When you’re really set on something, nothing can stand between you and your goals. Whether determined, driven, or just plain stubborn — or perhaps all three — you feel the call of medical field and have always known you’re meant to be a doctor.
In fact, you can’t imagine doing anything else with your life.
You’re chasing after your dreams, but at the same time you can’t help but be concerned about the cost of medical school. Don’t worry — you’re not alone. There’s no getting around the fact that medical school is expensive — it’s something all medical students face. But don’t let the hang up of student loans prevent you from fulfilling your lifelong dream of becoming a doctor.
While medical school is costly, it’s not out of reach. If you’re starting to think about how to pay for medical school, you came to the right place. We spoke with a number of physicians who have been in your shoes to hear firsthand how they dealt with the same situation. Keep reading to hear how they paid for medical school and handled their student loan debt after launching their medical careers.
Medical school by the numbers
You’re determined to become a doctor, but you can’t overlook the looming weight of student loans — and for good reason. The median debt was $200,000 in 2018, which is an amount that would stop anyone in their tracks.
Educational debt for medical students is commonplace. In fact, 76 percent of medical students graduate with it. At private schools, 21 percent of students have debt of $300,000 or more. For most aspiring doctors, medical school debt simply comes with the territory. But that figure can be tough to stomach.
"I'm not fond of my student loans, but they've allowed me to pursue my dreams."
“If you want to make an omelet, you've got to crack some eggs,” says Dr. Alex Roher, a board-certified anesthesiologist. “I'm not fond of my student loans, but they've allowed me to pursue my dreams. I wouldn't be where I am today without them.”
Paying for medical school: Scholarships, student loans, and hard work
Paying for medical school is an inevitable part of becoming a doctor. But you probably don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars sitting around, so what are your options to help ease the financial burden? Like most medical students, you most likely will pay for medical school using student loans, possibly some scholarships, and some good, old-fashioned hard work.
Another resource for funding your education is your personal network. Some medical students lean on generous well-to-do parents, relatives, or other benefactors.
“You may be surprised to learn as you go through medical school how often this option is used,” says Dr. Richard Beddingfield, an anesthesiologist, in his book, Med School Uncensored.
"You may be surprised to learn as you go through medical school how often this option is used."
As far as scholarships go, you will find options particularly for students with stellar academic performance, strong research interests, or underrepresented cultural backgrounds, according to Dr. Beddingfield. You should also consider looking into local and school-specific scholarship opportunities.
And then come the student loans.
Many medical students finance their education through federal loans, which are preferable to private loans for a number of reasons. Federal loans come with repayment options, such as income-based repayment or Pay As You Earn. Programs like these cap how much you pay off each month. Forbearance is also an option, which some students take advantage of during residency. Federal loans also afford you the option of debt consolidation, which can lower your interest rate and simplify your loan payments. This is a huge advantage, as interest on your medical education debt can really add up.
But what is it like living with such a large amount of debt?
The reality of student loans: How doctors made it through
“For a poor student like myself, the tuition and other expenses were almost unreal, and that was many years ago. Today, it's even more expensive,” says Dr. Joseph Alton, an author and retired obstetrician and pelvic surgeon. “Unless you come from an affluent family, you have to scramble to get loans, work part time and/or consider some of the governmental health services.”
"For a poor student like myself, the tuition and other expenses were almost unreal."
Assuming you don’t have a trust fund waiting for you, student loans will simply be a reality of your medical school experience. Your education will most likely be financed through a compilation of loans. Some medical students work part time during their pre-clinical years. However, the demands and rigor of the academic work make working more difficult as you progress through school.
Dr. Roher explains that he attended medical school in the same city in which he earned his undergrad, so he was fortunate enough to keep his job bartending, working two nights a week. “I did this during the first two years of medical school, but the workload was too exhausting during the second two years,” he says.
Between scholarships and generous support from family, Dr. Lisa Doggett, a family physician and medical director for AxisPoint Health, was fortunate enough to graduate from medical school debt-free. But for her husband, a pediatrician, it was a different story — he graduated $100,000 in debt in the late 1990s.
“He did not have financial support from his family, and he had some debt left over from undergrad as well. But he handled it well. He was careful not to overspend. We still laugh about his terrible car that he sold for $160 near the end of medical school,” she says. “I learned to cook in medical school, so we didn’t go out to eat much, and I found an inexpensive apartment.”
"I learned to cook in medical school, so we didn’t go out to eat much, and I found an inexpensive apartment."
There is a silver lining to the life of a medical student, she points out. “One advantage to being so busy is that there is little time to spend money, which is probably a good thing when you’re on a limited income,” she explains.
Living with debt as a medical student is one thing. But how does that change once you’re in the working world? What is it like repaying student loans once you’ve landed your first job?
Dealing with medical school debt: How doctors paid it off
Unlike Dr. Doggett, Dr. Roher had a different experience paying for medical school. Graduating with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, he spent his first few years of working chipping away at this deficit.
“When I finished medical school, I was about $160,000 in debt,” Dr. Roher shares. “I also managed to rack up a $10,000 credit card debt during my fourth year of medical school. The fourth year was difficult financially.”
Roher’s added debt in his fourth year was partly due to more than $2,000 of physician certification test fees. He also had to travel for internship and residency interviews.
“I also had some time off and knew that I would be living in a hospital for the next four years of my life so I took a couple vacations,” he explains. “It took me half my intern year to pay off that credit card.”
Once he was out in the working world, he began to focus on paying off his medical school debt.
“My first paycheck felt enormous. I had a real sense of accomplishment."
“My first paycheck felt enormous. I had a real sense of accomplishment,” Dr. Roher recalls. “Paying back student loans is not fun, but I understand it has to be done.” He says he lived very frugally for a few years and was able to pay off his higher interest debt. Now he is still chipping away at paying off the rest of his debt, which is at a lower interest rate.
“To be honest, I think I did it right,” he says. “I focused on my education during medical school and didn't give student loans a second thought. Now I'm in a position to pay them off and I don't feel overburdened by them.”
Scholarships, loan forgiveness, and reimbursement programs
Prioritizing your student loans once you’re working is one way to pay them off. However, Dr. Doggett suggests seeking out loan forgiveness programs after residency.
“There are many different opportunities, especially for primary care,” she says. “My husband was actually glad he did not rush and pay off his low-interest student loans right away because he ended up being eligible for a loan forgiveness program through the hospital where he works.”
When it comes to tuition reimbursement and loan forgiveness programs, know that you have options.
"There are many ways to have a complete medical education financed by outside sources."
“For students who do not want to incur a great deal of debt but don’t have family members who can help finance their education, there are many ways to have a complete medical education financed by outside sources,” says Dr. Bernard Remakus, an internist and author of nonfiction medical books, novels, and screenplays.
Dr. Remakus outlines a handful of programs offering these options to students:
• Military scholarships trade medical school tuition and expenses for commitments to serve as a military doctor.
• National Health Service Corps scholarships cover tuition and expenses for physicians willing to work in a medically underserved area, such as a rural and inner-city location.
• Public, private, and governmental institutions offer partial and full scholarships and grants.
• University hospitals offer tuition repayment as an employment benefit to physicians agreeing to work as an academic physician at a university hospital for 10 years.
• Some private medical groups and hospitals offer full or partial tuition repayment as an employment benefit.
These programs and employment options are great for medical students looking for support in repaying their loans. But if you’re signing up with a program, Dr. Alton cautions students to be entirely committed beforehand.
“I was in dire financial straits at the time, and I chose to enroll in the National Health Service Corps to support a wife and baby while I was in school,” he explains. He was later offered a position as a general practitioner in a prison. However, Dr. Alton had a change of heart and decided his calling was not primary care but was OB/GYN instead.
“Unfortunately for me, an OB/GYN position was not an option in the program,” he says. “When I refused the prison position, I was hit with a bill for about triple what I received from them during school, plus interest.”
Because of the financial penalties, he advises students to only accept offers of aid if they plan to fulfill their commitments to the program in its entirety.
Finance your future
Between scholarships, student loans, and other programs supporting the cost of medical school, you have options when it comes to funding your dream. But in the midst of it all, don’t lose sight of what’s most important. Learning how to pay for medical school is just one step on the path to a meaningful, challenging, and satisfying career in medicine.
Now that you feel a little more at ease about the financial aspect, it’s time to start evaluating your program options. Ultimately, your decision should come down to more than cost alone. Learn about what other factors to weigh in our article, “How to Choose a Medical School: 9 Things to Evaluate Before Accepting.”
* This article has been updated from a previous version to include current facts and figures.
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