Military vs. Civilian

by Kristina Kalian and Tianna Ryan

As you faithful followers know, my husband is on the military route through medicine. Our life actually looks a lot different than those who choose the civilian route. I’ve partnered up with Kristina, the voice behind this heartland home to compare and contrast military and civilian routes through some of the larger topics of medical school and residency.

I am Kristina and I run the blog This Heartland Home. We currently live in the Heartland of America, which is Nebraska. We moved from California where my husband graduate medical school and have continued his training here as he is an Internal Medicine resident. I am a graduate in business, a mother of two, and an advocate for medical families. I have enjoyed connecting with other medical spouses. We are in a unique situation and I believe it’s essential to be surrounded with people who understand you.

Tianna and I thought some of you who are interested in applying for medical school may be curious to know what the differences are in the whole process of becoming a doctor whether it be civilian or military. We went the civilian route so I will cover that. I have little to no clue how the military route works so Tianna will take care of that. Let’s compare and contrast!

Applying for Medical School Civilian vs. Military?

There is no difference between applying to medical school as a civilian vs military. There is a whole other process of signing onto the Air Force/military but it is totally separate from the medical school application process. 

What are rotations like for civilian vs military?


Rotations are set up through the school, some in the area and some not. For my husband he did a rotation close to Palm Springs and had to live there for about a month because it was too far of a drive to do each day. Some of his rotations where 30 miles away but would take an hour and a half both ways because of LA traffic. Others where 15 minutes away, which we really enjoy those months with short commutes. 

You can choose to do away rotations at the places you want to do residency. This helps you get a foot in the door. You however do not have the option to do rotations at military residency locations

When my husband was at the end of his second year of medical school I talked to a wife of a student who was about to graduate. I asked her how rotations were, since we would be heading into that phase next. She said, “when it’s hard, it’s hard, and when its easy its easy.” I came to find out what she meant by that. Some months/rotations he would get home early, have weekends off, and a short commute. Other months/rotations he drove in traffic for 3 hours, worked holidays, and was exhausted. So take it a month at a time. If it’s a hard month, push to the end and hope for an easy month to come.


Rotations are similar overall. For most specialties, an away rotation is not required but highly recommended for competitive sake, but with the military they require two to fulfill active duty requirements. Away rotations for the military serve literally as interviews. For example, my husband wants to specialize in emergency medicine (EM) and through the Air Force there are only four residency programs for EM. It’s wise to pick the programs you are most interested in for your away rotations because they (residents, program director, etc.) get to see the student working and get to know them more than the students who only get an interview with the program. My husband did his away rotations back-to-back during the summer between his third and fourth year.

What are the differences between matching?


Match day is in March. You submit your applications to civilian residency’s the September before, do interviews between October and January and then don’t hear if you match until the Monday before Match Day in March. The Monday of Match week you find out if you match via email. If you do then all is week and you will find out WHERE on that Friday. If there is no match then you will do the SOAP and apply for open spots. 


With the Air Force, match day is in December. Match day with the military can result in three different outcomes: civilian deferred, military match or not accepted. Military match is just when you are matched with an Air Force residency program. Civilian Deferred means that you have been accepted into your specialty by the Air Force but now (if you haven’t already) start doing interviews for civilian programs and wait for match day in March like every other non-military fourth year. Crazy thing is that even if the Air Force accepts you into the specialty there is still a possibility not to be accepted by civilian programs. 

What do you think about the route your spouse chose? (civilian vs military)


I am glad my husband chose the civilian route so he can be done when he is done training and not have to owe time to the military. That being said we have a lot of student debt that is owed. For me personally I don’t come from a military family or have experience with it so it frightens me enough to be happy with paying a massive amount of student loans. 


Overall, I wouldn’t change a thing. Ben made his choice about joining the Air Force before we even met but I wouldn’t do it any different. Medical school and just becoming a doctor in general is stressful enough, I can’t imagine having the financial burden on top of it all. We do love to travel, so the fact that we will be moving again after residency to another unknown place doesn’t bother us. It’s an opportunity to live in places we would have never chosen to live outside of the military. 

I hope this can serve as a helpful resource for those of you who may be trying to decide what route to take. Obviously both routes have pros and cons, just gotta decide what one works best for you.

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