Medical Careers in the Military

Tuition-free medical education is among the benefits

Military doctor talking to patient

Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / Blend Images / Getty Images

The United States military—which includes the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard—offers hundreds of medical jobs ranging from nurses and physicians to dentists and allied health professionals. Not only is there room for advancement and travel, but you can also obtain training free of charge if eligible.

In an age where medical school tuition is leaving people with six-figure debt, the lure of free education makes the military a can't-miss opportunity for those who can't otherwise afford a medical education.

Qualifying for the Military

Even before exploring job opportunities in the military, you need to qualify. Whether you intend to become an officer or a non-commissioned officer (NCO), you must meet the following eligibility requirements for all branches of the armed forces:

Officers must have a minimum of a bachelor's college degree.

Upon qualifying, new military personnel must complete a 10-week basic training (a.k.a. boot camp). Officers must then successfully complete a 12-week training in officer candidate school.

Educational Opportunities

There are numerous tuition opportunities for medical and allied health professionals in the military. Chief among these are the Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP) and the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USUHS).

The main difference between the two is your status in service:

  • HPSP students are commissioned as officers but attend medical school in the same way as any other student. The only difference is that they need to also attend officer training during the school year in full uniform.
  • USUHS students are active-duty officers who are taught by a mixture of civilian and military instructors. They are not deployed during medical training but would otherwise function as part of the armed services.

Physicians can attain either a doctor of medicine (MD) or doctor of osteopathy (DO) degree. Nurses, dentists, physician assistants, and other college-degree-level medical careers can qualify for HPSP and USUHS tuition as well.

A competitive applicant for HPSP or USUHS will generally have a grade point average (GPA) of 3.5 or higher and a Medical Competency Aptitude Test (MCAT) score of 27 or higher. 

For more information, contact the HPSP recruitment officer at your prospective branch of service or an admissions officer at admissions@usuhs.edu.

Pros

Clearly, the biggest lure of a military medical career is subsidized tuition. This is especially important given that the average cost of one year of medical school is around $35,000 for in-state students and $60,000 for out-of-state students, according to the American Medical School Association (AMSA).

In exchange, you would need to enlist for around four years of active duty, sometimes more or less depending upon the level of education attained.

Once your service requirements are met, you are free and clear of medical school debt and can pursue a career unencumbered in the private sector.

Military medical careers are great for people who love medicine but do not wish to be confined to an office or hospital. You can pursue a career as a flight surgeon on an aircraft carrier, for example, or work as a nurse on a Navy submarine. The opportunities are unique and expansive.

Travel from one military post to the next may be attractive to those who have never traveled before. This includes being stationed overseas or on far-flung bases around the globe.

Another perk is having your living expenses (such as housing and healthcare) covered in addition to your salary. While your income may not be a high as your civilian counterparts, you stand to put aside significant savings simply by having these expenses covered.

Cons

One of the drawbacks of a medical military career is that your life is not your own while you are training and serving in the military. For example, you may be perfectly happy at your current post, only to be suddenly stationed halfway across the planet to somewhere you don't like.

There is also the ever-present risk of being deployed overseas at times of war, a wrenching experience for even the most seasoned military families.

Another major drawback is the bureaucracy that military medical professionals inherently face. While the patient load may be lighter, the administrative paperwork will invariably be greater. In the end, you have to answer to a hierarchy and follow protocols that are often cumbersome and unwieldy.

Still, the drawbacks are considered minor to those who dream of a medical career but haven't the financial means to attain it. For them, the military may be the key to fulfilling those dreams.

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