Is a career in medical writing right for you?

Heading into the final year of my PhD, I knew I didn’t want a career in academic research. I loved the discovery and the lab work, but it was the constant uncertainty and the pressurised and competitive environment that I didn’t want to be a part of for the rest of my career. So, I started to look into alternative options that would allow me to keep my hand in the research world but also allow me to fully realise my passion for communicating and educating about science.

I quickly found a range of options that would tick those two boxes and began to search for vacancies that I could apply for; and one of those fields is medical writing.

Medical writing, sometimes also called medical communications, is a field where you are tasked with creating documents, presentations, marketing materials, regulatory applications and even research papers covering the latest medical breakthroughs or latest treatments and drugs on behalf of your clinical clients. There is a guest post on my blog from fellow science Instagrammer and now medical writer Dr Sophie Cook if you want some more information about the career. But in this post, I want to share a bit more about my brief experience applying for these roles and what I learnt.

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It’s been over a year since I applied for any medical writing jobs, so I have had some time to reflect. I applied for these jobs, and the application process seemed no different to the other career options I was considering. But that quickly changed!

Before you are even invited to an interview, there are tasks that you need to complete. Some of which you will be judged on before you are invited to interview, and some which you have to prepare to discuss and present at an interview. These tasks would mimic things you would have to do in your role if you got the job. For example, I would be sent 3 research papers, and would have to prepare one for a clinician to present at a conference, and summarise the other two into a report – and that was just for one application. Luckily all that prep for this particular example didn’t go to waste as I did get invited to interview and it was in Amsterdam so I got to spend a few hours there before and after. Which was a bit of a surreal experience I’ll be honest.

It’s safe to say that learning about the field of medical writing and the application process was a steep learning curve, and there are a few things I want to share with you for you to consider and think about if you want to explore this field more:

The job applications take a hella long time

You might think job applications take a long time anyway, but everything that went into trying to get a medical writing job made that look like a walk in the park. There is a lot of time you have to invest which can be difficult if you are trying to write your PhD thesis up too. So, just a pre-warning for you.

Use insider knowledge

I’ve written loads of scientific reports and prepared many a scientific presentation during my PhD and beyond, but without insider knowledge of what the medcomms industry are looking for then I would have not faired quite so well in the application process. They tend to want slides in a certain way, and there are little additions that you don’t routinely do during your PhD for example. I was lucky enough to know three people already working in medical writing and they gave me some top tips that got me the interviews.

You need to leave your scientist hat at home

Okay, so I’m not really sure how to describe this lesson, but it kinda extends from the last point. I had analysed and critiqued many papers before and reported on the key highlights. But I often found that the key points for a medical audience were not the same as a scientific audience which was my default. So, really make sure you know your audience and what they would want to know.

You have to be able to manage and stick to deadlines

In this whole world, things can come at you thick and fast, and you have to deliver high-quality work on time because you are working for clients. That involves making sure things get delivered on time, so you need to be able to read, analyse, think and write pretty efficiently – which obviously comes with practice. And you could get a taste for this in your application tasks when you get asked to report how long it takes you to make that presentation from that paper they sent you.

You have no ownership of work

For some people this would be no problem. But perhaps going from doing your own experiments and writing your own publications, to literally having to write a manuscript for someone else – and you rarely if ever see your name on the author list. Think about whether that situation would bother you.

You might have to learn and specialise in a completely new field

Personally, I wouldn’t have minded this because I like learning, but it would have been tough at the start to get to grips with the field and complete all the tasks that were expected of me. But again, if you want did a PhD in cancer research and want to go into medical writing on that topic, you might not have that flexibility, and you might have to start again from the bottom up.

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These are just a few things that I learnt from the few job applications I put in for this field, but it taught me a lot about what I wanted to do for a career after my PhD. Which didn’t end up being medical writing actually! There is a blog post by Cheeky Scientist called “Forget about being a medical writer if you have a PhD but lack these skills” and while these list of three skills may have seemed obvious at first, they are crucial to be able to get into the field, and I cannot agree with them more. They were:

You need a solid background in the life sciences

As I said, not very surprising, but you might have to learn a new medical research field, so you have to have a strong medical science background at first to stand any chance of staying on top of your workload, and getting familiar with all the technical terms and knowledge. And an advanced degree like a PhD in a “relevant” field is usually preferred because your PhD training will have given you skills to complete the tasks at hand. Although I must say it is not a necessity, but you need that strong foundation in biology, or pharmacology, or biomechanics – something related to medical science.

You really need to learn the craft

And professional associations can help you to do that. While working towards your medcomms job, you can greatly improve your chances by taking courses, or there are opportunities where you can do internships to get a feel for the career choice and to learn the ropes more. Maybe start off as a freelancer to gain that experience. This is one of the things that stopped me being offered the job as I simply just did not know enough about the industry and the way it worked.

You need to love writing and be excellent at it

And I mean really love writing with skills that are just as essential as your scientific knowledge. You have to take really complex information and present it in a really clear way for variety of audiences while also taking into consideration all the guidelines and styles. You need the knowledge and you have to know how to communicate it to a strict deadline. While I love writing – I do it often in my job now and I write a blog obviously and I even actually enjoyed writing my PhD thesis – I don’t even think I enjoyed writing enough for these roles on reflection.

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Hopefully all those lessons learnt have provided food for thought on whether a medical writing career is for you. It isn’t for everyone – no career is! But there are some things that you have to love doing as it can get stressful and intense, but there are a few pros that are part of the deal with a good pay check at the end of the month and many opportunities to travel as well. I am clearly not an expert on medical writing, but I did consider it for a while and hopefully what I learnt might help you to make the right career decision for you.

Make sure to check out the Cheeky Science site too which has lots of useful career tips – with hopefully a few more about a career in scicomm by yours truly in the near future.

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Have you considered a career in medical writing? Or maybe you are a medical writer – do you have any other things to add to this list? What other post-PhD careers would you like to know more about?

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