Med School Close-Up: Which Specialties Have the Best Debt-to-Dollars Ratio?

Jen Williamson Updated on May 13, 2019

If you're planning to go to medical school, you're probably also planning to take on significant student loan debt. The question is, is the debt worth it?

There’s no question medical students are going further and further into debt. From 1992 to 2017, medical student debt went up a whopping 123.4% — rising from an average of $87,297 in 1992 to $195,000 in 2017.


But some specialties are more debt-ridden than others and some pay off better than others — both in terms of salary and job satisfaction. 

We recently took an in-depth look at which medical school specialties were the best investment, based on annual Medscape Physician Compensation reports from 2011 to 2016.

Here we’ll go a little more in detail about the debt-to-salary picture for various specialties. We'll also dig in to the data on non-tangible indicators of job satisfaction to help you determine if paying off the debt for your chosen specialty will be worth it in the long run. 

Which medical specialties carry the highest and lowest debt?

Those specialties that carry the highest student debt are*:

  • Emergency medicine: $195,432 (as of 2016)
  • Radiology: $185,490
  • Psychiatry: $184,323
  • Orthopedic surgery: $183,778
  • General surgery: $183,285

Those with the lowest amount of student debt include:

  • Dermatology: $153,827 (as of 2016)
  • Radiation oncology: $168,297
  • Urology: $171,322
  • Ophthalmology: $172,564
  • Internal medicine: $173,278

*These numbers are from a research letter published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Which medical specialties earn the highest salary?

According to our recent report, the top earners include:

  • Orthopedics: $489,000 (as of 2016)
  • Plastic surgery: $440,000
  • Cardiology: $410,000
  • Urology: $400,000
  • Radiology: $396,000

You might expect the highest earners to carry the most debt, as these are the most “valuable” medical degrees according to the market. But you’d be wrong.

Only two of the specialties on the high-salary list — orthopedics and radiology — also make the top five for highest student debt. Another — urology — is among the specialties with the lowest student debt.

Which brings us to …

Which medical specialties earn the lowest salary?

  • Pediatrics: $202,000 (as of 2016)
  • Family medicine: $209,000
  • Endocrinology: $220,000
  • Infectious disease: $228,000
  • Rheumatology and psychiatry: $235,000

Pediatrics is also on the lower end of the student debt scale, with an average student debt of $174,764. Family medicine comes with a middle-to-high average student debt of $180,729. Neither makes it into the top or bottom five for student debt, however.
New call-to-action

Which physicians have the highest job satisfaction?

Of course, there’s more to happiness than money. According to the 2016 Medscape survey we based our analysis on, the following medical professionals are happiest in their jobs:

  • 39% of the dermatologists surveyed reported feeling “very or extremely happy” with their careers.
  • Ophthalmologists come in a close second, with 38% job satisfaction. Ophthalmologists are also among the bottom five for student debt. 
  • About 37% of psychiatrists reported being extremely happy at work, despite being among the bottom salary earners.
  • 36% of nephrologists surveyed said they were very happy at work.
  • Pulmonologists are the lowest of the high end, with 33% reporting elevated levels of happiness at work.

When we’re talking debt to dollars, however, satisfaction with pay makes a big impact on quality of life.

As is expected, those with the highest increase in pay satisfaction are also among the highest paid, such as plastic surgeons. But that’s not the whole picture.

Others who saw a serious rise in pay satisfaction include endocrinologists — who are in fact some of the lowest paid, although their salaries have risen at a fairly fast 30.9% clip — and rheumatologists, who report some of the lowest job satisfaction overall.

Which physicians have the lowest job satisfaction?

The specialties where people are least likely to be happy in their jobs include:

  • Internal medicine: 24% job satisfaction
  • Critical care: 25% job satisfaction
  • Rheumatology: 26% job satisfaction

So, which specialties have the best debt-to-dollars ratio? Among those is urology — it made the top 5 for highest salary and lowest student debt. But urologists also experience a 55% burnout rate — so this career is not for the faint of heart.

Job satisfaction is about more than money. But student debt and salary can certainly make an impact on your quality of life over time. By all means, crunch the numbers — but that’s only a small factor in finding medical work you enjoy.

If you've got medical school loans and you're looking to pay less in interest, hit up our Refi Ready Calculator to see how much you may be able to save.  

About the Author
Jen Williamson

Jen Williamson is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. She has written for a variety of industries, including software, education, business, and personal finance. Prior to that, she worked at an adult literacy nonprofit in Philadelphia, where she coached nontraditional students in passing the GED test and applying for college. When she isn’t writing or reading—which is rare—she can usually be found planning her next travel adventure, training for a marathon, or sneaking in somewhere she’s not supposed to be. Read more by Jen Williamson

Refinance and Save Today With These Lenders

#1 - Nitro Recommended View More Details

SoFi is the leading student loan refinancing provider. 

  • APR: 2.25% - 6.16%
  • Minimum credit score: 700
  • No Maximum when refinancing
View More Details
Visit SoFi View Loan Disclosure

$30 billion+ in refinanced student loans. SoFi has some of the lowest interest rates and, unlike the other lenders we reviewed, there's no maximum on the amount you can finance. Some state restrictions may apply.

  • Serious savings: Save thousands of dollars thanks to flexible terms and low fixed or variable rates.
  • No hidden fees, no catch: No application or origination fees. No pre-payment penalties.
  • Fast, easy, and all online: Simple online application and access to live customer support 7 days a week.
  • Access to member benefits: SoFi members get career coaching, financial advice, and more—all at no cost.
  • 98% of surveyed members would recommend SoFi to a friend

Save thousands on your student loans and pay off your loans sooner. Find your rate.

#2 View More Details

Special offers for medical resident and fellow refinance products

  • APR: 1.89% - 6.66%
  • Minimum credit score: 650
  • No Maximum when refinancing
View More Details
Visit Splash View Loan Disclosure

Splash Financial is a leader in student loan refinancing with new rates as low as 2.63% fixed APR which can save you tens of thousands of dollars over the life of your loans. No application or origination fees and no prepayment penalties. Splash Financial is in all 50 states and is intensely focused on customer service. Splash Financial is also one of the few companies that offers a great medical resident and fellow refinance product. You can check your rate with Splash in just minutes.

  • Low interest rates – especially for graduate students
  • No application or origination fees. No prepayment penalties.
  • Co-signer release program - you can apply for a cosigner release form your loan after 12 months of on-time payments
  • Specialty product for doctors in training with low monthly payment

Click here to see more of Splash's offerings and to see how you can save money.

#3 View More Details

Earnest empowers people with the financial capital they need to live better lives.

  • APR: 1.99% - 5.79%
  • Minimum credit score: 650
  • Refinance up to $500K
View More Details
Visit Earnest View Loan Disclosure

Using technology, data, and design to build affordable products, Earnest's lending products are built for a new generation seeking to reach life's milestones. The company understands every applicant's unique financial story to offer the lowest possible rates and radically flexible loan options for living life.

  • Commitment-free 2 minute rate check
  • Client Happiness can be reached via in app messaging, email, and phone 
  • No fees for origination, prepayment, or loan disbursement
  • Flexible terms let you pick your exact monthly payment or switch between fixed and variable rates
  • Skip a payment and make it up later
  • Online dashboard is designed to make it easy to apply for and manage your loan

Click here to apply with Earnest and to see how much you can save.

#4 View More Details

Operates in all 50 states; 2nd largest student loan refinancing lender

  • APR: 1.99% - 6.20%
  • Minimum credit score: 660
  • No refinancing amount maximum
View More Details
Visit Laurel Road View Loan Disclosure

Laurel Road is a national online lender with customers in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. Many of our non-bank competitors are not able to lend in all 50 states.Laurel Road has grown to be the second largest player in the student loan refinancing space in large part because of our reputation as the go-to low rate provider.

Laurel Road Student Loan Refinance Review

  • National reach - Online lender that is available in all 50 US states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
  • No fees & the lowest rates in the space - Laurel Road is the most transparent about the rates they provide customers, and offer the lowest rates where it counts. Our customers will save more than $20,000 over the life of their loans on average. 
  • Customer service reputation - Laurel Road's customer service representatives are no rookies. With 19 years of experience on average, Laurel Road’s Customer Service team delivers an experience that is best in the industry. They work to build meaningful, life-long relationships with our valued customers to improve their overall financial wellness.
  • The stability & security of a bank - They are a division of Darien Rowayton Bank, a stable and secure FDIC-insured bank, regulated by the FDIC and the Connecticut Department of Banking.

Get your personalized, pre-approved rates in less than 5 minutes.

#5 View More Details

Credible is an online marketplace that provides borrowers with competitive, personalized loan offers from multiple, vetted lenders in real time.

  • Free to use, no hidden fees
  • Minimum credit score: 650
  • No refinancing maximum amount
View More Details
Visit Credible View Loan Disclosure

Credible is a multi-lender marketplace that empowers consumers to discover student loan refinancing options that are the best fit for their unique circumstances. Our integrations with leading lenders and credit bureaus allow consumers to quickly compare accurate, personalized loan options ― without putting their personal information at risk or affecting their credit score. The Credible marketplace provides an unrivaled customer experience, as reflected by over 2,000 positive Trustpilot reviews and a TrustScore of 9.5/10. Credible is headquartered in San Francisco, California.

For more information, click here to apply now with Credible.

  • Compare prequalified rates from multiple, vetted lenders in 2 minutes.
  • Refinance federal, private and ParentPLUS loans.
  • San Francisco-based customer support 7 days a week.
  • Checking your rates won't affect your credit score.
  • Get your final offer in as little as 1 business day.
  • Credible’s partner lenders do not charge prepayment penalties, loan application fees, or origination fees.
  • Free to use, no hidden fees: Requesting rates can take just minutes and costs you nothing.
#6 View More Details

For every loan they fund, they contribute to the education of a child in need

  • APR: 1.99% - 5.79%
  • Minimum credit score: 660
  • Refinance up to $500K
View More Details
Visit CommonBond View Loan Disclosure

CommonBond was founded in 2011 by three MBA graduates from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School who wanted to help their peers escape from high-interest student loan debt. Its original focus was on grad students, but it has since expanded to cover undergrads as well.

Of all the companies we reviewed, CommonBond has some of the best customer service. The company prides itself on being easy to reach by email, phone, or live chat. It offers networking events, expert panels, insider newsletters, and even has a program help borrowers who lose their jobs to find new ones. CommonBond also makes you feel good about choosing to refinance with them by donating money to an education nonprofit for each loan they write.

CommonBond Student Loan Refinance review

  • Unemployment protections - If you lose your job or decide to go back to school, you can delay your payments for up to 24 months.
  • Social promise - For every loan they fund, they also contribute to the education of a child in need.
  • Hybrid loan option - Offerings include a 10-year hybrid loan with fixed interest for the first five years, and variable interest for the final five.
  • Referral bonus - For every friend you refer who refinances their loans with CommonBond, you’ll earn a $200 cash bonus.
  • Qualification - Borrowers must have graduated at least 2 years prior if they want to apply without a co-signer. And borrowers in 6 states – Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, South Dakota, and Vermont – cannot currently refinance through CommonBond.

Get a personalized review of your refinancing options with CommonBond today.

#7 View More Details

Works with 300+ community lenders for higher approval chances

  • APR: 1.99% - 8.77%
  • Minimum credit score: 660
  • Refinance up to $300K
View More Details
Visit LendKey View Loan Disclosure

Connecting student borrowers to a network of over 300 community lenders with low interest rates. By partnering with these lenders, LendKey is able to give consumers direct access to the best rates available from the most borrower friendly institutions. As the servicer of all loans obtained through its platform, you can rest easy knowing your personal information will be safe and that the best customer service team will be ready to answer your questions from application until your final payment.

LendKey Student Loan Refinance review

  • Lightning fast rate check - 2-minute rate check with no impact on your credit score
  • More lenders, more options - see the best offers from over 300+ community lenders for higher approval chances
  • Life of loan relationship - With LendKey, your personal information will never be sent or passed on to third parties. Their customer service team is with you from the moment you land on their website until you've completely repaid your loan.
  • Unmatched benefits- Community lenders put people over profits and offer unique benefits like cosigner release after 12 on-time payments, interest only repayment options to keep monthly payments low, the largest unemployment protection period in the market, and more.

Get a personalized quote from LendKey now.


I reduced my student loan payment by $152 per month, by refinancing thru Nitro:

Save Money Now