Lock and load

Uncle Sam wants to pay for your medical school. Should you let him?

Joining the armed forces is one way to slash, or even eliminate, your medical education debt. But it’s a serious, life-changing commitment.

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.

Capt Matthew Puderbaugh, DO, USAF, listens to an airman at Flight Medicine Clinic at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. (Photo provided by Dr. Puderbaugh)

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.

21 comments

  1. Military service should be a calling, not a financial decision. Less than one percent of all Americans serve in this all volunteer force. Military medicine is the finest opportunity I know of to be both a patriot and an Osteopath.

    1. I agree with the Col for the most part. I had done 4 years in the Navy as a line officer on sea duty prior to accepting the scholarship so I knew what I was getting into. It was a no brainer to me and it was also a financial decision. Do you work with a highly motivated volunteer force?-absolutely! Out service residency available in many specialties?- yup! Do you go home every night-maybe not! Paid retirement at 20 -yes! 1/2 base pay at 20 yrs. Free medical for life-at 20. Like the Col Id do it again in a minute! Charles E Simpson, DO, MS, FACPM Captain US Medical Corps, US NAVY Flight Surgeon Retired. MSU COM 81.

  2. Physicians in the military services are officers. As such they do not “enlist”. That is for enlisted soldiers. Officers sign contracts agreeing to a specified term of service . . .

  3. Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine is NOT in New York; it’s in California. The New York school is the New York College of Osteopathic Medicine, but it might be in the process of changing its name, or has already.

    1. Col Mukai,

      Touro has campuses in California and also in Harlem New York. Bay’s original DO school NYCOM has recently changed their name to NYIT. Thank you for your service!

      V/r

      LT Duong

  4. Some of the cons you present are really great opportunities. The payback time you spend after medical school goes by really fast. I was in the HPSP program, and I spent my payback time in Germany for 3.5 years. I have to admit, some of the duty was quite challenging, but I got to travel all over Europe, even did some temporary duty in Belgium. Because I speak a bit of German (one reason I volunteered to go to Germany), I got to meet some really nice people and establish lifelong friendships and improve my German speaking ability. When I got back to the States, I was impressed by the Army’s continuing education programs and applied for a residency. A little additional obligation to serve in the Army came with the residency program, but it was to serve in the specialty of my residency, all of which was great experience. I even got a position to teach at the Army’s Medical Academy for 3 years. I stayed in the Army because the people I worked with were great, the experience was unlike what you get as a civilian, and the work in general was extremely interesting and I loved what I was doing. Best of all, if it matters to you, it is an excellent opportunity to serve your country and give something back to this great nation.

  5. Been in the service for 43 years. Started as a Marine at 17. Then National Guard. Haven’t quit serving yet. Deployed numerous times. Serving the military is some of the best things I’ve ever done. Lots of hard times, but waaaaay more good memories and exciting experiences. Wouldn’t trade it for the world.

  6. you can be anything you want as a military physician but basically its about giving your life in service to your country which has given everything to you…….captain sends.

  7. access to residency is sometimes much improved. My wife and I both did Navy. We graduated debt free, Then were accepted to ortho and derm in American board of Orthopedic Surgery / dermatology (rather than American osteopathic board) residencies. This was at a time when DO students were essentially shut out of MD surgical training. We were given huge responsibility very early in career. We met great people, many of whom are still great friends. A very positive experience!

  8. I didn’t have a high enough GPA for the hospital scholarship but I passed through medical school and the boards and still signed up to serve because to me it was the right thing to do. Years later they offered me the scholarship in a retro pay type offer. It was worth all my 32 years of service. I agree with the Colonel’s comment, it’s a calling. Some days sucked. Some were amazing! But isn’t that just normal?!

  9. So great to see you featured in this article Matt. You always were a star studen and I am sure a star physician too! May you have a fulfilling and safe career!

  10. In 1955 , I was drafted into the US army, right at the end of the first semester at Kirksville. My grades at school were excellent, but I was not a pre med undergraduate, but a pharmacy student graduate. It was an interuption of my formal education, but I was honored to serve my country. I served in a medical detachment at the DMZ, and saw all sorts of injuries, tropical diseases. What an opportunity that interuption was.

    1. It’s not always a con if you’re single, but it often is if you have a family. 6 months away from home, no matter where the assignment is, can be very difficult. Depending on the assignment, you can go to some pretty rough areas- being that you’re in the military. There are risks and benefits to every assignment.

  11. Had 10 years prior service in combat medicine when I was awarded a HPSP scholarship at Des Moines in 1982. Trained in 3 specialties at prestigious MD programs and was triple MD boarded … also did the DO boards to keep the peace. Taught at an Army residency program and a fellowship program. Retired in Jan 1997 and was a founding partner of an anesthesia program. Just joined an academic group affiliated with the TX state system. Military service not for all but training superb, experience without parallel, and professional associations outstanding … and debt free since graduation from med school in 1986. I never planned a military career but followed opportunities as they presented.

  12. Having served, I tell anyone who asks that I’d never trade my experience for anything, and I’d never do it again. If you decide to sign your life over to the military, don’t do it for financial reasons.

    I also advise folks to finish med school and residency before signing up if you want a military career. That gives you much more flexibility with your career choice- the military doesn’t need every specialty, and if you sign on the dotted line before settling on a chosen field, the military can prevent you from going into your choice because they don’t have a billet for the specialty you want. If you finish residency and then sign up, the military will still pay off your student loans.

  13. In retrospect, after 41 years of being a physician, I regret not following the military pathway. However, as I was enrolling in school for the class of ’75, I was told by the Air Force that they were not accepting any osteopathic physicians at the time. Unfortunately, I did not follow up with other branches. It was a mistake.

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