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Forget About Being A Medical Writer If You Have A PhD But Lack These Skills

Contributing Author: Evguenia Alechine, PhD

Who was I kidding?

I didn’t want a bench job, and my research seemed pointless anyway – I wanted out of academia, so I transitioned to my first job in industry: another bench position.

This was not exactly a step up.

I remember how stagnant my career felt back then, like I was flooring the gas pedal and spinning my wheels in the mud.

After that first industry position ended, it took me 6 months of investigation and research to fully realize my passion for science communications.

Sometimes, life surprises you that way – you realize you’ve stumbled upon what you love.

I quickly found industry work as a freelance science editor and slowly transitioned into writing, training, & consultancy roles.

In short, I had finally discovered my own exciting career in medical writing.

Now, I train other PhDs in science communications, acting as a mentor for those looking to break into this amazing field.

Do PhDs and Medical Writing Mix?

A career as a medical writer covers a wide range of subjects

In a word, yes!

Some PhDs haven’t heard about–or even considered–the medical writing career path.

But in spite of our different backgrounds, a lot of PhDs can become qualified to dive into medical writer roles.

Medical writers, sometimes known as medical communicators, commonly create the following:

  • Regulatory applications
  • Documentation for institutional review boards
  • Marketing materials for medical products
  • Clinical trial-related documents
  • Other official paperwork vital to the medical sector.

As the job title indicates, written communication skills are very important for this position.

Medical writing is essentially an umbrella term that covers everything from writing about medicine to editing, translating, and project management.

And industry needs professionals to fill this role – the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that by 2026, specialized writing roles of this kind are expected to grow 11% from 2016.

Know These 3 Things Before You Get Into Medical Writing

When it comes to a highly technical career like this one, it’s natural to find yourself at a loss – where do you start?

There’s a “silver lining” here.

One of the positive elements of medical writing is that it can be as diverse as the myriad topics in medical science.

So as you work toward a career as a medical writer, the specific nature of your learning process will vary with the direction you take.

Even so, there are 3 broad items to think about before you decide whether medical writing is for you.

We’re going to cover medical writer backgrounds, the value of medical writing organizations, and the professional virtues of being a skilled writer (and not merely a medical science authority).

1. Medical writers need a solid background in the life sciences.

You as a PhD already have basic skills to be a medical writer

The first key to becoming a medical writer isn’t very surprising – you have to know medical science at a professional level.

On the plus side, you don’t need specific academic qualifications to pursue medical writing.

However, employers do prefer candidates with an advanced degree in a relevant field.

“Relevant” is a pretty broad range though – we’re talking biology, pharmacology, biomechanics, etc.

Whatever your educational background, you’ll need a strong foundation in something related to medical science.

Of course, the kind of technical knowledge required of a medical writer will vary with the nature of the content.

If the focal point of your job is to communicate medical regulations, then you’ll have to maintain a solid grasp on regulatory process and related documentation.

On the other hand, if you’re mainly writing on the topic of clinical trials, you’ll need to know the trial process inside and out.

You’ll also need to stay current on any fundamental changes to standardized clinical processes.

So while an advanced degree in life sciences is ideal, it’s definitely not out of the question for PhDs in other subjects to get a job in medical writing.

In fact, you don’t have to jump out of academia and straight into medical writing.

You can first build up your credentials by taking a job in a related industry field.

It’s not unheard of for medical writers to kick off their careers by first working as scientific researchers, regulatory affairs associates, clinical trials professionals, or other roles in the life science industry.

2. Professional associations grant aspiring medical writers a huge boost in qualifications.

While working toward a job in medical writing, you can greatly improve your chances by taking writing courses for medical writers (and aspiring medical writers).

These are valuable opportunities that provide certifications and training tailored to the medical writing role.

Professional organizations like the American Medical Writers Association, European Medical Writers Association, and the Drug Information Association offer certifications for medical writing that can really help you learn the craft.

But aside from the certifications, another major advantage offered by these organizations is the opportunity to build a network in the medical field.

Additionally, they’ll help you get to know about a given medical sector’s current trends and career opportunities.

Even naturally good writers can benefit dramatically from deep technical knowledge and familiarity with a lot of the terms used in various medical fields.

It’s very common for science PhDs to start off as freelance writers to gain experience and establish credibility, and medical writing associations are a tremendous resource during that process.

3. Excellent writing will be just as important as science knowledge.

Medical writing requires communication skills to handle dense medical information

Lots of PhDs have a handle on writing manuscripts and dissertations.

Unfortunately, these styles of writing are not really comparable to what you’ll be doing as a medical writer.

The main reason for this is that academic science writing is chock-full of jargon.

It’s meant for a very narrow range of readers whom it expects to understand complex topics at a high level.

A medical writer, on the other hand, will often be expected to communicate dense medical information in a way that offers clarity to much wider audiences.

In recent years, the medical sector has seen substantial growth, and regulatory guidelines have become more stringent.

More than ever, pharmaceutical companies are pressured to share information with the public.

These trends have produced a rising demand for medical writers with the unique combination of scientific knowledge and writing communication skills.

That’s where medical writers enter the picture.

For medical writers, audience targets may include professionals like clinical regulators, investors, or physicians.

Sometimes, medical writers will even target the general public with their communications.

In some ways, this presents a challenge greater than that of technical academic writing – after all, an average writer can communicate complex ideas in a complex way.

However, it takes a great writer to communicate complexity with accessible, engaging writing.

This is a major goal among medical writers – if readers can grasp the writing, the medical writer has been successful.

So even though they don’t have to be medical science experts, medical writers need a solid background in the life sciences. And science PhDs can support their credentials with other resources too – professional associations grant aspiring medical writers a huge boost in qualifications. Yet technical expertise alone can’t make you competitive. If you’re serious about this profession, excellent writing will be just as important as science knowledge. Medical writers are renaissance professionals wielding the powers of science and art combined.


**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. 

Evguenia Alechine
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