A Med Student In The US Air Force: The HPSP Scholarship

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Several readers have requested a piece on the Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP), commonly known as the military route.  Instead of boring you with facts that you could simply google, I asked one of my esteemed classmates if she would be willing to share her experience with the HPSP thus far.  She graciously accepted the invitation, and somehow managed to write the following treasure while simultaneously studying for step 1.  Awesome right?!  So without further ado, let’s hear what she has to say:

Mr. DebtAnatomy requested I write a guest post about the military scholarships available to medical students.

Before I get into the details of the scholarship, let me introduce myself. I am a second year medical student just like Mr DA, and am also a 2nd Lieutenant in the US Air Force. I took a somewhat round-about path to get to medical school, taking four years off after undergrad. In my time off I worked as a medical assistant, a receptionist, a server, took med school pre-requisite classes, ran my first marathon, got married, became an aunt (again), studied for the MCAT, and moved several times. It was a wonderful, busy, fun period of time. My husband and I were both working full-time, we lived in great apartments in downtown Seattle and later Berkeley, we had the time and resources to have fun, and did not have to stress too much about our finances.

And then medical school happened. I am so glad I am in medical school and going through this crazy, fascinating, hectic process. But medical school is a HUGE commitment (as many of you probably know) – it is a financial, personal, educational, time-stealing, soul-sucking commitment. When I decided to apply, my husband and I sat down and had some adult-like conversations about how we were going to handle the financial burden of medical school. The thought of taking on several hundred thousand dollars in debt was pretty unappealing, so I did some research on the limited scholarship options available. Ultimately we decided that the Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP) offered by the military was the right choice for us, and there were several reasons behind that decision that I will share in a bit.

First off all, let me give you the basic run down of the HPSP scholarship. The Army, Navy and Air Force each offer a certain number of scholarships to medical students each year. They all differ slightly in terms of where you go for trainings, residency locations, paperwork you fill out, etc but the basics of the scholarship are the same for all three branches. So here we go:

  • The HPSP scholarship pays full-tuition to an accredited DO or MD school in the US. They also reimburse students for some school-related costs, like required textbooks and Step 1 registration.
  • Students get a modest monthly stipend that they can use as they please – most people use this for things like groceries and rent, but there are no limitations or stipulations on how that money is used (such as the occasional shopping spree or vacation…).
  • When you get accepted into the HPSP program (and if you choose to accept the scholarship) you also get commissioned into the military as an officer with an O-1 rank. Everyone in the HPSP program is required to go to commissioned officer training – most people go the summer before starting medical school or the summer between first and second years. It is 5 weeks and location varies with each branch (Air Force training is in Alabama, Navy in Rhode Island and Army in Georgia).
  • During the school year students are in the Inactive Ready Reserves and do not have to do anything specific for the military – the military really just want students to focus on school and to pass their classes so they graduate on time.
  • Once a year HPSP students have a 45 day “active duty tour” – this might mean going to officer training, taking an elective course on base (Ex.- Aerospace Medicine is offered for Air Force students and is supposed to be pretty awesome), or staying at school to do research/rotations/classes/etc. My main point here – the requirements while you are in school are minimal.
  • During 4th year, HPSP students do a minimum of 2 away rotations at military bases that offer residency programs in the specialty they are interested in.
  • When applying to residency HPSP students are required to apply to the military match system. Each branch has residency programs at base hospitals, and students have to rank all of the offered programs in their specialty of choice. That said, there is also an option to rank “civilian deferment” if someone really wants to do a non-military residency. Just like the normal match, students make lists and programs make lists and then everyone gets matched up via some magical process that I don’t fully understand, military or civilian.
  • A few side notes about residency because this seems to be an area of concern for people who approach me about the military option:
    • The military can NOT tell you which specialty to apply to, it is entirely up to you.
    • The odds of doing a non-military residency vs military residency really just depend on how many spots the military needs to fill and how many people apply to that specialty – if they have 10 spots in Derm and 15 people apply, 5 will end up doing a non-civilian residency; but if there are 10 spots in Derm and 8 people apply then everyone is doing a military residency.
  • After graduating from medical school and finishing residency, HPSP students owe the military 4 years of active duty. During this time they will be stationed at military hospitals around the country. Students also owe 4 years of time in the reserves – if they do a military residency then that time counts as their reserve pay-back, if they do a non-military residency then they pay back reserve time after completing the active duty requirement.

Now that I have given you a lot of information, let me explain some of the reasoning behind why I chose to join the military. I think both the biggest advantage and the biggest drawback of the HPSP scholarship is that at the end of medical school you don’t own any money but you do owe time. Having zero loans to pay back is huge. Many students graduate with close to a half-million dollars of debt and spend the next two or more decades paying that off. So the financial benefits of the HPSP scholarship are pretty good. But the money is definitely not the only thing to consider when thinking about the HPSP scholarship.

It is equally important to consider the fact that the first four years of post-residency will be spent in military hospitals and clinics. While that time will be spent practicing medicine in the specialty of your choice, it will be time living and working in places that might not be your dream location. There will also be the very real probability of moving often and deploying at least once or twice during your four years of active duty. These are not necessarily disadvantages, but definitely things to consider before signing any contract. In my case, I moved every 2-4 years growing up because my dad worked for the government on the civilian side as a diplomat, so I am very used to moving frequently. My husband has an amazing sense of adventure, and we decided that we were both ok with experiencing new places being nomads for the next several years.

Last, but certainly not least, there is the honor of serving in the armed forces. While I have not mentioned this directly it can be, and in my opinion should be, a huge motivator for choosing the HPSP option. I am very proud to be in the Air Force, to wear the uniform and to be serving my country. I have friends and family in the military, and am honored to be serving alongside them while working towards my dream of becoming a physician.

Thus far my experience with the Air Force has been really positive. The Air Force HPSP office does a great job of keeping their students informed of any forms that need to filled out, any changes that are being made to how things are done and any up-coming events that HPSP students can participate in. There is a really helpful, easy-to-navigate website for HPSP students that includes instructions on how to apply for reimbursements, what the residency application process entails, etc. Outside of the semi-regular emails and some random phone calls I have made to the HSPS office, my only real experience with the military thus far has been attending Officer Training School during the summer in between first and second year of medical school. OTS was a tough experience, especially at the beginning because I had never been immersed in a military environment like that before. But it was a really great experience. As a quick overview, OTS is a five week training program in Alabama and includes PT (working out), learning how to drill (march in formation), doing leadership exercises, attending lectures and participating in small group discussions. We learned about general Air Force and military history, customs, rules and expectations. We also learned a little bit about health care in the military. I learned a lot about myself, about how to be a good leader and a good follower, and about what it means to be an officer in the military.

If I were to give one piece of advice to individuals considering the HPSP scholarship it would be this: do NOT decide on the military route just for the scholarship – it is important to want to be part of the military. The scholarship should be a nice (sizeable) bonus that enables you to do two things you want to do, be a physician and serve in the armed forces. While the military is not the right choice for everyone, it is certainly a great option to consider and one that I am very happy with.

For those who want more information, here are links to each branch’s HPSP website:

Air Force HPSP http://www.airforce.com/healthcare/training_education

Army HPSP http://www.goarmy.com/careers-and-jobs/amedd-categories/medical-corps-jobs/medical-hpsp-student.html

Navy HPSP https://www.navy.com/careers/healthcare/medicine.html#ft-specialties-subspecialties

Additionally, here is an interesting blog post that breaks down the financial benefits/drawbacks of the HPSP scholarship for practicing physicians:

http://www.doctorshadow.com/hpsp-review/#.VQzOcY7F_g1