Which branch of HPSP should I choose?

I get a lot of questions from people who are considering a military scholarship for medical school about how to decide which branch of service to join. I can’t tell any one person where they will be the happiest, and of course it’s no secret which branch of service I chose for myself (the Air Force). My information on the Army and the Navy is gleaned from classmates who went into the other branches, and from rotating at joint bases and talking to the residents.

If you are just joining us, you can find more information on military scholarships here, and more on how to apply for the Air Force’s medical school scholarship here. For more information on what it means to be sent out to do a civilian residency, read this, this, this, and this.

Vocabulary that you need to know for this article:

  • GMO tour – A GMO tour is where you do your internship and then work as the boo-boo and owie doc for a couple of years before you get to do the remainder of your residency. 
  • HPSP – Military Health Professions Scholarship Program, offered by the Army, Navy, and Air Force. 

The Air Force

People like to make fun of the Air Force because, well, we appreciate being taken care of. The Air Force is known for having the nicest bases, best cafeterias, etc. Personally, I’m ok with that…

The Air Force emphasizes your specialized skills. The folks that I have talked to tell me that if you are an ENT, they will deploy you as an ENT or not at all. This may or may not hold true in the future.

The Air Force sends most graduating students straight through residency. The Air Force sends fewer people into GMO tours than the Navy.

The Air Force also sends more graduating students out to train in civilian programs than the other branches of service.

Because the Air Force is often the most competitive branch to get an HPSP scholarship in, the Air Force HPSP recruiters have a reputation for not returning phone calls. People are pretty much knocking down their door to get the scholarship, so they aren’t necessarily going to work hard to convince you or to win you over.

The Army

The Army emphasizes that you are a soldier first, a doctor second, and your specialty third. In my field (OB/GYN), they had a reputation for deploying OB/GYNs to work as general surgeons. I was told that they considered general surgery to be your “wartime skill set” because an OB/GYN knows how to do an exploratory laparotomy, repair a bowel injury, and close a complex abdominal wound. Personally, I found that less than appealing. Army docs told me that they actually liked it because they enjoyed the variety and felt like they were contributing to the wartime mission.

The Army  has historically had longer deployments than the Air Force, but with joint deployments, nothing is a guarantee on that front.

Like the Air Force, the Amy tends to let a lot of people go all the way through residency, instead of making you do a GMO tour. It is uncommon for the Army to send people out to train in civilian residency programs.

The Navy

The Navy sends a lot of folks out to a GMO tour. Even if you match to an internship in, say, OB/GYN, a large proportion of residents will be sent out to the fleet to do a GMO tour after their internship. You have to reapply to stay in your residency as a second-year resident. If you get sent out to the fleet, you can apply to come back and complete your residency, but it’s not a guarantee. The folks I talked to who did a GMO tour have overall had very positive things to say about the experience in retrospect. The folks who were graduating medical school and facing a delay in finishing their residency were less enthusiastic about it.

The Navy, like the Army, trains almost everyone in-house. Civilian deferrals (where they tell you to go get a civilian residency and come back when you’re residency complete) are exceedingly rare in the Navy.

The differences that don’t really matter

Each branch’s officer training course for doctors is different. From talking to colleagues, it appears that the Army’s course is the easiest, the Navy’s course is in the middle, and the Air Force’s course is surprisingly difficult. No matter what, though, it’s 5 weeks of your life. You can do just about anything that the military would intentionally do to a medical student for 5 weeks.

Pay and benefits are basically the same across the board (though some people will argue that amenities are the best on Air Force bases), so don’t make any decisions based on that.


What burning questions do you have left? What didn’t I address? What have you heard? What are your experiences with the three branches? Please share!

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  • Lily

    Great post!!! 🙂 Thanks Indy

  • Jeremy

    What you left out is that when it comes to in house residencies, each branch (due to the fact that they differ in sheer size) has a different number of slots to match for each residency.

    Matching with the residency of your choice is much more difficult in the Navy than in the Army, especially with specific highly in demand specialties such as ophthalmology, due to the fact that the Army has exponentially more slots.

    Though what I heard, (and what honestly terrifies me) is that if you do NOT match with the residencies you choose, the service can automatically match you with a residency based on their need. I’m not sure how true this is, but if someone put in the work to become a cardio thoracic surgeon, but did not get the match due to there only being 10 slots, and they end up being assigned to OB/GYN. Completely changing the course of their entire life involuntarily, I find that incredibly unacceptable, and not worth any amount of money.

    Medicine is about finding a passion, and every specialization varies significantly, such that you could never work a day in your life in one speciality, because of how thoroughly you embody its essence, and would dread going to work every day and lose your interest/sense of purpose, in a different specialty.

    The HPSP scholarship is extremely attractive. But I would like to know if there is some way to guarantee a safeguard from allowing the service to pick my specialty for me. Because in the civilian world, if I do not match with a residency, i can simply try again. I can also apply for a vast array of residencies all over the nation rather than a limited number of in house slots.

    Another question I have, is that the HPSP scholarship demands 4 years of service in exchange. Which is fine.

    But you mentioned they can delay you from your residency and send you on tour. Thats also fine, as long as that time spent on tour counts towards your four years.

    Does it?


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