Simply put, ophthalmologists are specially-trained physicians who deal with the diagnosis and treatment—including surgery—of the eyes. Basically, they are experts in preventing and treating vision loss. Therefore, ophthalmologists need a significant amount of education and training, starting with a degree in medicine followed by 4-5 years in a residency program. Plus, many ophthalmologists also pursue additional training in niche areas, requiring additional years of internships or education.
However, because ophthalmologists strive to help their patients achieve optimal levels of ocular health, they must understand much more than the sciences. That is, they also need good communication skills and must be able to work with teams of other healthcare providers.
Moreover, the quality of an ophthalmology school can impact a student’s overall chances for success. Like medical schools, ophthalmology programs have high academic expectations and stringent admissions standards. And consequently, most residency programs admit very few new people each year. However, candidates can improve their admission chances with a few tips.
First, by participating in research projects at the undergraduate or master’s level, candidates show residency programs that they are dedicated to improving the field. Second, proof of volunteer service—both clinical and non-clinical service—can make candidates stand out. And of course, having a strong academic record is absolutely essential.
The best ophthalmology schools reach from coast to coast, and options in big cities and small towns alike are available. Each program has its own strengths, so candidates should first gauge their own career goals before applying.
Here are 10 of the best Ophthalmology schools in the US.
Stanford University Department of Ophthalmology (Stanford, CA)
Stanford’s mission blends cutting-edge research and clinical service to prepare students to succeed as ophthalmologists and ocular health specialists. Academic programs include a 3-year residency program, a 1-year research fellowship, and post-graduate clinical training in eight different subspecialties. And in addition to these residency training programs and clinical fellowships, the school also offers the 5-week Bay Area Ophthalmology Course, which is open to members of the vision community wishing to gain more training.
Students in the Department of Ophthalmology are encouraged to pursue their own research projects, usually conducted alongside a faculty member. For example, ophthalmology residents can participate in SOAR, or the Stanford Ophthalmology Advanced Research Residency Program. Although admission into the program is very selective, residents receive financial support for their projects, which are expected to lead to innovations in the field.
University of Rochester Ophthalmology Residency Program (Rochester, NY)
The Flaum Eye Institute’s residency program at the University of Rochester is designed to prepare residents to become leaders in research-backed ophthalmology practice. The curriculum exposes residents to related disciplines, too, and interns rotate through specialties like internal medicine, surgery, neurology, and emergency medicine. Residents can also take advantage of a partnership with the L.V. Prasad Eye Institute in India and can spend a month training at that facility.
In addition, residents have many opportunities to practice their surgical skills through some of the most advanced wet labs available at any ophthalmology program in the country. For instance, the school’s award-winning Kitaro wet lab simulator accurately replicates human eyes, giving residents the ability to practice all steps of cataract surgery. The simulation even gives residents the practice of replacing a human lens with an artificial one.
University of Pennsylvania Department of Ophthalmology (Philadelphia, PA)
Through education, training, and community outreach, the University of Pennsylvania has been preparing ophthalmologists to provide outstanding patient care since 1874. Plus, the program is one of the largest in the country, with 63 faculty members researching and teaching in 17 specialties.
On the whole, Penn is known for the research output of its faculty, and the Ophthalmology Department dramatically contributes to that reputation. After all, the department is consistently among the top five recipients of grant funding from the National Eye Institute. Moreover, within this research, the department has over 100 ongoing clinical trials.
Students can participate in these research studies in addition to student-run programs like Penn Sight Savers, which provides public education about the importance of eye exams. Students also give free glaucoma exams to patients in Philadelphia through community events and local health fairs and are encouraged to volunteer at Puentes de Salud, a Philadelphia health clinic targeting the Latino population.
University of Wisconsin Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences (Madison, WI)
The University of Wisconsin is a global leader in the education of professionals trained to treat eye diseases. UW-Madison offers a 3-year residency program in ophthalmology with international rotations; the program is very selective and only accepts three new residents per year.
Additionally, 1-2 year fellowships allow participants to gain subspecialty training in seven areas, including comprehensive and pediatric care. Residents can participate in international rotations to learn surgical skills and techniques that are not normally used in the United States.
However, as part of its commitment to the profession, UW-Madison also presents a weekly continuing education program called “Grand Rounds.” Designed for ophthalmologists and optometrists, UW-Madison residents and faculty meet to discuss case studies that are aimed at improving patient care and clinical practices.
Columbia University Department of Ophthalmology (New York, NY)
At Columbia, future ophthalmologists receive a world-class education in patient ocular health care and treatment. The program is closely linked to the Edward S. Harkness Eye Institute, which has been a leader in patient care and education since 1933. In fact, many “firsts” have occurred at the institute, including the establishment of the first ocular tumor clinic and pioneering efforts in ocular surgery. Moreover, students have the opportunity to train at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center, which is ranked as a top 5 hospital by U.S. News and World Report and the world’s #1 institute for scientific health research according to the 2019 Nature Index Annual Tables.
With a faculty-to-resident ratio of just 4:1, residents have a chance to work closely with world-renowned faculty. However, the faculty strives to achieve a balance between formal classroom instruction and practical autonomous learning, giving residents the leadership abilities they need to succeed as ophthalmologists.
University of California at San Francisco Department of Ophthalmology (San Francisco, CA)
At its San Francisco campus, the University of California has ophthalmology residency, fellowship, and post-fellowship programs to meet the diverse needs of future leaders in the field. In addition, the school supports its residents and fellows in many ways to ensure their success. For example, since San Francisco has some of the highest rents in the country, all residents receive a housing stipend and a campus meal card allowance to help with living costs.
What’s more, the program has a new building that just opened in November 2020. The Wayne and Gladys Valley Center for Vision houses state-of-the-art teaching and research facilities. In addition to outstanding patient care at the in-house clinics, the building will allow interdisciplinary researchers to collaborate on projects aimed at reducing eye diseases and blindness.
Yale University School of Medicine Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences (New Haven, CT)
Like many programs in the Yale School of Medicine, the ophthalmology program has top-rated faculty combined with an aggressive curriculum to prepare future professionals for the demands of the field. Programs range from residency and fellowship tracks to 2- or 4-week clinical electives for third- and fourth-year medical students. Training facilities include the Yale Eye Center, where students learn from the latest diagnostic technology and therapeutic lasers, and other advanced facilities at the Yale-New Haven Hospital.
At Yale, students and residents built a network of peers who will help them advance their careers. For example, the OIG (Ophthalmology Interest Group) is a student-led organization open to all Yale medical students. OIG members can participate in clinical skills workshops, shadow faculty, receive peer-to-peer mentorship, and participate in special OIG research projects.
University of Colorado School of Medicine Department of Ophthalmology (Aurora, CA)
At the University of Colorado, students learn from faculty in one of the largest eye centers in the United States. In fact, patients come from all over the world to be treated at the internationally-known UC Health Eye Center, giving residents many opportunities to work with diverse populations.
The school’s 3-year residency program is very competitive and only takes four new residents each year. However, about 50% of residents go on to complete a fellowship program to receive specialty training.
Since UC emphasizes hands-on clinical training, it makes sense that many of the faculty work in hospital settings. Actually, UC’s ophthalmology program only has 11 full-time faculty members solely devoted to teaching; the other 68 are so-called “community-based” faculty that hold positions at surrounding eye institutes, medical centers, and hospitals.
Case Western Reserve University Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences (Cleveland, OH)
Through residency tracks and graduate student education programs, Case Western Reserve University offers a well-rounded foundation for students and residents who want to build careers in translational or clinical research. In fact, much of the program is designed around research studies.
For instance, at the Visual Sciences Research Center, faculty members work in interdisciplinary groups to research how to prevent and treat blinding disorders that continue to impact the globe. More specifically, the comprehensive research programs at the VSRC involve about 30 faculty members from diverse departments across the Case Western Reserve campus, including fields like ophthalmology and the sciences in addition to nutrition, pharmacology, pediatrics, and even quantitative health sciences. The school supports other research centers that are working to improve cornea image analysis and combat retinal diseases.
Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine Department of Ophthalmology (Chicago, IL)
And finally, at the top of this list of the best ophthalmology schools in the United States, Northwestern University is a private school that has programs for residents, fellows, and medical students alike. The department’s goal is to be the most research-intensive academic institution in the ophthalmology field, and the faculty and students are rising to that vision.
For example, at the school’s Starzl Academy, students have access to the mentorship and financial resources they need to jump-start their careers in biomedical research. Trainees also learn how to write grants and use them to develop research careers.
However, students are supported in other ways at Northwestern, too. As just one example, the Resident Wellness initiative provides residents with wellness and mental health services to help them reduce stress and program burnout and increase resiliency.