The military is offering to pay for my medical school- what’s the catch?!

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As many of you start applying for medical school, the main focus is usually just getting in! However, the other main consideration that most people have is the cost. This may be particularly scary if you already have a lot of debt for other reasons, such as undergraduate loans, or if you are most interested in a lower paying specialty. This can be intimidating!

Often, this is the time that most people hear about the Health Professional Scholarship Program (HPSP), which is a scholarship program that each branch of the military (Army, Air Force, and Navy) offers to pay for medical school. If you have prior military service or ties you may have an interest based on those reasons as well. There is also a military medical school, but it works differently, so we won’t get into that now. So what exactly is this program?

HPSP offers to pay for all of your medical school tuition, fees, books, board exams, supplies, health insurance (if required by your school), and offers a small stipend as well (mine was around $2k/month). In return for this scholarship, you are required to “pay back” four years of active duty service time. The military also has residency programs, and most HPSP students will complete their residency in the military (although there are a few civilian deferred spots as well). Because you are active duty during residency, you are paying back your medical school time, but you are concurrently accumulating more time to pay back- you must then work as an active duty physician to pay back for your residency years. Make sense?

For me, I attended a civilian medical school, and basically you would never know I was in the Army other than everything was paid for and I went to an “officer training” for 6 weeks my first summer. I matched into dermatology at the Army program in San Antonio and I am now in my last year residency. That means that this summer I will have paid back my medical school obligation. However, they just trained me (and paid me as a Captain) for four years, and I owe that time back. So now I will go work in Alaska for 4 years, as an active duty dermatologist on base. After that, I can leave, or sign up for more time.

I am very grateful to the Army. It is amazing to walk away debt free from a rather expensive medical school. My husband and I had many additional opportunities including him going back to school, because we had my stipend and other costs were covered. My residency training has been exceptional, and I get to take care of some incredible veterans, active duty members, and their families. I am well compensated as a resident, and my family all have free health care through Tricare. This has been particularly extraordinary considering my oldest daughter broke her leg one year and my baby had a 10 day stay in the NICU. I didn’t pay a penny and the care was incredible.

What’s the catch? Being in the military is full of uncertainty. I was given a list of places to choose for payback, but there were no guarantees of where I would go. Sometimes people get what they really don’t want. The pay is less as a board certified physician. There is always the risk of being deployed, although this varies greatly by specialty. As a medical student, the number of residency spots can really vary each year. The military doesn’t force you into any speciality, but if you don’t match into what you wanted, you can either scramble into another spot that is left, or you can choose to work as a general medical officer until your commitment is up. Military medicine is currently undergoing a huge overhaul, with a focus on specialties that are considered essential to war-fighting (think: trauma surgery, ortho, ED, etc), with less and less focus on others. This is going to change a lot of things.

Which branch should I choose? Everyone has their own unique reasons for choosing one branch over another. Some have family traditions or commitments. Others choose based on potential bases where you could be stationed. Others choose based on lifestyle. I chose Army because it is the biggest branch, so it had the most number of residency spots available. The pros and cons of each branch can really vary by specialty- so if you know what specialty you want to do, try to talk to someone in that specialty to find out what it’s really like. Reach out to me if you have no contacts, and I will help if I can.

Kate Kimes, D.O.

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19 thoughts on “The military is offering to pay for my medical school- what’s the catch?!

  • What a great use of my photo! That as taken at my daughter’s BCT graduation at Fort Leonard Wood in MO. Coincidentally, she’s on the same track!

  • Hi! I loved reading about your experience. I’m interested in following a similar path but I don’t know where to start and who I should talk to for advising about it. Any advice or resources would be majorly appreciated! Best wishes.

    • Hi Erin! It depends on where you are in the application process. Are you applying right now? Have you already been accepted? Once that happens, you need to contact a medical recruiter for the branch you want! I will e-mail you directly, but also wanted to reply here for others. Good luck!

  • Thanks for this information! I’m planning on joining the Navy’s Health Profession Scholarship Program. I’m looking for anyone with experience in that program though. My uncle was part of the CBs, so he didn’t know much about the NHPSP.

  • Hi I’m a freshmen in college and am looking further into my future. I want to go to med school in the future to become a surgical oncologist. I was considering joining the national guard to help pay for school. They told me that my med school would be payed for and I would only owe 1 year after I get out of med school. Is something like this possible if I were to join right now and participate in rotc?

    • Hi Milton! I am not aware of any program in which you would only owe one year after completion. I would ask the recruiter to talk to someone personally who is actively in the program who can verify that. I have not heard of the national guard paying for medical school. ROTC is complicated, but possible. I have had friends who did ROTC for undergrad and then either HPSP or USUHS for med school. If you do that, you have to get permission from ROTC to apply to med school rather than start your military commitment back to them. I hope that makes sense! If you have more questions, I would be happy to email you!

      • That would be great if you could email me I have a few questions if you know anything about the national guard simultaneous membership program.

  • Hello,

    Thank you for sharing you experience. I am a 3rd year medical student who have not started the clinical due to the pandemic at a Caribbean medical school. I am interested in plastic surgery, and I wanted to get more information in regards to this if possible. Also, I am currently in GA, and my rotation will be in U.S. Thank you.

  • Hello, I am a 3rd-year medical student who have not started the clinical due to the pandemic at a Caribbean medical school. I am interested in plastic surgery, and I’m thinking about joining. Where can I get more information? I talked to a local recruiter while back, but they didn’t have a much info in regards to this.

    • Hi, thanks for your message! Yes, plastic surgery is an option in the military, but I’ve never known anyone to join in 3rd year of medical school. Most HPSP scholarships are 3 or 4 years. Make sure you get accurate information from a recruiter- see it in writing! As far as I know, HPSP is only an option for US schools. Remember that residencies and fellowships are competitive in the military too. I will try to find information for the number of spots in the Army for you! I would confirm that you are eligible.

  • Hello, Kate.

    To my understanding, I can go and see an Army recruiter to see if I qualify for a free medical tuition?
    Or do I already have to be attending college or have an acceptance letter from college?

    Overall, my goal is to choose a medical MOS that will help me transition into a civilian doctor once my contract is over.


    • Hi Amy! Once you are preparing to apply to medical school (usually spring/summer), you can go speak with a recruiter. They can see if you will qualify based on your GPA and MCAT. However, you cannot actually apply for HPSP until you are accepted to a medical school, so you still need to be applying to schools early summer!
      Let me know if you have any other questions!

  • Thank you so much for the quick response.

    The highest education I have is a high school diploma. So therefore, the recruiter will look at my high school gpa and my MCAT score to see if I’m eligible?

    Is there a list of specific colleges I have to apply for or can I apply to any college?

    • Ok, so HPSP is specifically for medical school. If you are trying to get the military to pay for college, that is ROTC. I think that would be based on your high school GPA and SAT or ACT scores. I’m sorry but I did not do ROTC, so I don’t have any experience with that! I would google ROTC in your area and speak with a recruiter. You will owe 4 years of military service for your ROTC time and you will have to apply to ROTC for permission to apply to medical school (I had a friend do ROTC and then HPSP and that’s how she said it works.) Then you can choose to go HPSP or apply to the military medical school USHSU. I hope that helps!

  • Hey I am looking into MED school for Psychiatry but I want to join the Marines. I see mostly programs for Navy, Army, etc. What programs, scholarships, and MED school for military would be available to me.

  • Hi Kate, my name is Manny I’ve always been in the medical field. I began as an EMT in the ER and now I’m currently working as a Trauma RN in the OR and have enjoyed it very much. I had never thought of going into Med School but because of this opportunity I’ve had I currently started looking into Med School openings. I am very interested in the possibility of becoming a Trauma Surgeon and would love maybe some info on this if you have any. Thank you!

  • Hi Kate, I’m a little late on this post. My name is Manny I’ve been in the medical field for a few years. Started out as an EMT in the ER and now I’m a Trauma RN in the OR. I never thought I would want to go into Medical School but recently have been looking a bit more into it. I would love the opportunity to look into possibly joining the armed forces to go into Trauma Surgery. Not sure which branch to join or anything of the sort so any info would be great help. Thank you!

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