A Free Ride to Medical School

Brent Pittman —  05/02/2012

Becoming a medical doctor is a childhood dream that ends up being a long and expensive road. The amount of debt (possibly $100,000-$250,000) is almost as big as the commitment it takes to endure the rigorous study and residency programs. The debt can be crushing and a barrier for many to enter the field, but you can become a doctor for FREE. There are always other options.

Go to Medical School for Free with MD/PhD and MSTP

What is a MD/PhD program?

An MD/PhD program is another option for those desire to enter into the medical field without the burden of cost. You be getting a duel MD and PhD. upon completion (6-8 years). Unlike a traditional MD, you’ll also receive research experience that could help you later in your medical career. If you are are unsure if this path is right for you read Three Crucial Questions Questions when applying to M.D.-Ph.D. Program.  

What is MSTP program?

There are similarities between the Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) and MD/PhD programs, but differences in funding may exists depending on the institution. Read MSTP vs MD/PhD to help clarify the differences.

Financial Benefits of MD/PhD or MSTP programs

If this is the path you choose for your medical career you could graduate without paying tuition, annual stipends and grants, travel and research funds, and insurance and healthcare (some). You’ll be getting a free ride to medical school! Example funding for MSTP program at University of California Irvine.

How to Qualify for MD/PhD Program

This is a non-traditional path and is even more competitive than medical school. That means they only let the top students into this program. You’ll need a a high undergraduate G.P.A., high MCAT and GRE scores, and experience with medical research (Summer Undergraduate Research Programs). Remember the spots are few and grants generous, so do your research and speak with other MD/PhD graduates to find out what their qualifications were that garnered entrance into the MD/PhD program.  Read also Applying to MD-PhD Program.

Here is a list of MD/Phd programs by state to help you research the individual schools including requirements and grants.

 Medical School Debt Forgiveness Programs

If you already have medical school debt there are a few programs to repay your medical student loans:

  • National Health Service Corps– By serving in a Health Profesional Shortage Areas (HPSA) you can have up to $60,000 forgiven in two years and more if you continue to serve.
  • AAMC also over medical loan repayment or forgiveness plans by state.

Other Options to Pay for Medical School

  • National Health Service Corp Scholarship– Have tuition paid with stipend in return for commitment to HPSA area for 2-4 years.
  • HPSP Scholarship Program The military has a robust program to financially support military MDs. Free tuition + $20,000 sign on bonus + $2,000 month stipend in exchange for 1 year of service for every year of scholarship. Upon graduation you’ll receive a starting rank of captain.

Would you consider an alternative path to medical school? 

Photo Credit 401K (Creative Commons)

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Brent Pittman

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Brent is a financial coach and writer looking for the perfect donut. He believes personal finance should be both fun and accessible to anyone willing to learn.
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  • ImpulseSave

    Wow I had no idea this was even a possiblity. I am currently figuring out how I am going to pay for my legal education. If all goes according to plan, I will walk away after 6 1/2 years with a BA, a JD and about $60,000 in debt. I know it could be SO MUCH worse, but I am still not looking forward to making all those payments… I know that like medical school, there is a high earning potential with these degrees, but it could take years if at all to earn enough to pay it off and live comfortably. You have to really enjoy the field in order to make it worth it.

    • You’re right 60K is on the low end for a BA + JD. I’ve seen several female docs and lawyers who graduate and are in serious debt decide they want to stop working and have kids, but in reality they can’t or have to put kids in childcare fulltime. Debt doesn’t give you the luxury of not working. 

  • These sound like some great options for people who dream of going to medical school but just cannot afford it.  I couldn’t imagine taking on over $100k in debt to go to school.  You have to be really committed to your dream if you are going to fund it on your own.

  • I’m not in an MD/PhD program but I have several friends who are or applied for them who I met through the NIH’s postbaccalaureate program (which I highly recommend for those with a B.S. who are planning to apply for MD or PhD grad school).  I really wouldn’t recommend the MD/PhD as a way to do med school for free.  Sure, you get free tuition and a small stipend while you’re in school, but you are giving up 4 years of earning potential to eliminate that debt.  You could run the numbers on it for your intended professional field to see if that’s worth it.  I absolutely would say that you should go for the MD/PhD if you intend to pursue clinical research for which you need the research training, but if you can do the job you want with only med school, why not do that, get on with your life, and pay down your debt?  Doing a PhD is difficult enough without adding in that you are only doing it for the tuition remission.  Also, I’m not sure where the 6-8 year graduation range came from – I think 8 is typical, maybe 7 if your school incorporates a research year into med school (I only know of one that does that).

    • Emily thanks for your view. Each person will have to make their own choice. There are other ways to medical school without debt and I was showing several viable alternatives, though maybe not for everyone. 

      Seems doctors are concerned about high debt and decreasing pay as in this recent article http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2136707/Nearly-half-doctors-United-States-regret-career-path-pay-cuts-student-loans-bite.htmlI read another reason for MD/PhD like programs is that they get priority in competitive fellowships. Heard any truth to that? 

      • MD/PhD Year 1

        To give a little background, I am a student who has been accepted to several MSTPs and will be matriculating at one of them in the fall.  As such, I have done my homework regarding this issue and have a good idea of what MSTPs are really designed for.  

        First of all, Emily is correct in that if you want to do clinical medicine (with no research) an MD/PhD is not for you.  Financially, you will not win.  In virtually every field it is worth it to take the hit in debt and pay it back later.  The average time to degree completion for MD/PhD programs is 8 years.  This means that you are missing out on 4 years of income which should be able to override the loss taken by paying for medical school.

        Brent, you mention that MD/PhD’s get priority in competitive fellowships, and I believe this is true.  However, there is a HUGE caveat here.  Residencies and fellowships in competitive specialties such as Radiation Oncology almost require intensive research experiences.  So, having a PhD will certainly help you match to these fields.  That being said, however, an applicant who took 1 year off after medical school to do Radiation Oncology research is likely going to be more competitive than an MD/PhD who did their research in Psychiatry for a Radiation Oncology position.  Yes, the PhD helps, but it should not be used for the reasons that you specified: graduating debt free or gaining a competitive edge for clinical training.

        Now, why should you get an MD/PhD?  The answer is close to something that Emily mentioned: If you want to pursue a career in research.  However, Emily, it is really not for “clinical” research.  Clinical research (e.g. drug efficacy testing, surgical outcomes) can be accomplished by an MD with no additional training required.  It is the basic science research (e.g. finding a protein pathway involved in Alzheimer’s and how it may cause cognitive deficits) that MD/PhDs are designed to pursue.  Do they do clinical research?  Sure.  Do they go into 100% clinical practice?  Sure.  But is the program tailor-made for that?  No.  The mantra is to let someone else design and test the drug, you find out what the drug needs to do.

        Now a word of caution: you should NOT apply to MD/PhD programs for financial reasons.  First, you will likely not get in.  You need a TON of research experience to get into these programs and have to demonstrate that you are serious about a career in research.  These interviews (if you even make it that far without a substantial research background) are intensive experiences (multiple days instead of the typical half day for MD-only) designed to interrogate your research knowledge and career goals.  The admissions committees know what they are doing.  If you aren’t serious about research, you won’t get in.  In that sense, it is much better to go MD-only.  Next, you will be absolutely miserable during your PhD if you don’t love research.  This is a HARD and DIFFICULT degree to obtain; I haven’t done it yet but I know that it is certainly not going to be a walk in the park.  If you really aren’t in it for the right reasons (e.g. you want a free ride), you are not going to be happy at all during this time when your MD-only classmates have already graduated and are starting their lives and you are still in the lab trying to publish some papers.  Finally, as I said before, it does NOT make financial sense unless you want to involve research as a significant portion of your career.  If you want to have a career as a physician-investigator, than yes, this is the way to go.  But if you just want to go to medical school and become a clinician, sometimes the beaten path is just as good.

        • MD/PHd Year 1, 
          Thanks for taking the time to share your experience and we wish you success in your career. Let us know where you decide to go. 

          I do realize this MD/PhD is a more complex subject than I was able to reflect in my original post and also an alternative path that 99% won’t take. Hey, you’ve got to be super smart and driven to even make it through the interviews and most won’t. 

          Financial reasons are never the sole reason to make a decision, but they do play a huge part. I do believe that either way you go you’ll be financially rewarded–just different paths to become a millionaire. 

          MD/PHd Year 1, I understand that you must really enjoy and excel at research to do such a program, but the financial incentives are great right?! I’m sure they DO play a part in some entering this field, especially those from a lower social economic status who cannot fathom going into such debt. 

          I believe the system for training docs and lawyers is broken, meaning forcing students to go into hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt. 

          True, you can pay this back—IF you graduate–IF you pass boards–IF you  decide you want to continue in the field–IF you decide to delay starting your family.–lots of IFs. 

          Debt doesn’t give you choices. I am just advocating alternatives to debt. I wish there were more choices like this for clinical MD’s. 

          MD/PHd Year 1, thanks again for responding. How did you find this obscure article? What area of research do you want to focus on?