5 Ways PhDs Find Successful Careers As Medical Writers

Medical writer and contributing author Alejandra Viviescas, PhD, discusses her experience in science communications.

By the middle of my PhD, I knew I didn’t want to stay in academia.

I had spent years performing the same bench experiments, and the idea of continuing indefinitely as a postdoc depressed me.

Even if I landed a faculty position, I would spend my life dealing with politics and securing funding for my lab – neither of these thoughts excited me.

There had to be another path, one in which I could apply my passion for science and be happy at the same time.

It was around that time that I joined CSA.

After completing Cheeky’s customized transition plan, I knew that I wanted to pursue science communication.

I loved the communication aspect of my PhD.

I would gladly postpone an experiment to help a colleague write an abstract for a conference.

And I could easily spend all day sitting by my computer crafting a journal article.

Once I decided to pursue a career in science communication, I started learning more about this career, and that led me to medical writing.

Medical writing is an umbrella term that includes all types of communication of science and medical data.

This means that a career in medical writing can include not only writing, but also editing, translating, and even illustrating medical documents.

Why PhDs Are Well-Suited To Medical Writing Careers

medical writer at work

As a PhD, you already have the strong communication skills you need to succeed as a medical writer.

You just need to focus them on other audiences besides academics, like doctors, patients, regulatory bodies, and the general public.

Medical writing can be split up into 3 general categories:

  • Medical Communication (Med Comms): Generating content for medicine/healthcare and providing consultancy services for the pharma industry.
  • Regulatory: Preparing documents to present to the FDA and other regulatory bodies, such as clinical trials reports and new drug applications.
  • Education: Preparing documents related to drug and medical devices for different target audiences like the general public, patients, and professionals (like medical science liaisons).

No matter which category you choose, the research and study skills you developed during your PhD will be a great asset as you transition into medical writing.

A background in a STEM field not only provides you with a strong knowledge base for medical writing, it makes you an expert researcher.

Those with a background in social sciences can also harness their communication and learning skills to succeed as medical writers.

Strong research skills are an asset to any medical writer.

A big difference between academia and medical writing is that in the latter case,you won’t do any of the experiments.

Often, you will have to write about topics you know very little about.

Here, the researching skills you learned as a PhD will be essential.

Medical writers are constantly learning about a wide range of topics.

As a medical writer, you will acquire a very broad knowledge base within medical science.

You’ll be able to stay connected to science and research by talking to scientists about their work.

If you are a PhD and you like writing, a career in medical writing could be a great way for you to transition out of academia and into industry.

5 Ways PhDs Can Approach Medical Writing Jobs

PhDs are smart, and you can’t substitute intelligence.

In a medical writing career, you’re faced with synthesizing large volumes of data.

You will make decisions all day long about how you’re going to present information.

Thus, you almost always need to be on your best mental game, which makes for a satisfying career challenge.

But there’s more to medical writing than being smart.

Here are 5 things that PhDs wanting to transition into medical writing should know.

1. Medical writers can have a broad array of lifestyles.

Medical writing offers an array of work modalities that you won’t find in other industry positions.

You can work full time for a single employer, either in-house or remotely, or you can work for different clients as a freelancer.

People often think that a staff job is more secure, but this depends on your ability to get the job done.

If you want to get a staff job, you should reach out to recruiters.

You can easily find recruiters on LinkedIn since medical writing is a high-demand job.

A good medical writer is hard to find – especially one who is willing to work on-site rather than remotely.

Many companies want medical writers to come into an office, so if you’re willing to do that, you should easily find a well-compensated job by networking with recruiters.

If you want to be a freelancer, you should take a different approach.

Freelance medical writing is about generating a group of recurrent clients.

Many freelance writers have more offers than they can handle, and they enjoy the kind of flexibility that is rare in in-house positions.

But landing clients might take some time, and it can be a trial-and-error process.

As a PhD you’ve dealt with experimental failure, and you’ve suffered through this challenging process many times over.

Believe it or not, this is great preparation for freelance medical writing.

If you choose to go freelance, you should build a strong online presence, advertise yourself, and stay motivated…

Especially at the beginning while you land your first clients.

If you can survive the struggle of failing experiments during your PhD, this will be a breeze.

2. It is never too early to develop your communication skills.

book of technical medical info

Strong communication skills and a passion for transferring knowledge to different audiences are crucial if you want to become a medical writer.

Were you the person in the lab whom the professor sought out to look over their work?

Did you find it easy to craft a Slack deck for an oral presentation or come up with a conference abstract?

Did you proofread the texts of colleagues who were not native English speakers?

All of these are good signs.

You don’t need to love writing, but you need to be good at it and have a talent for communicating your ideas.

And if your goal is to be a medical writer right after you get your PhD, you should start developing your writing skills now.

Invest in learning more about the rules of writing by reading books like Elements of Style.

But writing alone isn’t enough – you should also invest time in learning about medical industry topics.

In medical writing, you will often write on things you don’t know much about.

Your PhD research taught you how to look things up in review articles, and this skill will come in very handy.

It also helps if you’re not intimidated by medical literature, and if you can get your head around new topics pretty quickly.

Courses on this content are offered to prospective—and current—medical writers, and these are a smart choice for PhDs who are serious about becoming medical writers.

If you have taken one of these courses, you can highlight it in your resume.

You can also contribute to a blog/website or create your own.

This will help you build a portfolio that you can show employers once you start applying for positions or pitching to potential clients.

Remember, your website is a place to send potential clients, so make sure it is professional and well-branded.

3. You can highlight the writing experience you gained during your PhD.

You have experience presenting your work at conferences, writing papers and grants, and most importantly, writing your thesis.

All of these are quantifiable results you can highlight in your Cheeky Scientist “Gold Standard” template.

A medical writer’s resume should focus on your previous experience as a writer.

Make sure that your writing course qualification stands out.

Once your medical writer resume is ready, you can reach out to recruiters.

There is a demand for good medical writers.

If you successfully demonstrate your writing skills, you will be a highly desirable choice for recruiters.

4. Focus on creating a strong network of medical writers.

Whether you want to be a staff writer or a freelance writer, networking will be a crucial part of your job search.

A good first networking step is to join a medical writers association.

The American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) and the European Medical Writers Association (EMWA) are two strong choices.

By joining these associations, you will have access to their member directory.

You don’t want to spam people, but you can certainly reach out to the other members with an email and introduce yourself.

In general, when emailing, always remember to add value before you ask for anything.

Another good step is to volunteer with the local chapter of the association of your choice.

Most big cities have an active chapter, and if you’re not near that chapter, you can also reach out to the people at the national head office.

Volunteering for a medical writers association will not only increase your network but serve as relevant experience on your resume.

The associations always need help with various initiatives they’ve got going on, so this is a great way to add value to the group.

A network of medical writers who know you and trust your skills can help you land your first clients as a freelancer.

Sharing job opportunities and clients is very common in the medical writing field.

If a client seeks a writer who cannot take on a project, they will probably recommend someone in their network for the job.

The hardest part of freelance medical writing is getting started.

But if you have a strong network, you might have a head start in the race to land your first clients.

The medical writing industry is pretty small, so word gets around…

This applies to both good news and bad news.

So always make sure you are doing your best work and adding value to others rather than promoting yourself.

5. Think ahead and plan for career changes.

A medical writer has the skills to move into management positions

Once you start working as a medical writer, you will have several career opportunities ahead of you.

It is not uncommon for in-house medical writers to become freelancers—and vice versa—to adapt to changes in their personal life.

Successful in-house medical writers can climb up the corporate ladder and reach management positions.

Persevering freelance medical writers can end up with more clients than they can handle alone.

When this happens, they start outsourcing their work and bringing on subcontractors.

If this happens to you, you will not only be a medical writer, but also a business owner.

As a company owner, you will have to build up your marketing skills.

This is basically the next level of networking where you have to sell your company and the work that you and your subcontractors can deliver.

As a company owner, you will also have to master your organizational skills.

You need to keep track of every deadline, every invoice, and every payment to make sure your company is successful.

You will also have to keep the finances and legal aspects on track, at least at the beginning.

Medical writers who become company owners need to keep really good records.

QuickBooks is a good resource to keep track of payments, as well as profit and loss.

You will also need to have a separate bank account for your business.

You don’t have to do this when you begin, but eventually, you will want to separate business and personal transactions.

Be it climbing the corporate ladder or opening your own business, as you progress in your medical writing career, you will have to keep improving your skills set and growing as a professional. Medical writers can have a broad array of lifestyles, so the role is suited to a diverse range of PhDs. But if medical writing is your chosen career path, it is never too early to develop your communication skills. As you apply for roles of this kind, you can highlight the writing experience you gained during your PhD. And it’s never too late to focus on creating a strong network of medical writers.

Think ahead and plan for career changes, and you may find that this career path represents the ideal industry work for you.

**Excited to begin your own career in medical writing? For more info, including hands-on writing & editing tests and access to a network of experienced medical writers, our Medical Writing Organization (MWO) is your best bet. MWO represents a comprehensive, PhD-tailored program that equips PhDs to stand out in the crowd and climb the medical writing career ladder. Unlike other programs, MWO is run by actual medical writers with experience in different fields, and it is focused exclusively on the unique transition struggles of PhDs. 

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Alejandra Viviescas, PhD
Alejandra Viviescas, PhD

Alejandra holds a PhD in genetics. After finishing her graduate studies, she followed her passion for closing the communication gap between scientific researchers and the general public. Currently, as vice-president of development at Cheeky Scientist, she produces content that helps PhDs find success outside academia.

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