What you should know about government employment

By Jonathan Ford Hughes | Fact-checked by MDLinx staff
Published October 6, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • Government jobs can provide good security, the opportunity for service, good benefits, and student loan forgiveness

  • On the downside, you may have to deal with bureaucracy, less pay, and steep learning curves

  • Organizations like the NIH, FDA, and CDC provide good opportunities for government physician work.

Circumstances might have you pondering a career or job change. Physicians looking for a new job would be remiss not to consider government employment. While government physician jobs might not be what a doctor is used to, it presents a distinct set of opportunities and rewards from traditional clinical work.

Advantages of government physician jobs

Physicians who work for federal and state governments enjoy a number of perks, the standout being job security. Do your job well, and it’s likely that it will be yours until you reach retirement age.

Of course, government benefits, such as pensions and health coverage, aren’t so bad either. And don’t forget those student loans—they haven’t gone anywhere. Working for a qualifying federal agency for a specified length of time could earn you federal student loan forgiveness. 

Perhaps the most compelling reason to choose government work is the service angle. You likely became a doctor because you wanted to help people.

Government work positions you to help some of the most vulnerable populations as well as work to fix the healthcare system from within.

Sounds pretty good, right? But let’s not be too idealistic. There are some drawbacks.

Disadvantages of government physician jobs

Let’s cut right to the chase. You likely won’t get rich doing government work. Pay tends to skew lower than in the private sector. For example, pay for some CDC gigs start at about $76,000. While that will get you far in most of America, it might not get you your dream home in California or the tri-state area.

Another point worth considering: Government isn’t known for its efficiency. Things move slowly and policy can change with the administration.

If you’re weighing a government job, prepare for lots of meetings, as well as the steep learning curve of navigating bureaucracy.

Where to work

If all of that squares with you and you’re ready to make the leap into the public sector, the next question you have to answer is, where do you want to work? Myriad federal agencies need doctors. You can view open positions here. These are some of the more common agencies that employ doctors.

National Institutes of Health (NIH)

The NIH is a premier research agency for medicine and healthcare in the United States. With an operating budget of about $39 billion, NIH research helps improve life expectancy in the U.S. by better understanding and managing the biggest killers of Americans, such as cancer.

If you long for your lab days during medical school and your undergraduate career, this is your chance to return to research and possibly discover medicine’s next big breakthrough. Glassdoor puts the median NIH physician salary at around $205K.

Indian Health Service (IHS)

A great career path for service-oriented physicians who want to live in more rustic locations, the IHS works “to raise the physical, mental, social, and spiritual health of American Indians and Alaska Natives to the highest level.” IHS services all federally recognized tribes, providing members with physical and behavioral healthcare. About 2.5 million Native Americans rely on IHS for care.

IHS physicians commonly treat heart disease, cancerous tumors, injuries, and diabetes. The current lifespan of Native Americans is about 5.5 years shorter than that of the average American.

Indeed provides a comprehensive overview of what IHS physicians make. For example, an internal medicine doctor typically makes about $92K. IHS needs physicians of every specialty for clinical work. Here’s a list of open IHS positions.

Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA)

Being a physician doesn’t mean you have to work exclusively on the clinical end of care. Needs abound for healthcare policymakers who actually understand how healthcare is delivered in America. HRSA works primarily on access to healthcare, specifically for the uninsured, people living in remote locations, and at-risk populations.

People who benefit from HRSA programs include those with HIV/Aids, pregnant women, and mothers. HRSA also issues grants to support these initiatives. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) determines federal physician salaries, and you can view the OPM pay tables here. Also, HRSA administers the National Health Service Corps (NHSC); NHSC physicians are not considered federal employees. 

US Food & Drug Administration (FDA)

The healthcare regulatory side of the government also needs doctors. Somebody needs to review all of the drugs making their way through the FDA pipeline for safety and efficacy. This also goes for medical devices, vaccines, blood products, and the inspection of physical facilities.

Like the NIH, becoming an FDA medical officer might be a good fit for physicians who enjoy the research side of medicine as study data analysis is often a major component of the work. According to Glassdoor, FDA medical officers make between $170-195K. Find the FDA physician openings here.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

The CDC also needs medical officers. The position is a sound career opportunity for research-oriented physicians who want to have a global impact. Physicians working for the CDC perform research, coordinate with CDC partner organizations, and shape national as well as international healthcare policy via research.

Working for the CDC also might be a good fit for doctors who like to travel. Research often takes employees all over the country and globe. Indeed shows that CDC physicians make between $103-165K.

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