary) Ophthalmologist ($251,000)* Career path for fellowship is the same, although subspecialists may have higher salary potential
Time to Completion Three years One year
Common Graduation Requirements - Basic science course
- Clinical rotations
- Lecture attendance
- Research project
- Clinical rotations
- Lecture and conference attendance
- Teaching component
- Clinical research project
Prerequisites - Undergraduate degree
- Medical degree
- 1-year postgraduate internship
- All residency admission requirements
- Completion of an ophthalmology residency program
Online Availability No No

Source: *Salary.com (September 2012 figures).

Residency Programs in Ophthalmology

In training to become an ophthalmologist, you'll generally complete a 3-year residency in the ophthalmology specialty offered through a medical school. These programs are designed to give you direct experience providing eye and vision care to patients, along with preparing you for board certification. You'll complete a series of clinical rotations at hospitals and clinics affiliated with or run by the medical school, receiving instruction from and working under the supervision of upper-level residents and doctors.

Pros and Cons


  • Relatively high salary; ophthalmologists are among the highest-paid medical professionals*
  • Qualifies you for board certification in ophthalmology
  • Exposes you to various facets of the ophthalmology specialty


  • Medical training is very expensive and can lead to hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt
  • Requires completion of a 1-year internship and eight years of study prior to admission
  • Admission to residency programs is limited and highly competitive

Source: *Medscape Ophthalmologist Compensation Report (2012 results).

Courses and Requirements

Your clinical rotations in this residency program, which typically last a few months each, focus on various aspects and subspecialties of ophthalmology. During your first year, you might complete rotations in general ophthalmology, eye surgery, plastic surgery and pediatric eye care. You'll typically complete a minimum number of glaucoma laser surgeries and oculoplastic surgeries.

The second year has a more in-depth focus on surgical procedures and subspecialties, such as retinal operations, cornea care and refractive surgery. You'll serve as a senior resident during your third year, supervising and instructing lower-level residents while completing rotations in topics such as cataract surgery and neuro-ophthalmology. Throughout the program, you'll also attend didactic lectures that cover topics including corneal diseases, genetics, uveitis and contact lenses.

Stand Out with this Degree

Certification is not mandatory to practice medicine; however, the BLS noted that becoming board certified can strengthen a doctor's job prospects. The American Board of Ophthalmology is the certifying body for this specialty. To qualify, you must have completed medical school, a 1-year post-graduate internship and 3-4 years of residency training, in addition to holding a medical license. You'll then have to pass written and oral exams to become board certified.

Fellowship Programs in Ophthalmology

Fellowship programs in ophthalmology are offered to medical professionals who've completed accredited residency programs in the specialty. These programs are available through medical schools and hospitals. As a fellow, you'll gain one year of practical training in a subspecialty of your choosing. Common subspecialties include glaucoma, retina, pediatric ophthalmology, neuro-ophthalmology, vitreoretinal surgery and oculoplastics. Admission to fellowships is competitive, and these programs typically only admit a handful of applicants each year.

Pros and Cons


  • Subspecialists may have increased job prospects and salaries
  • Allows you to pursue an area of practice that you're passionate about
  • Provides increased surgical experience
  • Some fellowship programs offer stipends


  • No certification options for subspecialists
  • Studies are highly intensive and exhaustive
  • Stress related to increased responsibility and supervisory duties

Courses and Requirements

During your fellowship, you'll work in a clinic or hospital alongside residents and physicians, treating patients with eye issues related to your specialty. If, for example, you choose a fellowship in glaucoma, you'll perform optic disc analysis, laser procedures, cataract extractions and shunt implants. These programs have a strong emphasis on clinical research, and you'll be encouraged to take part in and pursue your own research projects. Teaching is also a component of fellowships; you can expect to take on training responsibilities as you oversee residents.

Stand Out with this Degree

As with other facets of medicine, technology plays a major role in ophthalmology. A strong grasp of technology can increase your skills as a doctor, so you may want to complement your medical training with technology training. Being able to use medical record databases and search engines efficiently can improve your chances of diagnosing a disease and treating it promptly. Ophthalmologists may also use imaging software, robotic surgery programs and computer-controlled lasers. If you plan on owning your own practice, you may want to familiarize yourself with accounting software and practice-management systems.

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