Medical education has a steep price tag; students often graduate more than $200,000 in debt. Joining the military is one way students can finish medical school 100% debt-free. The tradeoff? Graduates then owe the U.S. Army, Navy or Air Force several years of active duty service. Here’s a look at the pros and cons of joining the military to pay for medical school.
Pro: Graduating debt-free. If you join the Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP) before starting medical school, the military will cover 100% of your tuition and most other education-related expenses for all four years of school. In exchange, you’ll typically owe four years of active duty service before, during or after your residency.
Pro: Financial security. In addition to having their tuition paid, HPSP students also receive a generous monthly stipend of more than $2,000. Charles Hutchinson, DO, says that stipend gave him peace of mind when starting his family. “My wife and I didn’t want to put having kids on hold,” says Dr. Hutchinson, who recently graduated from the Rocky Vista University College of Osteopathic Medicine in Parker, Colorado.
Pro: You’ll be serving your country. “If you’ve ever felt the duty to serve and had an interest in joining something bigger, it’s a really great opportunity,” says Eric French, DO, who enlisted in the Army at age 17 and served eight years. When he attended the Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York, he decided not to rejoin the Army, but he plans to sign up again after his first year of residency.
Pro: Unique opportunities for training. In his first year of active duty service, Capt Matthew Puderbaugh, DO, USAF, learned to investigate worksite injuries and handle aircraft mishap investigation and prevention. He also trained medics on triage, field management and advanced disaster life support. These diverse experiences aren’t so readily available in the civilian world, he says.
Con: Fewer options for residency. HPSP students must apply for the Army match for residency. The military’s branches adjust residency slots based on their needs; if you’re interested in a specialty the military isn’t in need of at the time, it may not be an option for you.
Con: Location. You’ll have to live wherever the Army places you, potentially for years. Dr. Puderbaugh says he’s seen colleagues struggle when they are placed in locations they find undesirable. “The military mission comes first, and you come second,” he says.
Con: A multi-year commitment. Generally, students owe one year of active duty service for each year of support they receive. If your entire medical education is paid for, you’ll probably be on the hook for four years of service after finishing your residency.
Con: Possible deployment. Although physicians won’t be deployed abroad during medical school or residency, deployment is a very real possibility during active duty. “The advice I received was, ‘Expect to be deployed,’ ” says Dr. Puderbaugh, who is headed to Germany for his next tour of active duty service.
Editor’s note: This story was updated on July 7, 2015. A previous version of this story referred to physicians enlisting in the military. However, practicing physicians join the military as commissioned officers, while the Army uses the term enlisted to refer to personnel who join at lower ranks.