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June 8, 2010 / A Surviving Father

The Cost of Becoming a Physician

I had a conversation today in which I was again confronted with a stereotype about physicians- that we are rich!  Everyone knows that doctors are rich, right?  That is a prevalent assumption which is rarely accurate (especially if you have seven kids).  I should preface this by saying that wealth is relative and I don’t expect anyone to feel sorry for me or other physicians; by and large we are not a struggling breed.  I acknowledge that physicians are among the top earners across all fields, but I think it is important to realize that looking at salary alone is insufficient to provide an informed assessment of wealth.

Becoming a physician is a huge investment in time and money. After four years of college and four years of medical school, most physicians graduate nearly $200K in debt, if not more.  That is not trivial.  But wait, there’s more.  Earning the M.D. degree is not sufficient.  To become a practicing physician, you have to then undergo residency training in a specific field of medicine- surgery, pediatrics, radiology, etc.  A residency runs anywhere from 3 to 6 years.  As a resident you do finally get paid a salary- currently starting around $45,000 a year.  Doesn’t sound too bad, until you consider that residents work 70-80 hours a week, if not more (which is now technically illegal), which works out to be a little over minimum wage.  In the meantime, interest is accruing on those student loans, since most residents cannot afford to start paying them back during residency.

Finally after residency (11-14 years of higher education), you can become a practicing physician.  But wait, there’s more.  Many doctors find it necessary to subspecialize through fellowship training.  A fellowship ranges from 1 to 3 additional years.  Excluding college, that can mean up to 13 years of post graduate education- compare that to 3 years to become a practicing lawyer or 2 years to obtain an MBA.  When it comes down to it, becoming a physician isn’t about being smart (although that helps), it’s about perseverance.

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