Doctors occupy an interesting position in society – they command high salaries and have prestigious careers, yet many resist labeling themselves as upper class. This article will examine whether doctors fit into the upper middle class based on factors like income, lifestyle, education and public perception.
What Defines the Upper Middle Class?
There is no definitive income range or set of characteristics that define upper middle class. But broadly speaking, upper middle class households tend to have incomes over $100,000, college educations, white collar careers and lifestyles with disposable income for luxuries beyond basic necessities.
According to the Pew Research Center, households earning $78,000 to $118,000 per year are considered upper middle income. However, cost of living varies significantly in different parts of the US so income levels associated with upper middle class lifestyles range as well.
In addition to income, factors like occupation, education level, consumption patterns and self-identification influence upper middle class classification. Professionals like doctors, lawyers, engineers and middle to upper managers often fall into the upper middle class.
Upper Middle Class Lifestyle
The upper middle class lifestyle allows for comforts like private schooling, saving and investing money, discretionary spending on entertainment, recreation, dining out and vacations. Upper middle class households tend to own newer cars, live in suburban single family homes, have savings/investment accounts and contribute to retirement plans.
Culturally, the upper middle class values higher education, career success and achievement. Families emphasize performance and involvement in academically rigorous schools and activities to encourage children to pursue professional careers.
Doctors’ Income Relative to Other Professions
Doctors earn among the highest salaries of any profession in the US with a median annual wage around $200,000. The table below shows median pay for doctors compared to other common upper middle class professions:
|Profession||Median Annual Salary|
|Physicians and surgeons||$208,000|
General practitioners and family medicine doctors earn around $214,000 while specialists like surgeons and anesthesiologists average $208,000-$281,000. Even the lowest paid 10th percentile of physicians make $142,680 per year, putting them well within upper middle class territory.
Income Variation by Geography
While the national median income for doctors is over $200,000, actual earnings vary significantly based on factors like:
- Geographic location – Doctors in more rural areas or lower cost regions of the country tend to earn less than major metropolitan areas.
- Specialty – Specialists earn more than primary care physicians and general practitioners.
- Experience level – Doctors’ salaries increase the longer they have been practicing.
- Employment type – Doctors working at hospitals and health systems typically have higher salaries than private practice.
- Gender – Male doctors out-earn females by around $30,000 – $40,000 per year on average.
For example, a pediatrician working for a small private practice in the Midwest may earn closer to $150,000 a year. But a surgeon with 10+ years experience at a major Boston hospital could make over $500,000. So while income varies, most doctors across different specialties and geographies still land safely in the upper middle class bracket.
Education Level of Doctors
One of the defining features of upper middle class professionals is high education attainment, particularly completion of graduate/professional degree programs. All physicians complete medical school which earns them a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree.
This is considered a first professional degree, similar in rigor and commitment to a PhD. Studies show over 95% of upper middle class Americans have at least a 4-year bachelor’s degree compared to just over 27% of the general population. Doctors have likely the most extensive formal education of any profession outside academia.
Not only do doctors complete 8+ years of higher education including a bachelor’s degree and graduate medical program, they continue obtaining specialized training throughout their career. Doctors must fulfill continuing education requirements and certification processes that demonstrate their expertise is up-to-date on medical knowledge and techniques.
Social and Cultural Factors
Beyond income, education and lifestyle, social and cultural factors also come into play when defining upper middle class status. Class identity involves judgments related to occupational prestige, intelligence, manners, social circles and more.
Public Perception and Cultural Influence
Physicians rank near the top of occupational prestige surveys, just below professions like scientists, engineers and lawyers. Doctors are respected by the public as among the most intelligent, capable and trusted professionals.
Culturally, the image of doctors aligns with upper middle class values like expertise, education and authority. As a result, doctors become influential community figures and associate with upper class social networks through work, civic activities and their children’s private schools.
Despite high incomes, many doctors see themselves as middle class or upper-middle class but not necessarily ‘rich.’ In Medscape physician surveys from 2019 and 2020, only around 30% of doctors described themselves as ‘upper class.’
Around half considered themselves ‘upper middle class’ while just under 20% said ‘middle class.’ This may come from factors like:
- High medical school debt. The average medical student graduates with over $200,000 in student loan debt.
- Delayed earnings. Doctors don’t reach their full earning potential until after residency training in their 30s.
- Self-sacrifice mindset. Doctors tend to value direct contribution to patients over monetary gain.
Work-Life Balance and Lifestyle
While doctors earn sizable incomes, especially in relation to national averages, the profession also comes with tradeoffs. Irregular work hours, being on-call and high pressure situations can impact their lifestyle relative to others with high salaries but greater flexibility and lower stress.
Heavy workloads – especially for hospital-based specialties – can interfere with family time and prevent doctors from fully embracing some luxuries of the upper middle class. This contributes to many physicians identifying as upper middle class but not necessarily ‘wealthy’ or ‘rich.’
The majority of doctors in the United States could be considered upper middle class based on their high salaries, graduate school education, prestigious careers and influence in society.
However, physicians represent a range of income levels and lifestyles depending on factors like geographic location, specialty, facility type and work-life balance. Additionally, heavy medical school debt loads and delayed earnings growth prevent some doctors from fully adopting an upper class identity.
While not universally ‘wealthy,’ physicians occupy an enviable career position relative to the vast majority of Americans. Their level of income, job stability and social status exemplifies upper middle class membership, even if doctors themselves do not always self-identify that way.