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.
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.
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.