Serving your country

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.

Editor’s note: This story was updated on April 23, 2019.

Medical education has a steep price tag; students often graduate more than $250,000 in debt. Joining the military is one way students can finish medical school 100 percent 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 percent 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 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 graduated from Rocky Vista University College of Osteopathic Medicine in 2015 and is now a father of three.

Maj. 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)

Pro: You’ll be serving your country. “Being in the military was an incredible and very fulfilling experience,” says Maj. Matthew Puderbaugh, DO, USAF, a former HPSP student who is now a member of the Minnesota Air National Guard and a civilian resident. “I’ve also enjoyed transitioning to the National Guard, and my current program is very supportive of my continued service to the country.”

Pro: Unique opportunities for training. In his first year of active duty service, Dr. Puderbaugh 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 learning opportunities aren’t so readily available in the civilian world, he says.

Con: You might have fewer options for residency. HPSP students must apply for the military match for residency. The military match places physicians in residency programs run or sponsored by the military. Those who don’t match into the specialty of their choice can enter a transitional year program and re-enter the match the following year. In rare cases, students can receive special permission to pursue civilian residency programs.

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.

In his case, Dr. Puderbaugh volunteered for a three-year assignment in Germany, which extended his active duty service commitment by one year.

With the cost of medical school taken care of, former HPSP student Charles Hutchinson, DO, shown here with his daughter, says he and his wife felt more secure about having children.

More info on becoming a military physician

Whether you’re thinking of joining the Armed Forces to pay for medical school or lighten your debt load, you’ll find these answers to common questions useful.

When do you join? Students apply to enter the Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP) just before or during their first year of medical school. Residents in certain specialties can join anytime after their intern year. To join as a practicing physician, you must be finished with residency and/or fellowship training, board-certified and fully licensed to practice.

How much money do you get? Financial awards vary significantly depending on the program, the physician’s specialty and other factors. The military pays 100 percent of tuition for HPSP students; it also provides a monthly stipend of more than $2,000, officers’ pay during breaks, and in some cases, a $20,000 signing bonus.

Physicians in certain in-demand specialties who sign up during residency can receive an annual grant of $45,000 plus a monthly stipend of more than $2,300 via the Financial Assistance Program (FAP).

Fully licensed physicians can receive $40,000 per year for up to three years via the Active Duty Health Professions Loan Repayment Program. If you join the Reserves, its Health Professions Loan Repayment Program can provide loan repayment of up to $40,000 per year up to $250,000.

How many years of service are you obligated to complete? Generally, students in the HPSP must complete one year of active duty service for each year of support they receive. For instance, if you join before your first year of medical school, you’ll owe the military four years of active duty service after finishing your residency.

Residents who joined FAP will owe, following residency, two years of active duty service for the first year of assistance and then one year for each year of assistance received afterward.

Practicing physicians will generally owe two to four years of active duty service depending on the program they enter and the number of years of loan repayment they receive.

How does part time vs. full time work? Students and physicians can choose a full- or part-time commitment to the military; those who enter part time join the Army Reserves. Service requirements and financial incentives are vastly different for full- and part-time recruits. Part-time military physicians can keep their civilian jobs while in the Reserves.

Sources: U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, the Army Medical Recruiting Brigade’s public affairs office.

Related reading:

The Navy paid for this doctor’s medical education. Here’s how he fared

Military medicine: Keeping pilots in flying form

31 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

      1. Thank you, LT Duong, for the correction about Touro COM having at least two campuses! I see the name “Touro” being used in other places like the University of Nevada. You are also right that NYCOM has changed its name a little while ago to NY Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine, which I guess is now referred to as NYITCOM. NYIT was always the parent organization on whose campus NYCOM was founded. I’m not sure what you mean by NYCOM being “Bay’s original DO school”. Thank YOU for YOUR service, as well!

  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.

      1. I openly volunteered to go to Germany, so in that sense, the placement in Germany was my choice, although I guess it’s possible someone higher up could have assigned me somewhere else, and I could have ended up somewhere else. They want to keep doctors as happy as they possibly can so they try not to make assignments arbitrarily. As I mentioned above, I volunteered to go to Germany to do most of my “payback” time (3.5 years out of 4). I did not get to choose exactly where in Germany I was going to go, but that didn’t matter much to me. As it turned out, I was miraculously placed in exactly the right spot, a place where very few people in the Army even knew we had a post, but a place that was especially suited to my background. (It’s somewhat of an involved story.)

    1. I forgot to add when I originally wrote this that when I applied and got accepted to the residency program of my choice, it required getting a Master of Public Health degree. I was able to attend one of the best, if not THE best public health school in the country, and the Army paid not only the tuition and fees but also my regular Army salary while I was in school since I was still on active duty.

  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.

    2. Deployments can also be a con because they often come at inopportune times in your life. I was deployed once right after changing stations and moving about 2000 miles, and it was a surprise, due to a changing world political situation. Throwing a deployment in right after a move was very “inconvenient”, but in the military, as in life, your attitude can make all the difference. That deployment, though messy and badly timed, was actually one of the most meaningful events of my Army career and of my life. You just have to go through it to understand how this can be.

  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.

  14. Another plus is the retirement. I did four years Air Force and thoroughly enjoyed it. Learned a lot that I wouldn’t have. Then stayed in the Reserves and now receive a monthly retirement check and healthcare for life. Plus I saw a lot of the world and got to help out some troops in wartime.

  15. waww its a pleasure to know about this, my solemnly wish is to join, and seek for help with an aim of joining up.

  16. My daughter will be finishing her undergraduate degree in biology in 2019 and will take the MCAT at that time. She is interested in joining the military and to also pursue her medical degree. What would be her best course of action at that time and what branch of service would/should she join? Thank you for insight you can provide.

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