The real financial cost of taking research years in medical school

About 15% of my medical school class decided to take at least one research year during medical school.  This was in addition to the 8% of the class who enrolled as MD/PhD candidates, the five who already held PhD degrees before enrolling in medical school, and another two that I know of who ended up obtaining a PhD after medical school.  Roughly another 3% spent extra time during residency or fellowship to conduct research.  Based on these figures, one could conclude that my medical school was heavily research oriented.

The majority of medical schools don’t graduate students with such high frequency of extended academic training, and most medical students aren’t going to be interested in a career in research either.  There are plenty of doctors who have a PhD degree who also practice strictly clinical medicine, and many who hold many research grants without ever holding any additional advanced research degrees.  
What isn’t really a surprise but often gets neglected when future doctors make career decisions is how their financial future is impacted by extending their education.

Time is money
We all understand that the longer that we have investments into the market, the more likely it will have time to grow.  This finding has been modeled repeatedly in the financial world—if you invest while in your twenties, you will likely have a greater net worth than your counterpart to only starts in their thirties even if she can save twice as much.  We frontload our Roth IRAs and 401ks for the same reason.
Delaying your career by a few years will likely shorten your overall working career.  All things being equal, this might cut out a few years of your peak income.  This could be perhaps a quarter million dollars for every “lost” year for internists or double that for high-income specialists.  If you consider inflation adjustment, then the absolute difference will be even more.

The argument for taking additional time
Obviously one’s career shouldn’t only be about getting ahead financially, although we’ve all made choices to help improve our own situation in life one way or another.  Ultimately, it is you alone who will determine what you consider to be successful.  

Many students at top research medical centers opt to take additional time to conduct research

Taking a research year during medical school has many benefits, the most important of which is to have dedicated time to reflect what the essence of a particular field has to offer.  There is often limited time during clinical rotations to explore subjects in depth, as we are subjected to tests, presentations, and simply reading condensed summaries on topics at hand.  With limited direction and time, medical students essentially make career-impacting decisions.  I have plenty of coworkers and students who decided to pursue other specialties after spending a year conducting research in another.  What’s the ROI on spending a year to decide what to do with the rest of your life?

Priceless.

Dedicated research in a particular field will also strengthen one’s application for residency.  For some students, this might determine whether they’d enter a high-paying competitive specialty.  In this case, there is a financial advantage to taking additional time to make a career choice.

The bottom line

Clearly there are many roads to Rome.  The end goal in life shouldn’t be to have the biggest bank account either. For such a complex profession such as medicine, the path is not always going to be clear.  The advice that I give my medical students is that we should all be aware of the financial ramifications of our decisions, but we’re also in the business of improving lives.  If it takes an extra year or two for a future doctor to identify what she will be comfortable with doing for the rest of her career, then so be it.

What are your thoughts on taking research years in medicine?

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