$85,000 Pharmacy School vs. $250,000 Medical School

Student loan debt is a necessary evil. Problem is, once you understand that it’s a necessary evil, you’re sorta lulled into thinking about the “necessary” part and less about the “evil” part, and then you wake up one day asking yourself how you ended up owing the government somewhere around the GNP of Honduras.

Unfortunately for Celeste, her story made me think of that. She’s $70k in debt going into her junior year. She writes:

Hey Judge Josh!

I’m in a bit of a conundrum here. I’m about to be a junior in college and have almost fulfilled all of my prerequisites for pharmacy school. However, lately I’ve been having a tough time deciding whether or not pharmacy school is something I really want to do.

That’s a familiar refrain around these parts. Ultra-specific programs of study are great for high-demand jobs, but if you start doubting yourself halfway in, there’s not a lot of room to wiggle over into something else.

My GPA is pretty good (it’s a 3.83 cumulative right now) and a thought that’s been going through my mind lately is possibly going to medical school. However, I’m already in a substantial amount of student loan debt (about $70,000 including my junior year… I studied abroad freshman year and that was a bit pricey needless to say).

Good Lordy that’s a lot of money. Congrats on the fine GPA, though.

If I got my bachelor’s degree and went to medical school, it would probably take me about another 2 years to finish, causing me to rack up even more student loans from undergrad without much of a guarantee of even getting into medical school because it’s so competitive.

I agree on all counts so far. So, in this theoretical situation, let’s ballpark it at $100,000 in undergraduate school debt, and no guarantee of med school acceptance. (Your GPA is pretty good, but I don’t have any way of knowing how you’d do on the MCATs).

I figure the perks of going to medical school would be that I would have a job that I really enjoy and that I would never be bored with what I was doing.

Send me some.

Well, I’m not gonna say you’re wrong, but that’s definitely an assumption that could go either way. I think doctors are like most other people — some love going to work every day, and some would be happy if a SCUD missile hit their office in the night.

I’ve always dreamed of being a doctor. However, I feel like pharmacy school would be a more practical route because I could potentially start one year from now instead of two and come out with less student loan debt because you don’ t need a bachelor’s degree to start pharmacy school. Also, pharmacy school, though competitive, isn’t nearly as competitive as medical school and has a much smaller price tag.

Yeah, I think you’ve pretty much hit the nail on the head there. Pharmacy school definitely seems less risky — less money needed to spend on college and therefore fewer student loans, easier and quicker to get into a paying job, etc. Another thing to consider is that a pharmacist’s job will probably not be seriously impacted if the U.S. government institutes massive health-care reform; the same is not true for doctors.

I’m currently attending Wayne State University, which isn’t a very big, well known school. I feel like this might put me at a bit of a disadvantage even though I have a competitive GPA. I really would love to be a doctor, but I’m afraid that the competition and price of school are stopping me. Do you think I should stick with the pharmacy route or go with my dream of becoming a doctor?

Well, it’s a personal issue that revolves mostly around how desperately, down deep in your soul, you want to be a doctor. I’m never going to tell someone to abandon something they really, really, really want to do. And if you really, really, really want to be a doctor, you should go for it.

Now, from a practical standpoint, I think it’s pretty clear that pharmacy is the safer bet. You’re already in some wicked debt and a pharmacist job is all yours pretty soon, and that job will give you a secure income and a fairly relaxed working environment, from what I understand.

Regardless of where you’ve gone to school, your MCAT scores will determine your med-school path. Score high, and you should be fine.

I sense some self-doubt in you about whether you’ve got what it takes to get into med school (apologies if I’m wrong about that), and I’m inclined to say that if you’re doubting whether you can even get in, there may be cause for even more concern about whether you can make it through if you do actually get in.

But I’ll end on my favorite subject, which is student loan debt. You have a ton of it already, and if it were me, I’d be pretty nervous about tacking on a couple hundred thousand extra. If you do that, you put yourself in a position where you have few options: you must make it through med school and residency, and then you must work your butt off for many, many years to repay that debt.

I’m a guy who leans towards keeping his options open. Remember, you can always decide to go back to med school if you find that life as a pharmacist isn’t for you.

In the immortal words of Chris Rock, “Life ain’t short — life is looooooonng.” You’ve got plenty of time to finish up pharmacy school, feel out life as a pharmacist, and then make a less risky decision about med school afterward.

That’s my best two cents. What about you guys — what do you think Celeste should do? Let us know in the comments below.

30 thoughts on “$85,000 Pharmacy School vs. $250,000 Medical School”

  1. deborah digginss

    Hello Josh,
    I think that was good and sound advise that you have shared. I think also, that if one finish at one level check that level out, get balance then proceed to go to the next level. It seems to always help
    you to craete a more sound foundation. The you she would have a profession that she has already
    mastered and be able to get back what she has put into.

  2. Hello Josh,
    I think that was good and sound advise that you have shared. I think also, that if one finish at one level check that level out, get balance then proceed to go to the next level. It seems to always help
    you to create a more sound and concrete foundation. For sure she will have a profession that she has already completed and mastered. Therefore she would be able to reap the fruits from what she has sown, she will be able to collect on the harvest.
    Being in a postion to get back what has been put into

  3. I think that Judge here needs to read up on his hospital policies. Unlike pharmists, that are being replaced by pill-dispensers (we all saw the “Nurse Jackie” episodes) which can digitally track where medication is going and how much of it patients need and their interactions in programs like Eclypsis Sunrise, software that the government is priding itself on upgrading because its supposed to reduce costs and allergies and reactions, a doctor’s job cannot be replaced by a robot-machine (well, not yet). I would study massively for medical school, get a damn fine MCAT score, and work really hard with your pre-professional advising department. Better a job that lasts than a job that’s replaceable.

  4. Wow, I thought I was writing this question to Judge Josh myself! I am in the exact same boat-same debt/same question/similar GPA; pharmacy school or medical school? Heck, even the same state! Anyway, I have struggled with this decision over and over again. In the interest of keeping options open like Josh said, here is what I decided: 1. Finish my B.S. in Biology (covers prereq’s for medical school and pharmacy school except I have to add a calc class for pharmacy) 2. Take PCAT and MCAT and apply to BOTH pharmacy school and medical school 3. Let the admission boards direct my next step. To address the other concern about job security and career satisfaction, here are my thoughts: I have worked as a pharmacy tech in a hospital for years and am a little burned out. I know exactly what you meant when you talked about having a job you enjoy versus a job where you are bored out of your mind! So, to sooth my mind, I researched a lot of pharmacy jobs and there is a wide variety of things I could do other than retail or hospital. On the other hand, deep down, I believe being a doctor is what is in my heart and I want a job that I do not dread getting up in the morning and going to. As far as debt goes, two things I’ve considered: 1. Initial investment is small compared to income over a lifetime. 2. If you are willing to work in a medically underserved area, you can definitely find programs to help offset the student loans. Currently, there is a huge push by the AAMC to: accept more medical students, increase diversity among those accepted, increase resident slots post graduation and increase the number of physicians practicing in medically underserved areas. The need for good doc’s is more evident than ever and with the possibility of 30million + newly insured people seeking healthcare the shortage is only going to get worse. The AAMC knows this and is lobbying hard to get things going in a positive direction (go to their website if you haven’t already.) I think if you feel passionate towards medical school and helping people than there is probably no better time to give it a shot! Go for it-you’ll never know unless you try! Good Luck!

  5. The logic of your advice was sound. However, Celeste is not in pharmacy school. She is finishing her undergrad prerequisites. Whether she decides upon pharmacy school or medical school, she will likely incur debt either way. By the way, I am in pharmacy school and my debt will be significantly more than $85,000 when I am finished and I do NOT have undergraduate debt.

  6. Hi josh,
    I think you handed out some real important information. We all must realize that the grass is always greener on the other side. As we grow closer to ouyr destination doubts always set in. We must squash these doubts with rationale. There is a lot to learn in the medical field from becoming a pharmacist or assistant. Since Celeste is well on her way in this field, why on earth would she start over in another field? Let reason and rationale be your guide Celeste, for you have a lot going for you if you stay on the path, but a lot going against you if you veer. My prayers are with you

  7. I am in sort of the same arena. I am currently studying to be a Network Administrator. I am aiming to gain a Associates Degree. By the time I finish in a year I will be about 30,000 in debt. I am wondering if I should go on to get my BA in Computer Science. That cost is another 30,000. I don’t know what to do. Any advice from anyone???

    1. Charlotte Hyatt

      Short answer: go for the Bachelor in Computer Science. Your first year’s salary will be more than $30,000.

  8. I don’t know what state she calls home, but I know in the state where I live, there is a huge shortage of pharmacists. My beautician’s husband is a pharmacist and is constantly asked to work extra shifts filling in at local retail pharmacies, for which she says they are willing to pay really well. Granted, he’s been doing this for a while, and is a manger at the hospital where he works, but I’m sure that there are spots open like this at every level, covering nights, weekends, and holidays. As a pharmacist, you may not have much interaction with your patients, and if you do, it will likely be for only a few moments. However, doctors tend to have more personal interaction with patients, including nights, weekends, and holidays. Either way you’re helping people, so it just depends on what kind of doctor you want to be and how much interaction you want to have with your patients.
    My boyfriend is a chemical engineering professor and has several kids in his department who are pre-med, but if they don’t make it, can go into chemical engineering for medical uses. It’s always best to have a degree that gives you a backup plan, just in case you don’t pass the MCAT the first time.

  9. I’d go with pharmacy school. There’re always shortages of pharmacies, and although the work can be frustrating at times the pay is pretty good. If she’d rather go be a doctor later, she’d have a huge leg up over many other med students and practicing doctors (in that doctors almost never know anything about the actual medicines they’re prescribing). It’d be an unusual combination that I think would serve her well, should she decide to be a doctor later.

  10. Wow, this article is so far from my current situation, but it’s given me a lot of good advice. Thank’s Josh! And thanks Juanita for your comment. I think the best thing to do would be to keep going on the path you’re on. If you stop now, you’ll always wonder “what if?” If you finish pharmacy school then decided you want to be a doctor, I think you’ll feel better about your choice.

  11. WOW! That must have been some freshman year! If it were me, I would stick it out as a pharmacist since it appears you have the brains to excel in it. Don’t think that just because you are paying off your student loans by being a pharmacist that you are completely giving up your dream of being a doctor. I have seen students in their 50+ going back to school to get into the medical field.
    Just remember, there are always going to be days that you hate what you do. Whether it is as a pharmacist, doctor, mother, or student. You just have to have a goal and a purpose that will reach beyond the everyday things and lift you up.
    Good Luck!

  12. Hello Celeste,

    I think Judge Josh made some good points but either way you decide you are going to add more debt. Yes, more with med school than pharm school, but which do you really want to do? I agree with Stacie’s comment above. There is a website that I think you might find helpful (http://nhsc.hrsa.gov/). Like Stacie said above, if you work in a health care shortage area you can get money to either pay for medical school in the first place + a stipend to live off of (scholarship) or take out loans first and then work to have them paid back (loan repayment) + your normal salary after the fact. The scholarship is harder to get and requires that you actually complete the work afterward (otherwise pay hefty fines). It is also more strict in requiring you to work in shortage areas that need it the most where as the loan repayment is a little more lenient in that aspect. With the loan repayment though I believe you can work up to 7 years (can’t remember exactly, have to read on the website) to help pay off your loans. So if you have more loans than the average person (which I assume you will) then you can devote more years to helping the underserved and help pay back your loans in the mean time. They both require though that you work in a primary care field (but you may specialize later).

    As for getting into medical school… it is competitive but not impossible. Like Judge Josh said you would have to take the MCAT, but if you got a good score you would most likely not have a problem getting in. Also, if you have done extra curricular activities (ie. volunteering, organizations, jobs) those also look good on your application and will help you stand out. As for coming from Wayne State as an undergrad university you would not have any problems in MI since all of the MI schools know of WSU since they also have a medical school. You might also have an advantage at WSU SOM having gone to undergrad here. Also, the people in the admissions office are very nice so if you have any questions you can contact them too (most likely Dawn Yargeau).

    I am a medical student at Wayne State University School of Medicine, so if you have any questions you can feel free to contact me by email- brittmd2013@gmail.com.


  13. The Mighty Curmudgeon Esq.

    The only reason to take out student loans is to make them count. A doctor can be a pretty high freakin’ in-come earner, especially if they forget any qualms about performing drug trials or become a specialist in one field or another. If one doesn’t get into to med. school they don’t need the loans, but is it really a question worthy of discussion that someone who could be a freakin’ doctor might want to settle to be a freakin’ pharmacist? Just in case my freshly post-adolescent brethren haven’t figured it out, debt-free and forever miserable are not mutually exclusive states of being. People tell me they want to be financially solvent for their entire adult lives, I tell them ‘fine, enjoy your part-time job living with your parents, or your full-time job living in a crappy apartment while you spend two years taking night-classes at a vocational school; and when you get out of that, enjoy the rest of your life as a freakin’ accountant.’

  14. Ismael Benitez

    It seems to me Celeste needs a concrete road in her career without doubting her heart and soul. I agree with Josh decisions and advice.

  15. My daughter will be applying to medical school soon. I would much rather her go into pharmacy than medicine right now. I am a nurse and have worked with many many physicians, and can tell you that it is not the “glamour” job that many folks think it to be.

    We’ve been doing lots of research and she even worked for a medical school and learned quite a bit there. It seems that the majority of medical school applicants are not accepted on their first try and for some it takes many more tries before acceptance.

    Knowing this, I would advise to go ahead and “just do it” and get the pharmacy degree. That way, she can start hacking away at the student loan debt while waiting for the acceptance to medical school.

  16. @ Emily: the pharmacy jobs that are being automated are the pharmacy technician jobs, not the pharmacist jobs. There will always be a need for a human pharmacist due to the nature of the profession.

  17. Follow your dream. Going back to med school when your are older is harder and residency is more demanding. Suck up on the debt, almost every doctor graduates with a bunch, and just pay it off as quick as you can. If you do well on your MCATs then you will get into med school. Doctor jobs will still be in demand especially in obstetrics, gerontology and Emergency Medicine. If I had to do it all over again I would have never given up on my dream for the easy money.

  18. If Celestes decides to go for medicines after her pharmacy it is quite okay,maybe pharmacy wasnt really her dream career.if it is what she really want then she should go for it(she shoudnt go medicine not because her friends are there,so that had i known wont be the result.

  19. @Ronnie – $30K for an *Associates*?!? What community college is THAT? My advice would be find a less expensive school. $30K for a 2-year degree is ridiculous!

  20. Hi,
    I think before you go to college you must have plan ahead of it,my own advise in this case is that try to get what you can be doing in school and which will be fetching you money, so gradual y you will find your way out and make sure you are applying for scholarships as many as you can

  21. Dear Celeste there is no right or wrong decision but you should know the consequences you will have to deal with if you ditch your dream for pharmacy for medical school . I f your high on risk taking i will say go for it just be intelligent about it and do it right. But on the other hand you have come so far why are you turning back now?If your reasons hold enough water then you know what to do.

  22. Whatever you do go with it with ALL your heart, not because of money or whatever else. I am a Registered Nurse with my Bachelors whose original intent was to be a medical doctor with majority of my pre med classes done. Having worked as an RN for about 2 years in a HECTIC environment with doctors, I AM ready to continue my lifelong dream of being a doctor. I do not hate being a nurse..I make good $$ with good benefits, have learned firsthand about patient care and enjoy it BUT my passion lies in medicine. Have worked with a LOT of MDs who Hate their JOB and others who love it so nothing is guaranteed. GO WITH YOUR HEART, consider Judge Josh’s analysis (pretty good, I must say!) and make a wise decision..Good luck in your endeavors!

  23. Go to medical school if you have even the slightest desire to learn medicine. I’m in a PharmD program and taking the MCAT this week. I decided pharmacy because it was shorter, easier, better hours post-grad…but if you have a job 8-12 hours a day of your life it should truly challenge, interest, and satisfy you. It has nothing to do with money or anything else, the fact is pharmacy is very boring compared to medicine, and you will feel limited in how you can help your patients if that’s what you want to do. So, I’m going to med school *hopefully* 2 months after I earn my PharmD.

  24. I concur – Pharmacists are going to have most control over their field – and thereby their earnings, than Doctor’s are. Now and in the near – and probably far – future. Law says you have to have a pharmacist on site to open the door – NP’s can open clinics without a doctor in several states.

    Malpractice insurance is eating most of the doctors I know alive – as a nurse, after expenses, my hourly income is pretty close to the doctors I know – and I don’t have to answer the phone in the middle of the night.

  25. Your group discussions are full of people lamenting because they took the advice of what so many other people thought they should do… Only to realize that they really needed to get centered and then to follow their own heart–each time.

    However, Maybe in the U.S. Pharmacists are still pretty happy. Before you go too far in the assumption that Pharmacists are going to have most control over their field and their earnings than Dr.’s are, you might want to watch how things are developing in Canada. The woman who keeps her cottage down the road from my home just laid off several of her staff due to some government interference as to how they charge and why. She saw it as the first step to changing how they do business cross the board.

  26. Pharmacists will not be replaced by machines here in California unless the laws are changed because by law prescription medication must be checked by a pharmacist; there is even a requirement about the ratio of technicians to pharmacists. I also don’t believe techs will be completely replaced by machines, just that the need will decrease because after having volunteered in 3 pharmacies I can tell you that those robots are not perfect and still need human assistance and intervention.
    As for Celeste, it seems like she doesn’t really want to be a pharmacist, she wants to be a doctor..so she should go for it! It is possible to have a passion for pharmacy and if you don’t have that you are not going to enjoy pharmacy school or the profession. As for the debt, get used to it because you will most likely have some form of debt all of your life (car, mortgage, credit cards, school loans, college for your kids, etc.).

  27. I have an undergraduate in theatre and have been working as a pharmacy tech/supervisor for five years. Recently I have been thinking about biting the bullet and going back to school. I ogten toil with the idea of counseling or something in the healthcare field.

    However, I cannot stop thinking about pharmacy. I enjoy the field and have a natural curiosity about medications, routes and functions. I have spent four years working in an I.V room and recently moved to a hospital for a more patient based job. I am married with a small child but cannot stop thinking about what life would be like as a pharmacist after you have paid off your loans. I do not want to walk away from this field without really exploring the idea of getting a PhramD. I do not have any perquisites completed and my high school education was not great (hence the liberal arts degree). I had bad math and science teachers.

    What advice do you have? Should I take evening classes for 2-3 years and then apply? Should I forget it all together and find something else to fulfill me, something less lucrative? School counseling or teaching. I am 26 and would be 34 by the time I have a PharmD, probably with more kids. Is this even possible? Or am I just liking the idea of having a pharmD and making 100K +.


  28. Comparing medical school to pharmacy school is like comparing peanuts to apples. Two very different entities. The bottom line is, what will bring you the greatest satisfaction. You can’t compare the practice of medicine with pharmacy. There are just too very different fields. Medical school is very tough to get into, plus you have to ace the MCAT. This is not an easy test and it is definitely not the same as the PCAT. You will have to dig a little deeper to make the decision as opposed to just looking at the financial cost. Good luck.

  29. I would consider all the accomplishments you have put in pharmacy school. Pharmacy school and medical school are very different. But if you are having doubts about pharmacy school do the change now. Do not wait until you are forty to figure out that being a pharmacist is not for you. I am not going to tell what you are supposed to do. But I am going to say “figure it out before time runs out”. Money is a issue for everyone it should not be in the way of your dreams.

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