Navigating the road from a research career to medical writing
It's a well-trodden path; enthusiasm for expanding the knowledge of humanity (no matter how small) quickly wanes when the realities of a research-based career hit home.
Fuelled by the uncertainty of fighting for grants, the days spent working alone in labs and the curiosity to learn beyond your narrow field, a feeling grows that there must be something else more fulfilling out there…
No matter what your motivations are for transitioning from a ‘lab-worker’ to a ‘writer’ the same stumbling blocks lie in the way for everyone. Having made the transition myself and looking at many job applications ranging from the Good, the Bad to the downright Ugly, I thought I'd share some practical tips to future writers looking for a rewarding career change.
Is this the career for you?
Be honest with yourself. The road ahead involves a lot of learning, a possible salary cut and can be a very humbling experience. You need to be able to take constructive criticism and learn from it quickly. Most importantly, you must enjoy the experience of writing compelling science: from the nuts and bolts of good grammar and consistent layout to constructing an over-arching story which is compelling to your audience.
What skills do I need?
The communications skills developed during a research career provide an excellent starting foundation for a career as a professional communicator. But it is just a start. You will now be paid as an expert in communicating ideas, not as an expert in your field. These tips focus on the writing aspect of the job and already assume the requisite scientific skills:
How to write in a compelling manner: there is no right way to learn this so you need to adapt to what works best for you. General copywriting books are a great start, books such as Into the woods can help with story development, Made to stick can help your writing become more memorable, and the EMWA writing tips improve clarity when writing complex medical messages
Microsoft Office skills: advanced Word and PowerPoint knowledge are essential and good Excel skills can save a lot of time when presenting data. These skills must go beyond the basics so focus on advanced tutorials and ideally ones that integrate design (e.g., Bright Carbon's array of resources)
Basic editorial skills/attention to detail: you will be working to style guides so familiarise yourself with how they work and practice writing to them diligently. If you have published manuscripts you will already be versed with journal style guides so practice using some with a greater focus on style such as those found in newspapers (e.g., The Times, The Guardian)
Clinical trial literacy: read lots of Phase III clinical trials from a variety of therapeutic areas and look up anything that you don't understand from their design, patient selection to endpoints – you will have to critique all aspects eventually
The industry’s regulation: familiarise yourself with the main codes of practice as much of what you will write will need to adhere to their principles. The UK’s ABPI is a fantastic starting point as it is has clear guidance and the ideas are common across many other markets
Solid punctuation: read and re-read the Penguin Guide to Punctuation. It’s an incredibly usable guide to everything you need to know
How do I demonstrate these skills to a future employer?
This aspect can be hard, but it's also essential when trying to land a job in the sector. Most interviews and hiring processes will evaluate your writing and communicating skills via short tests or presentations. It may be worth creating an online portfolio to help you get your foot in the door and provide yourself with practice. Write short articles on topics you find interesting and play around with different lengths, styles and audiences (specialists vs patients, promotional vs educational). Then edit and critique it carefully – would your intended audience find value in what you have written?
Find the right employer for you
There are many different companies out there vying for talented medical writers. With a little honing of your skills you should find yourself in demand. Once you find yourself in this position you should find out about life as a writer in those companies:
What is the internal structure of the writing team?
Do they offer ongoing training and development beyond ‘on the job’ learning?
What are the types of projects they take on?
What are the hours and demands like on the job? (Too much pressure kills any creativity)
Applying to the position
Tailor your CV and cover letter to both the role and the company. It is amazing how many CVs we receive that tell us about all of the grants they have received, how great they are at various laboratory techniques and all manner of irrelevant content. Lay out your writing skills and how you have acquired or demonstrated them. View both documents as you would with any other written piece – what does your audience want to know about you and what will convince them that you are the right person for the job?
Make the change!
Medical writing can be a very rewarding career path as you get to learn about a wide variety of therapeutic areas and work closely with creatives, project managers, design gurus and pharmaceutical clients.
Good luck making the transition and leave a comment if you have any questions or insights to add.