TJ PorterBy T.J. Porter, WCI Contributor

Though being a military doctor might not be as fun as it sometimes seemed on M*A*S*H, working for Uncle Sam is a great way to become a physician without having to pay for medical school. Whether you aspire to be a careerist in the military or simply plan to trade some of your time for a free MD, the military can offer a clear path to becoming a doctor.


How Do You Get the Military to Pay for Medical School?

For many people, the appeal of the military is that you can get a free medical degree from Uncle Sam. There are two ways to get the military to cover your educational expenses.

The first is through the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USUHS). This school was started by a Louisiana congressman, F. Edward Hebert. Billed as the “West Point for Doctors,” this school in Bethesda, Maryland offers medical education to members of the military. If you apply to the USUHS and get accepted, you’ll become an active-duty military member and receive a free education from the school. The school accepts both civilians (who enlist upon acceptance) and existing members of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and US Public Health Service.

The second path to a government-paid medical degree is the Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP). This is the more common of the two options. If you sign up with the HPSP, you can attend any medical school in the United States (assuming the school accepts you). The government will pay your tuition and give you a monthly stipend while you’re in school. During your schooling, you’ll also attend military training, typically during the second year of med school. You can also do your rotations in military hospitals if you want.


What’s the Difference Between USUHS and HPSP?

The key differences between the USUHS and the HPSP are where you go to school and your level of commitment to the military.

If you attend USUHS, you become an active duty military member when you start school and you are committed to the military in full. You have to complete an officer orientation program, wear a uniform to school, and spend seven years in active duty service upon graduation. On the bright side, you’ll get the pay and benefits of an officer.

If you’re accepted to the HPSP, you’ll go through officer orientation, attend the school of your choice without wearing a uniform, complete annual military training, and receive fully paid tuition and a monthly stipend of a bit more than $2,600 a month. After graduating, you’ll have a military commitment equal to the number of years you spent in medical school.

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How Long Does It Take to Become a Military Doctor?

Becoming a military doctor is not much different from becoming a civilian doctor in terms of time commitment. You’ll need to complete a bachelor's degree plus and a four-year MD. You then need to go through residency, which can last 1-6 years depending on your specialty.


At What Rank Do Military Doctors Start?

Military physicians are officers of their chosen branches. If you enter the military through the HPSP or USUHS, you’ll typically start as a second lieutenant (for the Army or Air Force) or an ensign (Navy). Upon graduation, you’ll receive a promotion to either captain or major (Army/Air Force) or lieutenant or lieutenant commander (Navy). As you continue in your military career, you can work your way up the ranks. 

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How Much Do Military Doctors Make?

Military doctor pay depends on rank and experience. When you begin your career, you’ll likely enter the military with a rank in the O-1 pay grade. This includes ensigns in the Navy and second lieutenants in other branches. You’ll earn a basic pay of $3,637.20 per month. As you gain experience or rise in rank, your pay will increase.

For example, after medical school through the USUHS, you’ll likely rise to O-2 and have four years of experience, which would mean a monthly pay of $5,682,60. Military members can receive additional pay on top of their basic pay—such as incentive pay, hardship duty pay, and various allowances.


What Are the Benefits of Becoming a Military Doctor?

On top of free medical school and earning pay while you’re learning to become a physician, there are many other benefits to becoming a military doctor. You’ll get to meet many different people from different backgrounds and have the sense of camaraderie that comes from serving your country with others. You may also have the opportunity to get assigned to exciting locations and see the world on the country’s dime.

You’ll also see regular increases in pay as you advance in ranks and time served, have access to some of the best retirement plans available, and have the opportunity to earn a pension. You may even get free health insurance from the VA for life.

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How Many Years Do You Owe the Military for Medical School?

How much time you owe to the military depends on the program you select.

If you attend the USUHS, you’ll have to serve as an active-duty member of the military for seven years after graduating from medical school. The HPSP operates on a one-to-one obligation system. For every year that you’re in the program and getting assistance from the government, you’ll owe one year of service. That means that if med school takes you four years, you’ll have to serve in the Armed Forces for four years.


How Hard Is It to Get into Military Medical School?

USUHS is incredibly selective. It’s very difficult to get admitted. The acceptance rate for the program is just 8%, which means you’ll need to be at the absolute top of the pool of applicants to have a chance to get in. The HPSP program is much easier to qualify for because you can attend any medical school in the US under the program.

military medical physician education


How Often Do Military Doctors Get Deployed?

Signing up for the military means that you get little choice in where you work. In some cases, it can mean getting deployed to a base overseas or even a war zone in the worst case.

Though you will not be deployed while you’re going through medical training, you’ll be working as an active duty member of the military for years after graduating. During this time, you could get deployed. The frequency of deployment will depend on the branch of the military you select, your specialty, and the needs of the country. Some physicians may deploy very rarely or not at all during their time. Others could be deployed every year.

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Is Being a Military Doctor Worth It?

Becoming a military doctor is a big commitment. On top of the long education required to become a physician, you’ll be signing away years of your life to the whims of the military.

The financial benefits are strong, but for most people, joining the military isn’t a financial decision. If you already have an interest in serving your country, these programs are a great way to get a free education while pursuing your goals. If you simply want to become a physician, dealing with the bureaucracy and difficulties of the military is likely not worth the trouble.

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