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Would You Still Be a Doctor if You Didn’t Get Paid as Much

Would you still pursue medicine if the pay was much less? What if it paid nothing at all?

If money wasn’t an issue, would you still be doing what you are doing today? This is a question I came across today and had me thinking. Right now as a medical student, I “work” anywhere from 40-60 hours a week plus studying and I don’t receive any pay at all. In fact, I pay tuition and it’s in the tens of thousands of dollars every year. If being a doctor paid wasn’t such a well paid job, would I still be doing medical school?

I think, for myself, idealistically I would like to say YES, but realistically I would say NO.  Here’s why.

Although I really enjoy what I am doing now and foreseeable into residency, the financial and personal stresses of a medical education make working less difficult. To start off, the costs of education alone can reach over a hundred thousand dollars easily. If you have to borrow money (and most do) to finance your education, paying back that debt with an “average” salary makes medical school an unfavorable choice. A $200,000 debt would make most people reconsider their jobs.

Furthermore, it’s not just the financial cost of education that makes taking a big paycut unrealistic, there’s also the cost of time. Training to be a doctor takes at least 10 years of post-secondary education. These are often the “best” years of your life, when you’re in your prime of your youth, full of energy and opportunity. While others are starting their careers, networking, and starting their family, you’ll most likely be studying or on call. That’s a big sacrifice to take.

To all the pre-meds out there who say they would do it even if they were paid nothing, you don’t have a clue! You might say that now, but how much do you really know about being a doctor?

What if education costs were much lower? Would You still be a Doctor if you were paid an average salary?

If the financial barriers were much lower or non-existent, I think I would be a maybe. Hypothetically, let’s say doctors would be paid the same as teachers. Would I still be a doctor if I was paid a salary of $50,000 a year? Interesting Note: Residents are roughly paid this much.

I think the answer would depend on many factors. Would I still be working the same hours as a regular doctor or would I be working teacher hours? Would I have summer vacations off or would I have to do overnight call? Will I be working in an office/classroom setting or will I be working with really sick patients?

If you had to compare a teacher’s salary to that of a doctors, by their late-twenties and early thirties, a teacher would have made a higher net amount of money because they would have started earning money earlier. Teachers would also have the added benefits pensions and summer vacations.

Doctors work far more hours, with higher levels of responsibilities and stresses compared to a job that would earn an average income. The difficult situations you may be put in and the level of knowledge and skill required certainly should warrant a higher pay in my opinion.

Money isn’t everything

Please don’t misunderstand my position. Money isn’t everything. I wouldn’t be pursuing my dream of being a doctor if it was all about the money. There are plenty of professions that make much more than medical doctors. Investment bankers, business owners, entrepreneurs, etc.

Compared to my peers, I would say money has less influence on my career choices. I live on reasonable means. I grew up in a lower middle-class neighbourhood and know that everyone works hard for a living. I don’t want flashy cars or private vacation homes in the future. I hope I don’t give off the impression of feeling entitled.

I truly believe that money plays into your happiness and wellbeing only up to a threshold amount. Anything above that baseline is a bonus. I’m not sure where my personal financial line is right now. But I eventually want a job that provides me with financial security and means to live comfortably.

Money is a Reflection of Market Demand

A large part why doctors are paid six-figure salaries is because of economic forces. Doctors are in high demand, always have been and will continue to be in demand. Birth, Sickness, Death and Taxes. Things you can’t avoid in life, and a doctor is usually present at the ones that count.

In one way, having high salaries for doctors helps continually attract the best and brightest. In doing so, the profession continue to thrive and medical breakthroughs and high quality patient care continue.

On a similar note, graduate students argueably work as hard as medical students, go through 4-6 years of grueling education and often are left with poor job prospects. The majority of PhD students probably have the same level of intelligence as medicall students. Competition for graduate school is nowhere near that of medical school and I think is due to market forces.

Where is the altruism?

I think it’s quite rare to find a person who will do the work of a doctor for no pay at all. Even people with the biggest kindest hearts have stomaches to feed too.

The question is how much is enough pay for what you do?

God bless the souls of Cuban doctors and MSF doc’s. Cuban doctors make on average $25 U.S. Dollars a month, and most MSF doctors just get by on daily necessities. Although I aspire to be like them, due to my current life plans I don’t think I can right now.

I don’t think it’s wrong to do a job you love and be paid well for it.

For some people, being a doctor/surgeon is the only thing they can think of doing. For myself, if I wasn’t doing medicine, I think I could be happy working in a different profession and earning a respectable income.

For myself, medicine provides a good mix of intellectual curiosity, intrinsic reward, ability to make a difference, financial security and means to live a comfortable life. I’ve immensely enjoyed my time in medical school and feel quite lucky I get to do what I have always wanted to do.

In the future, I would be very happy about making over $100,000 a year. It would be more than enough for me to live comfortably. I don’t think I should feel guilty about it either, especially if I work hard for it and deserve it.

In conclusion, I think I would still pursue being a doctor if it didn’t pay as much, as long as it was enough to live comfortably. One day I do want to start a family, and I would want a job that could provide for them.

Would you still do medicine if it didn’t pay as much?

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  1. Premed Poster
    Premed Poster October 16, 2011

    I would definitely still do it, doing something you love is more important to me than a comfortable life and the money!

  2. Josh
    Josh October 16, 2011

    Difficult question. I think being paid as much as a teacher would definitely give me pause (and residents get significant year-to-year salary increase), though the pensions would be nice. However, primary/secondary school teaching really does not compare in terms of length or depth of training or the amount of “shit” one must deal with in practice. True that working with, say, preteens can be draining, but dealing with emergency situations requires a lot more.

    Medicine isn’t especially glamourous in the end – it’s messy, often features people at their emotional and physical worst, and exacts a significant price in terms of hours. I think it can be said that certain subspecialties are overpaid (ahem, ophtho…) but that’s not at all true in general.

    • medaholic
      medaholic October 18, 2011

      Definitely brings a good point about different specialties being overpaid (ophtho, derm, rads) and not enough money for primary care docs (family GP, rural area, peds). Thanks for your input!

  3. S.A.B
    S.A.B October 16, 2011

    I was reading “Emperor of All Madalidies” yesterday and Dr.Mukherjee was discussing the role money in medicine, specifically cancer. With the advancements in technology health care will inevitably become more expensive. But the point that he made is that there is a difference in the ‘price’ of treatment and ‘cost’ of treatment. Cost is the actual value to provide the drug/treatment while price is the value that is adjusted by pharmaceuticals/ corporation/ and what people are willing to pay. That latter is highly influencing rise in health care costs…which inevitably leads to growing insurance premiums->malpractice suit-> doctors salaries. As a Canadian I am so glad that doctors don’t make the outrageous amounts that they do make in America, that being said Canadian doctors do make quite a comfortable living. Much greater than most Canadians.
    The thing is that those doctors who do sacrifice so much of their time to NGOs and the like therof have mainly paid of their debts, they do have the financial capability to do so. I guess there is a lot of pressure and stress in the early part of doctors’ careers but the latter part is quite stable.
    It is truly difficult to judge the value of a career based upon salary, doctors have a such and important role in society and are given a privilege granted to few.

    -Interesting post medaholic!

    • medaholic
      medaholic October 18, 2011

      Thanks S.A.B. You bring up a good point that the people who volunteer for NGO’s aren’t usually financially tied down (debts, family, mortgage). I too have thought about it. Perhaps I would spend the first few years after graduation just working to build up skills and a financial egg nest. Once everything is stable, go off to serve those who really need it.

      Pretty glad as a Canadian doctor, I won’t have to deal with all the insurance and malpractice problems that doctors in the states deal with.

  4. m
    m October 17, 2011

    When I think whether or not medicine is the right choice for me, this question always pops into my head. Actually, a very similar and equally thought provoking question I usually ask myself is: “Would you still be doctor if it was not such a prestigious or respectable profession”.

    In terms of salaries, I don’t think doctors are as that overly paid as everyone thinks they are. On top of their debt and overwhelming stress levels, keep in mind that most doctors don’t receive the benefits and premiums from your average career at a company.

    • medaholic
      medaholic October 18, 2011

      That’s a very interesting point you make, about prestige of a profession. In general, doctors are looked upon favorable, and despite all the bad media rep, most people still respect their doctors. To a certain degree, “prestige” and “nobility” matter to people, but I have always believed that your actions, not the job title dictate your status in society.

  5. a
    a October 18, 2011

    This is in part a reply to Premed Poster, and a supporting answer to Medaholic.

    Honestly, if we weren’t paid as much, I wouldn’t *be able* to be a doctor. The amount of debt one has to go into simply to get through undergraduate training (medical school alone) is absurd. When compared to the rest of the world, people comment that American doctors get paid too much. Yes- but everything is relative. When your debts amount to half a million (remember that interest keeps building) and you finally pay it off around 40… well, this isn’t encountered elsewhere. I would be fine in the UK, Spain or elsewhere if cutting my salary also meant cutting my debts! The cost of becoming a doctor is significantly less and ultimately the salaries are also less. I agree with you, but I think more people- especially pre-meds- need to be aware of this. Unless you are financially supported by your parents (or grandparents? rich uncles?) throughout your 20s, things are going to be a rough go. Unless you can somehow get altruism to pay the bills. In which case, sign me up!

  6. Pranab
    Pranab October 25, 2011

    Came here from Laika’s round up for Grand Rounds. Great read. I would like to agree that if the pay was not as good, it would be a difficult decision to go into Medicine, but in India, the scenario is a little different. The pay, incidentally, is NOT good. My batchmates from high school who went into engineering are already about 2 years into their jobs, and have a promotion coming at them any day. They earn anything in the region of 500000-800000 per annum. I, having just qualified, as an MBBS, am sitting at home studying for exams – so do the math!

    In India the prestige and social standing of being a doctor is very high. It manifests in small but tangible ways. The way the traffic officer waived the fine when I broke a red light hurrying on the way to the hospital, the way the flight stewardesses ALWAYS give me extra food when they know that a doctor is on board, the way parents always make an example of docs to their children (and try to marry them off if possible!) are all fun and good, but at the end of the day, the pay packet is not very good for the first half a decade or so on starting out!

  7. Michael
    Michael November 6, 2011

    I graduated high school this year, and I am starting Pre-med soon, but in 11-15 years when i’m done, I’ll have to work for free it looks like, I’ll be racking up 22,000.00 a year in undergrad. As like everyone else says doctors are NOT underpaid. I personally think what is the big deal? No one is going to give up 11 years of their lives to get an education and still worry about paying the bills or feeding ones children. The future isn’t looking bright at all. Would I work for lower wages? Yes, I would. Would I work for anything under 100,000.00? Hell no, not with 380,000.00 of debt and more stress than acupuncture can solve.

  8. Iddi
    Iddi July 5, 2012

    I think Medicine is a course that really needs determination and zeal.To me it is like being a missionary, you must help in saving peoples lives as much as you can;at times not expecting a reward, just as a missionary will try his level best to save as many souls as possible without expecting a reward;save for that in the hereafter. But again, we are humans, we are entitled to our own body needs,just as other professionals.In addition to that I believe Doctors are the most studious persons in the world. I am of the view that their effort must be rewarded;of course they can’t be fully credited. In deed a doctors work is more than that of anyone else;trying to save all lives in whatever situation.May God reward all doctors i the world.

  9. BarefootMedStudent
    BarefootMedStudent July 6, 2012

    Great thoughts here. I love what I do, and money didn’t feature in the decision. But with the huge student debt I’ve been running up, I wouldn’t be able to do it without a decent salary.

  10. Anonymous
    Anonymous May 20, 2014


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