Medical School Student Loans: Were They Worth It?

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More than three-quarters of medical school graduates finish school in debt.
More than three-quarters of medical school graduates finish school in debt.

When faced with a mountain of student loan debt, it's understandable why you might second-guess your decision to become an oncologist. Considering 76% of medical school graduates leave school with student loan debt,1 you wouldn't be alone in wondering if it was all worth it.

Today, the average indebted medical school student owes $189,165 upon graduating.1 Suppose you owe that amount and plan to pay it off over 10 years at a 5% interest rate. You'd wind up paying $51,601 in interest on top of principal.2 That's a total of $240,766.

Massive student loan debt isn't a new problem, but it has gotten worse in recent decades. In 1992, the median debt for medical school graduates was $50,000. By 2012, that number had more than tripled to $170,000.3 Even adjusting for inflation, that's a seismic increase. What's more, higher debt has been associated with higher rates of clinician burnout.4

In the medical community, some schools are concerned that student loan debt is increasingly causing students to pursue higher paying specialties, leaving a gap in primary care. This fear stands to reason: if paying off student loans more quickly is the objective, it makes more sense for a student to study to become a radiation oncologist (with a median salary of $468,000) than, say, a pediatrician ($222,000).5 Yet, even for the best-compensated medical professionals, paying off student loan debt is often difficult.

In part to address these concerns, New York University recently announced it will offer free tuition to all of its medical students,6 a move that could pave the way for other major medical institutions to follow suit. While this policy may encourage future generations of medical students, it provides little comfort for many medical professionals with student loan burdens.

What's the bright side?

For one, job satisfaction is high among oncologists. According to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, the vast majority of oncologists are satisfied with their choice in career (82.5%) and specialty (80.4%). Greater job satisfaction can make the burden of student loan debt feel more worth enduring.

For another, there are strategies you can implement to better manage your student loan debt. For example, you may be able to refinance your loans. There are many student loan refinancers that offer interest rates below 3%.8

Ultimately the question is, were the student loans worth it? All things considered, would you still pursue a career in oncology if given the chance for a do-over?

Answer our survey question and leave a comment below.


  1. 2017 education debt manager for graduating medical school students. Association of American Medical Colleges. January 2017. Accessed August 21, 2018.
  2. Student loan calculator. Bankrate. Accessed August 21, 2018.
  3. Rohlfing J, Navarro R, Maniya OZ, Hughes BD, Rogalsky DK. Medical student debt and major life choices other than specialty. Med Educ Online. 2014;10.3402(19):25603.
  4. West CP, Shanafelt TD, Kolars JC. Quality of life, burnout, educational debt, and medical knowledge among internal medicine residents. JAMA. 2011;306(9):952-960.
  5. Doximity 2018 physician compensation report. Doximity. May 27, 2018. Accessed August 21, 2018.
  6. Chen DW. Surprise gift: free tuition for all N.Y.U. medical students. The New York Times. August 16, 2018. Accessed August 21, 2018.
  7. Shanafelt TD, Gradishar WJ, Kosty M, et al. Burnout and career satisfaction among US oncologists. J Clin Oncol. 2014;32(7):678-686.
  8. Refinance your student loans. NerdWallet. Accessed August 21, 2018.

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