Got My PhD! Now What? Medical Communications, the Intersection Between Science and Writing

By Anna Lau, PhD

In 2011, academic institutions in the US awarded a total of 49,010 Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degrees, including 28,149 PhDs in Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, and Engineering combined. Notably, the majority of PhDs in Life Sciences were awarded specifically in Biological/Biomedical Sciences (71%) [see footnote a], making this the most common field of study for doctoral students in the country!

The goals of the series are to raise awareness about nontraditional careers and serve as a starting point for  doctoral candidates wondering what career tracks might be possible

Traditionally, doctorates in Life Sciences do postdoctoral research after graduation before attaining a tenure-track faculty position. But that might not be the right path for everyone. And let’s face it, there aren’t enough faculty positions for every scientist out there, especially in Life Sciences. In 1991, 26% of doctorates in Life Sciences reported “no definite commitment for employment or postdoctoral study” after graduation. By 2011, that proportion had increased to 38% [see footnote b]! That’s a lot of biologists who are doing either nothing or something that is not academia.

Many of you may be pursuing your PhD in Life Sciences and having reservations about going into academia. What could you do instead? This is the first in a series of “Got My PhD! Now What?” blogs that will feature interviews with doctorates in Life Sciences who work outside of academic research—i.e., in “nontraditional” careers. The goals of the series are to raise awareness about these nontraditional careers and to serve as a starting point for current (and future!) doctoral candidates who may be wondering what other career tracks might be possible for those seeking an unbeaten path. Here’s my story…

“Which career path is the right one for me?” Photo credit: Nicholas Mutton

“Which career path is the right one for me?” Photo credit: Nicholas Mutton

By the time I took my qualifying exams in my third year of graduate school, I knew I would not be a professor. But back then, it was academia or bust. Any other career path, even one in industry (e.g., pharma or biotech), was considered a cop-out. About a year into my postdoc, I hit a wall and did some soul-searching. What did I enjoy about graduate school? Well, I really liked writing my thesis… What if I could write about science? Not science journalism but technical science writing—does that kind of work exist? Sort of, yes. I soon found out that there were folks who make their living by writing papers with doctors about diseases and drugs! And that’s where I found my place, in medical communications. That was 2004; today, I handle scientific communications for a molecular diagnostics company.

What is medical communications?

The American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) describes medical communications as “a general term for the development and production of materials that deal specifically with medicine or healthcare.” The vagueness of this description is an indication of the breadth of activities that fit under the umbrella of “med comm”—including materials for public or private use, for patients or physicians, for educational or commercial purposes, and everything in between.

Who hires medical writers?

People who work in med comm often refer to themselves as medical writers. Generally speaking, medical writers work in three capacities: (1) as part of a med comm agency (ie, a company of medical writers, program managers, and support staff); (2) as independent freelancers; or (3) as part of a pharma, biotech, or medical device company (ie, “industry”). These are not mutually exclusive categories; for example, a freelancer can work with either a med comm agency or in industry, and companies in industry might hire staff medical writers and a med comm agency, a freelancer, or both.

What do medical writers do?

Ask a group of medical writers what they do, and you’ll get a different answer from each one! I can describe the work I’ve done in med comm. I spent about 11 years as a medical writer in agencies hired by companies in industry. My work mainly involved collaborating with physicians, company Medical Officers, and statisticians to write research articles (often reporting data and findings from phase 1, phase 2, or phase 3 clinical studies) for publication in peer-reviewed medical journals. Under guidance from my collaborators and with support from my agency colleagues, I would perform literature searches, review literature, and draft the full manuscript, including the abstract, introduction (with references cited), methods, results, and discussion, and create tables and graphs/figures. This working model also applies to the development of abstracts for submission to medical conferences, and subsequently the posters or slide decks for presentation.

What educational background and/or skills does one need to pursue a career in med comm?

Nearly every medical writer I have worked with has a graduate degree in Life Sciences (PhD, PharmD, or MD), but having an advanced degree is not a requirement. In the 2011 AMWA Salary Survey, only 38% of respondents held an advanced degree [see footnote c]. In my case, I hold a BS in Bioengineering and a PhD in Biology.

Certainly, it is most important to have the ability to learn/understand scientific concepts and technical information and communicate that to the target audience(s) clearly and concisely. This is where my educational background in molecular biology and genetics comes in handy. For the type of medical writing I describe above, it is also important to have a basic understanding of biostatistics (here, my engineering background helps). Anyone considering a career in medical writing/med comm should be building a portfolio of writing samples (e.g., scientific publications, blogs, newspaper articles, and so on) that showcase the breadth and depth of one’s writing skills. She/He should also read a lot, particularly in the area of greatest interest—that is, read blogs if you want to blog, read clinical publications (eg, The New England Journal of Medicine) if you want to do medical writing, etc.

The most positive thing for me is that working in med comm supports a larger effort to improve outcomes for patients

What are some pros and cons of med comm?

The most positive thing for me is that working in med comm supports a larger effort to improve outcomes for patients (and everyone is, has been, or will be a patient, unfortunately). I also get to stay involved in science, without being at the bench and without the “publish or perish” pressure. It is becoming more common for medical writers to have full-time, salaried positions yet telecommute 100% (as I have done since 2009). On the down-side, med comm work is deadline-driven and sometimes requires long workdays. For freelancers, work is often unpredictable, which can pose financial challenges. And even though medical writers contribute substantially to the act of writing, we are not often considered to be authors of manuscripts, so our names appear only in the acknowledgements. (This is largely guided by authorship criteria of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors [ICMJE]). Some might find the “acknowledgements only” pill hard to swallow.

What are the prospects for getting work in med comm?

Although anecdotal, a quick search of “Medical Writer” jobs on one job search site returns “1000+” opportunities across the nation (compared with <300 full-time academic faculty positions in Life Sciences advertised here). Furthermore, salaries for medical writers remain relatively high over time, suggesting no lack of demand. According to the 2011 AMWA Salary Survey, median annual salaries in 2011 range from $80,000–$110,000 (depending on type of employer), representing a 3–25% average increase in salary from 2007. In my experience, skilled medical writers are in high demand, because the ability to translate complex, technical scientific or clinical data into comprehendible, purposeful communications is a valuable skill.

What if I want to do scientific communications, not med comm?

Jobs in purely scientific communications are out there! For example, there are instructors of written, oral, and visual communications in the sciences, editors at journals for basic science research, grant writers at large research institutes, writers who support publications of well-funded academic research labs, and scientists who handle communications for federal agencies. Those positions, however, tend to be fewer and farther in between than positions in med comm. For perspective, one journal may have a handful of editors on staff, but that journal might publish hundreds of articles in a given year, and all of those articles must be written by somebody.

Keep in mind that medicine is fundamentally a scientific pursuit, particularly as treatments rely more and more on molecular, genetic, and genomic biological information. Although I write about medicine, I rely on my molecular biology, genetics, and engineering background—not on a medical degree—to understand topics like disease pathophysiology (e.g., genetic diseases), mechanisms of drug action (e.g., small-molecule steric inhibitor of an enzyme), assays for disease detection or monitoring (e.g., PCR, DNA sequencing), and so on. Moreover, until a drug is used in humans, it’s generally considered “research & development,” in other words, basic science.

Photo credit: University of Exeter

Photo credit: University of Exeter Flikr

This sounds great! What do I do now?

Continue your reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic (i.e., brushing up on statistics). Consider earning a certificate or taking a course in medical writing (e.g., from AMWA, The University of Chicago, or Johns Hopkins University). Network with people who are writers; ask them about their career paths and for advice or guidance. Build up your portfolio of writing samples. Acquire new skills that relate to communications, such as presentation skills or graphic design. Most important of all, never lose your curiosity. Keep finding those scientific or medical stories that blow your mind—and keep sharing them!

Next in the series: An interview with Leslie Roldan, PhD, an instructor of communication skills in Life Sciences!

AnnaAnna loves everything science, medicine, and art. When she’s not at her day job as a medical writer, she can be found in her kitchen whipping up a sweet treat or outside trying to keep up with her critters. The perfect vacation for Anna would involve a state or national park, a museum, and yummy food.

Footnotes

  1. Life Sciences category includes subcategories of Biological/Biomedical Sciences, Health Sciences, and Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources.
  2. Includes respondents who indicated “other” [i.e., neither employment nor postdoctoral study] and respondents who indicated “do not plan to work or study” in 2011. Also includes 715 respondents for 2011 who indicated definite plans for “other full-time degree program.”
  3. Subject areas of advanced degrees not specified.