Based on the Industry Careers for PhDs Podcast with Emma Hitt Nichols, Ph.D.
Right in the middle of my PhD, I knew that I had been working too hard, for too long, to do a postdoc.
I did not want to work 80 hours a week and earn a low salary.
So, I started thinking about the other skills I had that would combine well with science.
I had been told back in college that I had talent as a writer, and I didn’t think much of it at the time.
That compliment came back to me, and I thought, “Well, maybe I can combine science and writing.”
I started searching online, and I found the National Association of Science Writers.
I made the decision right then, that I was going to become a science writer, and then it morphed into medical writing, which is a subgroup of science writing.
I started editing people’s dissertations, taking on any freelance work I could, and then I also got a master’s in technical writing.
But, it was not always smooth sailing.
I faced quite significant opposition by my dissertation committee, about my decision to go into medical writing.
So, if you are in that situation, where people are telling you, “What are you doing, throwing away a perfectly good career in science?” — ignore them.
If medical writing is something that you’re drawn to, then just believe in yourself and believe in the process, because life is too short to be in academia, if you don’t want to be.
The thing I like most about medical writing, is that it’s non-emotional and there’s a lot of integrity in the industry.
You’re dealing with scientists who are very professional about their work.
My husband is a divorce lawyer, and he deals with emotional stuff, and I don’t have to deal with any of that.
Plus, my first year out of graduate school, I made $90,000 as a medical writer and I haven’t looked back.
Why Medical Writing Is A Great Career Option For STEM PhDs
Medical writing is basically any type of written communication involving medicine.
It can be split up into three general categories.
The first is writing for clinicians and doctors, including writing continuing medical education documents and journal manuscripts.
The second is regulatory writing, which includes all documentation for the FDA, such as new drug applications and prescribing information.
The third category is writing for a consumer audience, which includes writing for feature magazines, newspapers, and online portals.
A background in a STEM field, especially a science field, is well-suited to each of these categories of medical writing.
Not only does your STEM PhD provide you with a strong knowledge base for medical writing, it makes you an expert researcher.
The ability to research well is one of the most important skills a medical writer can have.
As a medical writer, you will often have to write about topics that you know very little about, and the researching skills you learned as a PhD are essential.
Medical writers are constantly learning about a wide range of topics, and you will end up knowing a lot about health, which is useful to the people in your life.
Medical writing is different from a PhD study, where you are just looking at the function of a single protein or something very narrow In medical writing, you acquire a very broad knowledge base.
You’re able to stay connected to science and research by getting to talk to scientists about their work.
Plus, medical writing allows you the opportunity to work from home on your own schedule, or to travel while you work.
More and more people are shifting to a remote working situation, 43% of people report working remotely at least some of the time, and medical writing supports this shift perfectly, as reported by The New York Times.
So, it’s an ideal profession for people with kids or someone who wants job flexibility.
And, of course, the pay is very good.
According to Payscale, medical writers earn an average of $72,000, but earning upwards of $100,000 is not uncommon.
If you are a STEM 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 Tips To Be Successful In Medical Writing
PhDs are smart, and you can’t substitute intelligence.
With medical writing, you’re faced with synthesizing large volumes of data and making decisions all day long about how you’re going to present information.
So, you need to be pretty sharp.
But, there’s more to succeeding in medical writing than being smart.
Here are 5 tips to help you find success as a medical writer…
1. Decide between freelance and a staff position.
With a career in medical writing, one of the first things you have to decide is if you want to do freelance medical writing, or if you want to get a staff job.
People often think that a staff job is going to be more secure, but the only job security you have is how good you are at your job.
If you want to get a staff job, you should reach out to recruiters in the industry.
You can easily find recruiters on LinkedIn, since medical writing is a job that’s in demand.
A good medical writer is hard to find, especially one that’s willing to work on-site somewhere, rather than remotely.
Many companies want medical writers to come into an office, so if you’re willing to do that and you’re reasonably good at writing, then that job will be open to you.
If you want to do freelance medical writing, the method is a bit different.
During your PhD, you’ve done experiments, and you’ve dealt with your experiments failing, and you’ve suffered through.
If you’ve done that, that is the best training for freelance medical writing.
In freelance medical writing, you’ve just got to put yourself out there, keep going, and stay motivated.
If you can survive the struggle of failing experiments during your PhD, this will be a breeze.
2. Continue developing your aptitude for writing.
In medical writing, it helps if you have an aptitude for writing.
It helps if you are the person in the lab that the professor seeks out to look over their work, or people have told you, “Wow, I really like your writing. It’s really good.”
That’s a good sign. It’s not absolutely necessary, but you do need to have an aptitude.
You don’t have to love writing, though — you just need to be good at it.
If your goal is to be a freelancer right after you get your PhD, you should start trying to get clients and developing your writing skills now.
Invest in learning more about the rules of writing, by reading books like Elements of Style, that you can find at a local bookstore.
You should also learn about the specifics of medical writing. One resource is the book, Freelance Medical Writing, which is available on Amazon.
You might also look into taking a course to learn about the specifics of medical writing.
If you have taken a course like this, you can highlight it in your resume.
Set up a website.
Your website can be a place to send potential clients, so make sure it is professional and well-branded.
You can also use the website as a way to practice your writing skills.
In medical writing, you will often write about things that you don’t know that much about.
Your PhD research taught you how to look things up in review articles, and this skill is very important for medical writing.
It also helps if you’re not intimidated by medical literature, and if you can get your head around new topics pretty quickly.
Your website can be a great place to practice venturing out of your research comfort zone, and write about topics that you don’t know much about.
3. Know how to reach out to recruiters.
When looking to get a staff medical writing job, you will need to create a medical writer resume.
Your resume should be about one or two pages — it is very different from an academic CV.
It should focus on the writing that you have previously done.
Make your writing a highlight, and make an effort to relate your writing to medical writing.
If you’ve taken a writing course, highlight that course on your resume.
Make sure that your writing course qualification stands out.
Then, with your medical writer resume ready, you can reach out to recruiters.
When you do reach out, make sure that you are approaching recruiters the right way.
You can find recruiters for medical writer positions on LinkedIn.
Another resource to find jobs and recruiters is The Hitt List, which is an email list containing medical writing jobs, many of which are staff medical writing jobs.
The email goes out every Tuesday, and it’s free.
It’s a good way to see what jobs are available, who the recruiters are for those positions, and then contact them.
There is a demand for good medical writers. If you successfully demonstrate your writing skills, you will be desirable to recruiters.
4. Add value and network to get clients.
Whether you are a staff writer or a freelance writer, networking will be a part of your job search and then become necessary to maintain success in your role.
However, good networking is paramount for success as a freelance medical writer.
A good first step is to join a medical writers association.
Two very large and active associations are the American Medical Writers Association, and the European Medical Writers Association.
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.
There is a right way to email people, so that you are not spamming them.
Always add value before you ask for something.
You can look to the book, Freelance Medical Writing, for an example of a good email to send.
Another thing to do is to join the relevant medical writers association at the local level.
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.
They’re always needing help with various initiatives they’ve got going on, so this is a great way to add value to the group.
The hardest part of freelance medical writing is getting started.
It’s like pushing a boulder uphill.
But, if you do good work, are responsive to your clients, and you’re friendly and easy to work with, you are going to be overloaded with work pretty quickly.
The medical writing industry is pretty small, so word gets around, and unfortunately it gets around for the good and the bad.
Always make sure you are doing your best work and adding value to others, rather than promoting yourself.
Think about how you can add value to your clients or on your website.
Can you provide an industry update? What is it that you can do that will attract people to your website?
This will bring clients to you, rather than you having to run after clients.
5. Be forward-thinking.
Before you know it, you will have a lot more clients than you can handle individually.
You will likely start out as a one-person shop and eventually bring on subcontractors, which will change the nature of your job.
You might start with an Excel spreadsheet, with columns and rows, for each of your clients and projects.
You will always be in the process of sending out an invoice, receiving an invoice, or receiving a check.
So, you have to keep really good records.
You can’t go to your client and act like they haven’t paid you when you’ve received payment, so keeping excellent records is essential.
A good resource to keep track of payments, as well as profit and loss, is QuickBooks Online.
You will also need to have a separate bank account for your business.
You don’t have to do this when you first start, but eventually, you will want to separate business and personal transactions.
As your business grows, you need to have the right processes in place to keep everything flowing smoothly.
As a STEM PhD, you are not limited to a career in academia. If medical writing is something you are interested in, go out and do it. Your STEM PhD experience has set you up with the skills to become a medical writer. The tips laid out here will help you succeed in medical writing. Decide if you want to do freelance or staff medical writing, develop your aptitude for writing, know how to reach out to recruiters, add value to get and keep clients, and be forward-thinking so you are prepared for the next phase of your medical writing career. You have what it takes to leave academia, and if medical writing is the career for you, these tips will help you find success.
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