I want to be a ____, should I do HPSP?

I get a lot of questions about specialty choice and the Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP). For those unfamiliar with HPSP, it is a program in which the military pays for medical school. In return, you owe the military a certain number of years of service after graduation. For more information on HPSP and how it works, see this article.

For those new to the blog, I received an Air Force HPSP scholarship and I don’t in any way feel that I got a raw deal. I am in a civilian residency right now in my specialty of choice. Ask me again at the end of my active duty service commitment 🙂 That being said, I had a lot of colleagues that felt that they signed up for HPSP without really knowing what they were agreeing to, and part of the purpose of this site is to help people understand what HPSP really is, so they don’t feel later like they were misled. 

Now to the question at hand: if you want to go into internal medicine, or ENT, or plastic surgery, should that impact your decision about whether to apply for HPSP? The first thing to consider is that you may change your mind about what specialty you want. I think at least 90% of my classmates changed their mind about their specialty plans at least once. There is nothing wrong with that! It’s healthy and normal to change your specialty plans as you learn more about the different specialty choices.

Why is that so important? Well, because your specialty plans do actually affect whether HPSP is a good deal for you. Let’s look at a few examples. Assume that everyone graduates from medical school with $200k in debt.

Meet Bob

Bob is has no prior military service. He receives a 4-year HPSP scholarship. He has no medical school debt on graduation, and he enters an internal medicine residency in the Air Force. Here is his income, by year, assuming that Congress doesn’t raise military pay at all and that he doesn’t get promoted (which would, admittedly, be weird).

  • PGY-1: $51,800 plus BAH ($1,800-2,400/month)
  • PGY-2: $51,800 plus BAH ($1,800-2,400/month)
  • PGY-3: $58,152 plus BAH ($1,800-2,400/month)
  • Payback 1: $81,238 plus BAH ($1,800-2,400/month)
  • Payback 2: $86,492 plus BAH($1,800-2,400/month)
  • Payback 3: $93, 492 plus BAH($1,800-2,400/month)
  • Payback 4: $96, 528 plus BAH($1,800-2,400/month)
  • TOTAL: $670,702-721,102

Now let’s assume that Bob doesn’t do HPSP. He takes $200k in student loans for med school, and does a civilian residency. Exact numbers are harder to find for civilians, so there are a bit more “round”

  • PGY-1: $50,000
  • PGY-2: $52,000
  • PGY-3: $54,000
  • Attending 1: $185,000*
  • Attending 2: $186,000*
  • Attending 3: $187,000*
  • Attending 4: $188,000*
  • TOTAL: $902,000

In other words, Bob made about $200k more over 7 years as a civilian, but he had $200k in loans at 7%, so he actually comes out ahead by doing HPSP, but not by as big of a margin as you might think. I’m also not getting into the tax advantages of military pay here because, honestly, the numbers aren’t huge. If he gets out after these 7 years, under the current retirement system he will get nothing for retirement. He might get some sort of VA disability, which would add to these numbers.

What about the non-financial considerations? Well, if Bob wants to do IM, odds are excellent that he will match in a military residency. He is unlikely to be pushed into doing a flight medicine tour if he doesn’t want to.

Let’s say that Bob wanted to go into ENT instead.

The military pay numbers are essentially the same, just with an extra year in residency. Total compensation over 8 years: about $750k. Yes, the numbers are getting rounder. Trust me, $10k here or there is chump change in this discussion.

The civilian residency numbers are also about the same, but with a 4th year. Total residency compensation: about $212k.

Where it’s really different is in the attending years. A new ENT attending makes about $300-330k/year* in the first year out of residency, and that’s pretty stable for the next 4 years. Let’s go with a low-end number and say the ENT makes $300k/year for the first 4 years out of residency, for $1.2 million in 4 years, and $1.4 million over the 8 years.

This means that Bob will make $662k more over the first 8 years after medical school if he doesn’t take the HPSP scholarship. Even after taxes (which take a decent bite out of that $300k/year), Bob can pay back his civilian loans. Is he going to come out way ahead financially? Probably not, depending on what the interest rate is on his loans, how much money his spouse makes (and therefore how much he pays in taxes), etc. But he isn’t taking a major loss.

In the Air Force, ENT is extremely competitive. There are 4 spots per year, with 8-16 applicants competing for those spots. That means that, depending on the year, your odds of matching are only 25-50%. Ouch. If you don’t match, you are looking at a transitional year and a flight medicine tour. You may or may not be able to get a military or civilian ENT residency after that. So, as an ENT, you make less money in the military, have to deal with the military hassle factor (moving, deployments, TDY, extra paperwork, PT tests, etc), and may not get to be an ENT after all.

So, HPSP is a decent deal for primary care, especially if you go to a school where you would expect to graduate with more than the average $200k in debt.

On the other hand, if you plan to go into a highly-paid and extremely competitive specialty, you may be at a serious disadvantage if you accept the HPSP scholarship, both financially and in terms of your ability to actually match into a residency in your specialty of choice. Note: The recruiters make a big deal about how the military won’t force you into a residency outside of your specialty of choice. They fail to mention that this means you will either match in your specialty or won’t match at all. Always remember that recruiters are not doctors.

What if you aren’t sure what you want to go into? Well, that makes it a pretty big risk, honestly. 

What questions do you have?



*Civilian attending salary numbers taken from various internet salary aggregator sites and medical sites that publish salary information, including salary.com and medscape.com. These numbers represent an average and should not be taken as a representation of what any one individual makes. Military pay numbers are taken from the 2016 military pay charts. 


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  • Gina j

    Do you know if you can get out of hpsp if I get off the waitlist at ushs?

    • Indy (admin)

      That’s a great question. I would recommend that you talk to the folks at USUHS to confirm. They will probably know more about this than you recruiter.

  • Maria


    Thank you for sharing all the information. I would like to know where can I find an HPSP recruiter and if in order to apply do you need to have your bachelors completed?

    Thank you

    • Indy (admin)

      Thanks for your question! You do not need to have your bachelor’s completed – you apply the year before you start medical school, so if you are going straight through you won’t have completed your bachelor’s yet. As for finding a recruiter, google HPSP recruiter.
      Currently, the Army recruiters can be found here, Air Force here, but they change these websites all the time.

  • Future ENT

    Thanks for the article, Indy.

    I’m interested in the HPSP first and foremost out of a desire to serve. I served in the Peace Corps in my 20’s and really miss that sense of service and community. Now I’m in my 30’s and will start a postbac this year in order to change careers and apply to med school.

    Here’s my dilemma: I don’t know if I should do HPSP or wait to join until after I finish my residency. Money isn’t an issue. As a non-trad applicant with great experiences and a stellar academic record, let’s assume for the sake of this argument that I’ll be able to get a large scholarship to med school. The advantages of doing HPSP would be 1) starting med school a year earlier through a linkage agreement with my postbac (rather than applying the normal way in order to be considered for merit scholarships) and 2) having the military residency applied to my active duty retirement (I would strongly consider sticking it out for 20 years).

    I want to join the AF as an ENT, but reading your article gave me pause (for which I’m grateful). Also, I talked to a recruiter about GMO tours, and she said the AF doesn’t have them. Is this an example of recruiters saying anything to get people on board? I’ve read other blog posts where former AF physicians said the AF can decide to pull you from your residency even if you match successfully and require you to do a flight med tour. Is that true and if so can you explain how this flight med/GMO process works? That seems like a huge risk and is what I’m most afraid of.

    Also, and this isn’t a big deal if it doesn’t work out, but I’m interested (along with everyone else I’m assuming) in serving overseas in Japan/Germany/Italy/Korea/Spain. You said there are only 4 ENT residency spots each year. Where do the vast majority of ENTs go after residency? Would it be at all likely to get a first assignment to one of those countries?

    It would be great if you did a post on military residencies. I’ve heard the AF accepts about 200 applicants into HPSP every year, so there can’t be that many options. Are they all in the U.S.? Sorry for all the questions, there’s just so much I don’t know — there’s not much info provided on military websites — and this is one of the most important decisions I’ll make.

    • Indy (admin)

      Thank you for your message, and I’m sorry it has taken me so long to respond. Keep in mind that merit scholarships don’t really exist for medical school. You can use GI bill, HPSP, or loans, but there is really no significant merit-based funding out there. I’m not sure what your recruiter meant by no GMO tours – the Air Force 100% has GMO tours in flight medicine. I am not aware of anyone in the Air Force who was progressing in their residency being pulled to a flight medicine/GMO slot, though, and I have been assured this is the sort of thing that would only happen in case of World War III. I heard rumors as a student that the Army had done this in the past, but never actually found anyone who this had happened to – it was all very vague and superstitious. Air Force GMO/flight medicine slots are generally filled by people who did not match to a residency in the military match, and were instead assigned to an intern year only, followed by the GMO/flight medicine tour. I have seen lots of people who could have matched in their specialty of choice in the civilian match end up in this situation due to smaller numbers of available spots in the Air Force. The Air Force is also eliminating many civilian training slots in less-deployable specialties, so they may be down to the 2 active duty residents (vs 2 active duty and 2 civilian at the time that I wrote that article). I don’t have a ton of detail about where you could be stationed as an ENT. Aviano is drawing down medically, and Korea doesn’t tend to have a lot of medical specialists. Spain would be Moron (AF) or Rota (Navy), neither of which appears to have ENT. Landstuhl does have an ENT clinic. In many specialties, these are highly prized assignments that go to senior physicians, and a new grad would expect to go to a less-desirable location (like Alaska or Nebraska). One day, post-COVID, I may be able to write in more detail about military residencies. Yes, they are all in the US. Check out the HPERB (the list of how many spots are available in each specialty and where they are) for more details. Good luck!

  • JD

    Is orthopedic surgery an extremely competitive residency in the military? Or surgery in general?

    • Indy (admin)

      Surgical subspecialties are competitive. By “surgery in general” do you mean all surgical subspecialties? Or do you mean general surgery? I would say that most surgical subspecialties are very competitive in the military due to small numbers – for example, some specialties match only 2 candidates per year in the entire Air Force. General surgery is a bit less competitive than the surgical subspecialties.

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