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Physician Job Outlook: The Best Career Worth Borrowing For?

If you’re planning on becoming a physician, you need to buckle up for the long haul. It takes about eight years of college plus another three to seven in a residency or internship program to finally start practicing on your own. Since you’ll be in school for a while, researching the projected physician job outlook to assess the future need for doctors is important.

Below is a look at the anticipated job market for physicians and ways you can handle the student loan debt that comes with the job.

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Physician job outlook

Physicians are well paid and rank seventh among the list of best-paid jobs, according to U.S. News & World Report. Physicians also made the top 10 of “100 Best Jobs.” You can expect a six-figure salary and the prestige that comes with saving lives. Even better, the demand for physicians is growing.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that the need for physicians will grow 7% between 2018 and 2028. There are various fields of practice for physicians. In that way, the demand can shift a bit based on what area you want to study.

As of Sept. 17, 2019, the highest projected demand for physicians is in psychiatry with a 16% projected growth. Second on the list are family and general practitioners with a 10% projected growth. The surgeon job outlook is looking bleak with a demand of only 1%. Anything over 5% is considered faster than the average for all occupations by the BLS.

Occupational titleBLS projected growth 2018-2028
Physicians and surgeons7%
Family and general practitioners10%
Internists, general4%
Obstetrics and gynecologists2%
Pediatricians, general2%
Physicians and surgeons, all other8%

According to the most recent data from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), we could need even more doctors than the BLS predicts. The AAMC does an annual study that evaluates the supply and demand projections for physicians. In its 2019 study, the key findings pertaining to physicians' job outlook are positive for future doctors but frightening for those needing medical care.

  • There will be a projected shortage of 122,000 physicians by 2032.
  • The U.S. would need 95,900 physicians immediately to equalize health care across race, insurance coverage and geographic location. This number isn’t factored into the above demand.
  • Rural areas and those already experiencing a shortage will feel this shortage even more.

In a nutshell, the U.S. will face a major physician shortage, especially in areas of primary care.

Where’s the demand for physicians coming from?

The physician job outlook projects such a high demand for two main reasons:

  1. The U.S. population is growing, as it always does. The U.S. Census Bureau states that population growth averages 1.8 million per year. However, it’s projected to rise by an average of 2.3 million people per year between 2017 and 2030. This bump in population correlates to an increase in the need for family care physicians.
  2. The U.S. population is also aging. Yes, as it always does — but there’s a flip in the charts in the coming years. The U.S. Census Bureau says that by 2035, the number of people over age 65 will outnumber children under the age of 18. With this many people reaching their rocking-chair years, the need for medical care will be real.

One more consideration is that physicians make up a portion of the population that’s aging. They’ll be hitting retirement years, creating openings for jobs. There will be a demand, but you might have to fight to get your spot.

Med school enrollment is high, but residency slots are limited

The limit in the number of residency slots has to do with funding. Medicare, Medicaid, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Defense, and other governmental agencies all subsidize residencies. And there are caps placed on the residency slots due to limited funding.

Healthy competition isn’t normally a bad thing. Yet the amount of medical graduates is increasing, and the number of residency slots being added is moving at a snail's pace of 1% per year. The AAMC reports that medical school enrollment has increased by 31% since 2002. In the 2018 Survey of Medical School Enrollment Plans, 75% of surveyed deans were concerned about residency slots nationally. A limited number of residency slots and an increasing medical school enrollment should be something you keep in mind when looking to become a physician.

The demand for physicians is high, and supply is limited. This means if you can snag a spot in a residency program, you’ll be almost guaranteed a job. Job markets where there’s not enough supply but high demand can throw a wrench in work-life balance. You want to be able to thrive in your new career, so it’s important to look at this side, too.

The dark side of the physician job outlook: Student loans

Even the lowest-paid physicians make a six-figure salary. This combined with being able to get a job right out of residency makes the physician job outlook sound like daisies and rainbows. But the majority of physicians carry over six figures of student loan debt. This can put a damper on future plans of growing a family and investing for retirement.

But this shouldn’t stop you from becoming a doctor. You can pay off this debt. Here are Student Loan Planner®’s top recommended approaches for physicians to pay off their debt:

1. Pay off your student loans aggressively right after school

If you owe less than 1.5 times your income, you should consider an aggressive repayment plan. You’ll most likely need to refinance your student loans for a lower interest rate and shorter loan term.

This option is a good choice if you complete a residency at a for-profit hospital and don’t want to wait to pursue loan forgiveness, or if your employer isn’t eligible for any type of loan forgiveness. If you have any kind of private medical student loan, you should definitely look into refinancing those and look at forgiveness for your federal student loans.

2. Pursue Public Service Loan Forgiveness

If you work for a government or not-for-profit, you could be eligible for Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). Student Loan Planner® surveyed its clients regarding their student loan debt, and among 268 physician participants, about 200 said they work at a not-for-profit. The potential to be eligible for PSLF as a physician is so high that Travis Hornsby, founder of Student Loan Planner®, says physicians should treat PSLF like a med school scholarship.

After 120 qualifying payments, which you can start making in residency, all of your loans will be forgiven tax-free. Even with a high salary, you can enroll in an income-driven repayment plan that caps out to keep your payments as small as possible. PSLF is a lifesaver for many physicians. It’s something you’ll want to investigate further if you plan to become a physician.

But this isn’t the only way to do it; each situation is different. Do your research ahead of time to see what plan might work better for you. No matter which way you choose to pay off your student loans, doing so is going to take time — at least 10 years of payments, no matter which way you slice it. Prepare yourself for this mentally and financially. 

Physician job outlook considerations and student debt

The physician job outlook is promising. A high salary, strong demand and the possibility of total student loan forgiveness might have you dropping off your application today. Before you do that, keep in mind two essential choices when enrolling in medical school:

1. Where you attend school will impact the amount of debt you take on

Typical debt for an in state medical school is about $200,000. The average debt for M.D. students graduating from St. George's University School of Medicine is $351,128.  The difference in tuition varies from school to school. Even with forgiveness, it’s worth your time to find a program that meets your needs and won’t land you in the $300,000-plus range for debt. You can start by looking at a list of 10 Cheapest Medical Schools.

2. The loans you take out can impact your forgiveness eligibility

As a physician, you have multiple options to pay for school, including health professional loans through the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA). Of course, accept all forms of free money like scholarships and grants first. Whether or not you plan to pursue PSLF, focus on taking out Direct federal student loans. These come with protections later on.

If you do aim for PSLF and take out PLUS Loans, look into a Direct Consolidation Loan. Private medical school loans won’t be eligible for any forgiveness program, so we recommend this approach last.

It’s important to keep an eye on all the loans you take out during medical school — especially since there will be a lot of them. If you have questions about taking on a high amount of debt to pursue medical school, please talk to us.

Student Loan Planner® is here to help you create a debt payoff plan before you begin school. We’ll create a map for you to navigate this serious debt so you can start to get out of it as soon as you graduate.

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