Medical Careers in the Military

Tuition-free education is among the benefits

Military doctor talking to patient

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The United States military—which includes the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard—offers hundreds of medical jobs ranging from nurses and doctors 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.

At a time when 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 Military Service

Even before exploring job opportunities in the military, you need to qualify for enlistment. Whether you intend to become a non-commissioned officer (like a seaman, corporal, or sergeant) or an officer (like a lieutenant, captain, colonel, or general), you must meet the following eligibility requirements for all branches of the armed forces:

Some branches of the military also require that you have no more than two dependent children.

Pathways to Education

The pathway to medical training for non-commissioned officers (NCOs) differs from the path taken by commissioned officers.

Non-Commission Officers

Upon qualifying for enlistment, non-commissioned recruits must complete 10-week basic training known as "boot camp." They can then request military occupational specialty (MOS) training to become a medic, medical technician, or allied health professional.

Depending on the types of MOS training obtained, the NCO can rise in military rank from private or corporal all the way up to master sergeant or senior sergeant.

Officers

Officer candidates must have a minimum of a bachelor's degree in order to receive a commission. The degree can be obtained either before entering the armed services or by attending a senior military college (like the Citadel in South Carolina), a service academy (like Air Force Academy in Colorado), or a traditional college or university with a Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program.

After attaining a four-year degree, the officer candidate must complete a 12-week training program at officer candidate school (OCS). The fully commissioned officer can then enroll in medical school and obtain doctorate or fellowship training if desired. In exchange for tuition or scholarship, the officer agrees to a set number of years in active duty.

The more extensive the medical training, the longer the commitment to military service. This applies to both commissioned and non-commissioned officers.

Career Opportunities

There are numerous educational opportunities for medical and allied health professionals in the military. The certifications, licensing, and regulations are no different than those governing civilian practitioners.

Non-Commissioned Officers

Non-commissioned officers pursuing a medical career are offered a wide variety of MOS training programs, each of which provides promotion points for an advancement in rank. The medical programs are classified by code, such as:

  • 68A - Biomedical equipment specialist
  • 68E - Dental specialist
  • 68G - Patient administration specialist
  • 68J - Medical logistics specialist
  • 68K - Medical laboratory specialist
  • 68M - Nutrition care specialist
  • 68R - Veterinary food inspection specialist
  • 68S - Preventive medicine specialist
  • 68W - Combat medic specialist

There are different eligibility requirements for the various training programs. Some require the completion of introductory MOS training, the attainment of professional certifications, or a two-year associate's degree.

For NCOs wanting to pursue an associate's degree, there are continuing education degree programs (CEDP) in all branches of the military. College credits can be obtained through MOS training and attendance at civilian colleges. Tuition assistance is available through the military, tuition discounts are also offered by many colleges to active duty personnel.

Other MOS programs, such as practical nursing (68C) and radiology (68P), require advanced degrees. In such cases, the educational pathway may eventually lead a commission as an officer with full privileges and rank.

Officers

There is no limit to the medical opportunities available to officers in the U.S. Armed Forces. The two main educational vehicles are the Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP) and the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USUHS) based in Bethesda, Maryland.

The main difference between the two is the officer's 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.

The HPSP covers civilian medical school tuition and fees and provides a monthly living stipend plus a signing bonus under certain conditions. Similarly, students enrolled with USUSH pay no tuition or fees and receive the full salary and benefits of a uniformed officer while in attendance. In return, students incur an active duty commitment proportionate to their time spent in university.

Physician candidates with HPSP can obtain a doctor of medicine (MD), doctor of osteopathy (DO), or a doctorate (PhD) degree. Those enrolled with USUSH can only attain a MD, PhD, or combined MD/PhD degree. Nurses, dentists, and other postgraduate health professionals can qualify for HPSP and USUHS as well.

U.S. Army applicants are automatically accepted to HPSP or USUHS with a grade point average (GPA) of 3.25 or higher and a Medical Competency Aptitude Test (MCAT) score of 507 or higher. 

All other applicants are individually assessed based on their GPA, MCAT, and other factors. The criteria for acceptance can vary by the branch of armed services as well as the category of medical profession.

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. Even an associate lab technician program can cost over $15,000 per year, well in excess of what many civilians can afford.

Among the other key benefits:

  • Job Opportunities: 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: 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.
  • Living Expenses: 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.
  • Debt: Once the active duty service requirements are met, you are free and clear of educational debt and can pursue a career unencumbered in the private sector.

A 2017 study in Academic Medicine concluded that higher-paid civilian specialists, like orthopedic surgeons, can overtake their military counterparts in overall income after four to 11 years. By contrast, civilians who enter primary care with hundreds of thousands in debt will never close the gap.

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.

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.

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.

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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Article Sources

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  2. U.S. Army. USAREC Regulation 601- 37 personnel procurement: Army medical recruiting program. Updated July 11, 2018.

  3. American Medical School Association. Tuition and Student Fees Report, 2012-2013 through 2018-2019. Updated 2019.

  4. Marcu MI, Kellermann AL, Hunter C, Curtis J, Rice C, Wilensky GR. Borrow or serve? An economic analysis of options for financing a medical school education. Acad Med. 2017;92(7):966-75. doi:10.1097/ACM.0000000000001572