Updated 2022. Video data is from 2019.
If you like science, it’s not unreasonable to be weighing your options between becoming an engineer versus a doctor. But which is better financially speaking?
We break down the financial differences between becoming a doctor vs. an engineer, including debt coming out of school, starting salaries, and opportunity cost. Understanding these key financial factors and how they play out over the course of a career will help you make smart decisions for your future.
Why is “Doctor” so Prestigious?
In certain cultures, becoming a doctor is the highest achievement, followed by becoming an engineer or lawyer as number two. Why is becoming a doctor so highly valued at number one? There are a few reasons.
First, it’s an incredibly competitive and difficult path to complete, and the type of work you do is often considered noble. For that reason, being a doctor is highly prestigious.
Second, the financial aspects. Job security is high because people will always have health issues; therefore, doctors are always in demand. Additionally, doctors are some of the highest paid professionals, making an average of low to mid-six figures.
In short, being a doctor is safe. It’s the only profession where if you work hard, you are almost guaranteed to make low to mid-six figures. Can you make more in other professions? Sure, but going into business or engineering doesn’t have that guaranteed level of salary. The range is much broader, meaning you can make much less or much more than the average physician, but, on average, you’ll probably be making less.
So let’s say you want to get rich above all else. You don’t care about job satisfaction or lifestyle or your purpose in life. You’re just trying to make it rain. In that case, going into medicine must be the best choice, right? After all, it’s the highest paid profession. Let’s dig into that assumption a little further.
Doctor vs. Engineer Assumptions for Analysis
This is the part where we crunch the numbers. With any analysis, a series of assumptions must first be made.
On the doctor side, we’ll have two comparisons: primary care and specialist. To become an average primary care doctor, you’ll finish college then spend 4 years in medical school, graduating with an average debt of around $200,000. Then, you’ll complete 3-4 years of residency prior to earning your attending starting salary of around $260,000.
To become the average specialist, you’ll again have to complete 4 years of medical school, but since becoming a specialist, such as a plastic surgeon or dermatologist, is so insanely competitive, many students take an extra research year to bolster their residency application.
For that reason, we’ve simplified the analysis with 5 years of medical school. You’ll still graduate with an average of about $200,000 in debt, but now residency is a bit longer. If you go into orthopedic surgery, it’ll be 5 years, 7 for neurosurgery, 6 for plastics, and 6 for cardiology. For simplicity, we’ve rounded residency and fellowship to 6 years in length. The starting salary for specialists is around $368,000.
On the engineer side, you’ll be starting immediately after college and pulling in a starting salary of around $100,000, which is actually on the lower end of the starting salary for a computer programmer in San Francisco. However, given the wide range of starting salaries for engineers, we’ve set $100,000 as the starting point.
Additionally, student loans will accrue interest at 6%, investments earn 7% per year, and wage growth increases at 3% annually. If you’re confused about the wage growth rate, understand that inflation is on average 1-2% per year, and salaries usually steadily increase over the course of one’s career due to promotions and other factors.
In order to reduce extraneous variables, we have eliminated living expenses and savings ratios, as it’s impossible to accurately estimate the average engineer’s versus doctor’s living expenses—cue lifestyle inflation. Therefore, we are only looking at the lifetime earning potential.
Do you have different assumptions around these numbers? No problem. Feel free to download this excel spreadsheet and plug in your own numbers using your own assumptions. Leave a comment below to let us know your findings.
Doctor vs. Engineer Financial Results
First, between primary care doctor and specialist, it’s clear that choosing a specialty that earns a high salary is far more advantageous from a financial perspective. Despite spending 1 more year in medical school and 2 more years in residency, specialists blast past primary care doctors a decade after completing their training.
Given the high salary, they must also blast past engineers, right? Not so fast.
Despite a starting salary of more than 3 times that of an engineer, specialist doctors only surpass engineers in lifetime earnings at the age of 43. That’s right: from the age of 22 to 42, engineers are in a more favorable financial position than even specialist physicians. Primary care doctors catch up to engineers at the age of 42.
To most people, this is counterintuitive. It comes down to one often overlooked and underestimated factor: opportunity cost.
While future doctors are toiling away in medical school and residency, engineers are already making six figures. And if you manage to save that money, the powerful force of compounding comes into effect, accelerating your wealth accumulation.
Should I Go Into Medicine for the Money?
This analysis is far from perfect, but that’s not the point. If you want to adjust the assumptions, feel free to copy or download the spreadsheet and modify it yourself. Go to File –> Make a copy.
That being said, you’ll likely find similar results. The purpose of this analysis is to demonstrate that becoming a physician is not as lucrative as you or your parents may initially think when only considering the salaries. There is a massive opportunity cost due to over 10 years of training and massive student debt. This is why you hear so many physicians warn youngsters about going into medicine for the money.
On one hand, the training to become a physician is incredibly challenging, and the desire to get rich won’t help you push through in the same way that more personal motives will. But equally important, it just doesn’t make financial sense unless your idea of financial success is being dirt poor during the best years of your life and only becoming rich when you’re too old to fully enjoy the wealth.
If you are on the fence about going to medical school, my advice is you spend the extra time making sure it’s the right path for you. Shadow doctors, gain more clinical experience, and only pursue becoming a doctor if you are truly going into it for the right reasons.
If you are struggling to make a decision, I recommend you start with the following articles:
- Do Not Go to Medical School (If This is You)
- Doctor Training Steps: How to Become a Doctor
- How to Make Tough Decisions — 7 Strategies for Better Decision Making
If, on the other hand, you know that becoming a doctor is in your future, you’ve come to the right place. Whether or not you plan on going into something hyper-competitive like plastic surgery, it’s in your best interest to be the strongest applicant that you can be. By crushing my MCAT, having a near-perfect college GPA, and a rock solid application, I had my pick of top medical schools, with some even offering to pay the bill. That alone saved me over $200,000.
My suggestion is to invest in yourself, so you too can be in the best possible position.
Improvements in your grades, test taking skills, and application will only have compounding effects, so you won’t be pigeon holed as you move forward with your training. Rather, you’ll open additional doors and have your pick of the best opportunities. Trust me; it’s much harder to become an orthopedic surgeon at a leading institution if you aren’t at the top of your game and crushing it in school.
Have your parents pressured you to go into medicine? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments below.