Do Doctors Really Make a Lot of Money? Yes and No.

Doctor salaries look attractive, but it takes a lot to get there—and stay there.

by Andrew RanzingerLast updated: 07/10/2020

Image by: Gautier Salles

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for doctors across all specialties is $208,000 per year. 

Here are a few averages by specialty: 

  • Anesthesiologists—$261,730 
  • Surgeons—$252,040 
  • Gynecologists—$233,610 
  • Psychiatrists—$220,430

And these are averages. Based on your specialty, location, and experience, you can make quite a bit more. 

Sounds like a lot, right? Well, before you decide you’re going to be a doctor, here a few other things you should consider. 

1. Doctors take on a LOT of debt

Let’s stay on the topic of money for a minute. In 2018, aspiring doctors graduated with an average of almost $200,000 in medical school debt

That’s a lot of money, but it’s not even the full picture. The average interest rate for medical school loans is 6.6%.

This means that depending on how long you take to pay it off, your $200,000 in debt will turn into as much as $460,000 once interest is factored in.

And remember, this is ON TOP of any debt you already have from undergrad.

2. You won’t start working until your early 30s

If you want to become a doctor, you need to really love school. Doctors spend an average of 40,000 hours in training. That's equivalent to 20 years of full-time work.

First, you’ll need to graduate college with stellar grades. You’ll then spend four years in medical school, followed by three to seven years of residency depending on your specialty. 

Residency is basically a medical apprenticeship where you learn your specialty (surgery, anesthesia, family medicine, etc.).

During residency, you are treated like an intern and make very little money.

Medical residents in 2019 earned an average of $61,200 per year—nowhere near enough to start paying off those huge medical school loans.

Following residency, you may have to do a fellowship (or two) depending on your specialty.

Fellowships are intensive one-year programs with specialized training that goes beyond the scope of residency. 

By the time you are ready to begin practicing (and collecting that sweet $200,000+ salary), you’ll likely be in your early 30s or older.

All of your friends will be 10 years into their careers.

Beyond just being a lot of school, there is an economic component to waiting this long to start work as well.

The concept of “opportunity cost” says that what a choice really costs you—in this case, medical school—is what you miss out on by not selecting the next best option. 

So imagine you didn’t become a doctor, and instead decided to get a more mundane degree like your friends.

The average starting salary for a college graduate in 2018 was $51,000 per year

During the four years you spent in medical school and residency, you could have made $204,000.

This assumes no raises, and doesn’t take into account the fact that if you’re smart enough to be a doctor, you’re probably smart enough to make more than the average college student. 

Factor in the cost of your loans, and the true cost of becoming a doctor starts to approach $1 million!

3. It’s a high-stress career

As romantic as it might look on TV, being a doctor is a very stressful job.

The long shifts, sleepless nights, and high pressure don’t go away once you’re done with residency—you’re just getting started. 

For the rest of your career, while most people work 40 hours per week, you’ll work an average of 60.

You may have to make life-or-death decisions for patients. Sometimes, a patient you care for will have a bad medical outcome.

Sometimes they will even die.

If they have a bad outcome, they might sue you—even if you made the best decisions you could for their health.

You may often have to work weekends and nights. Long days and aggressive call schedules mean you won’t have as much time at home with your family or for yourself.

This constant pressure can take a toll on you mentally and physically.

There is a reason why one doctor commits suicide every day—the highest suicide rate of any profession in the United States.

Are those sacrifices you are ready to make?

4. You may not like most of the job

Perhaps you want to get into medicine because you are compassionate, empathetic, and love helping people. You want to spend time healing sick patients. 

Unfortunately, direct interaction with patients makes up only a small portion of a doctor’s typical day.

As healthcare regulation grows more complex, doctors find themselves spending more time on administrative tasks and less on patient care. 

Doctors today spend six hours out of an 11.4-hour workday in their electronic health records system—punching in data!

A study of one urgent care center found doctors there only spent 15% of their time with patients.

In today’s world, a five-minute patient visit may generate 25 minutes of data entry you have to do after the patient is gone.

Add to this the stresses of running your own business (if you have a private practice), or playing politics with hospital administrators (if you’re employed by a health system), and you might find that you’re not doing a lot of what you actually signed up for

Should you be a doctor?

Doctors are like the Special Forces of healthcare—it sounds really cool, and they earn people’s respect, but it’s not for everyone.

Most of the work is unglamorous, and becoming a doctor is a long, hard road. The best ones are in it for the mission, not the money.

If medicine interests you, consider if you have what it takes academically, mentally, and if the lifestyle is for you.

Spend some time talking to doctors and get their advice. Try to shadow a few if you can.

Remember, too, that there are cheaper, faster careers in medicine—nursing, physician assistant, and physical therapy, to name a few. 

And whatever you decide, definitely don’t do it for the money.

When you factor in everything else, there are a lot of easier, faster, lower-debt ways to start making over six figures.