The Medical Writing Career Path
By Amy Chung, PhD
Amy Chung is a Senior Manager of Medical Writing and Communications at NeoStem, Inc. She earned her PhD in Pharmaceutical Sciences from the University of Wisconsin - Madison, and completed her postdoctoral training in the Department of Bioengineering at UCLA.
Medical Writing: The Perfect Niche for an Academic Scientist
For such a stimulating and rewarding career, medical writing is a surprisingly unknown field. And to be honest, with a dry title like “Medical Writing,” it’s easy to see why this career path is often glossed over. Before I knew much about the field, I thought medical writing would be a dry job where you sit at a desk in isolation and write all day. But my misperception soon stood corrected as I discovered the unique and inspiring field of medical writing.
I first learned about this profession when a medical writer from big pharma gave a lecture for our postdoc group. She explained that medical writers integrate a myriad of scientific knowledge into comprehensive communications for an extremely diverse audience, ranging from the general public, to physicians, and to regulatory agencies including the FDA.
The more she talked about medical writing, the more it sounded like something that I could be passionate about. It perfectly complimented my academic training. I was used to managing multiple research projects from start to finish, and very comfortable with accurately communicating my research findings through a variety of outlets: in peer-reviewed manuscripts, federal grant submissions, and international conferences.
How Did I Make the Jump from Postdoc Research to Medical Writing?
After solidly making the commitment to leave my academic career behind, I reviewed all of the pertinent skills and experiences I gained during my graduate and postdoctoral training. Then, I created a resume that was tailored to be competitive for medical writing positions. Some key points I made sure to highlight stemming from my experience were:
- Strong communication skills with presenting research findings at lab meetings, seminars, and conferences.
- Ability to successfully complete projects under aggressive timelines: producing research papers, grant proposals, and conference abstracts.
- Effective management abilities mentoring and training undergraduate students, graduate students, and lab technicians.
- Strategic planning experience managing high-level research projects with highly ordered vision. Note: You wouldn’t have completed your academic training without having this quality transfected into your genes, or drilled into your skull.
Remember, our academic training is much more than learning scientific concepts and lab techniques. We are trained with the very skillsets that industry is looking for - problem solving skills. I just had to translate my academic experience into “industry talk”! After I transformed, translated, and tailored my resume for medical writer positions, I reached out to my professional network and asked them specifically; “Do you know of any Medical Writer positions?”
Because I focused my energy on a very specific position, it didn’t take long for me to find it. I urge this “tailored approach” to job searches versus the “fishnet approach” of sending an untailored resume out there into the ether and hoping for any position out there. The key to success is being able to clearly convey your audience-specific message. You should have the ability to fluidly customize your message to each specific audience, a topic on which I will elaborate on in a follow-up article.
With a focused approach I (1) found and applied for a Scientific Communications job opening at a medical device company, (2) was invited for an interview within one-week of applying, and (3) was offered the position two-weeks after the interview!
Medical Writing is NOT Just About Writing
So started my official adventure as a medical writer. My new experience was pretty close to what the medical writer from the pharmaceutical company described - but way more exciting than what the medical writer from the pharmaceutical company described!
I have an extremely diverse project portfolio each day: on any given day I work on anything from abstracts, to marketing brochures, to regulatory submissions, to congress booth exhibits! All of these projects are inter-related, and all activities boil down to effectively communicating the science behind my company’s products. As a result, some titles that a medical writer can wear on any given day are:
- data analyst
- medical liaison
- clinical educator
- literature landscaper
- quality reviewer
- project manager
I’ve found that medical writing is an extremely interdisciplinary field that allows collaboration with clinicians, regulators, R&D, marketing, clinical education, biostatistics, data management, legal departments, public relations, pharmaco/health economics, and a wide-variety of other teams. It’s truly a unique field that embodies infinite learning potential.
The Path to Medical Writing
How can you prepare to make the jump from academic scientist to medical writer?
First, take a look at the openings in your desired location. Then, create a tailored resume that incorporates key terms from the language used in the open job posting. Remember, the hiring manager at the other end of this opportunity invested a lot of time and energy into conveying what they desire in an ideal candidate. Pay very close attention to what they’re looking for and take the extra time to customize your resume.
It is also essential for medical writer applicants to create a well-crafted and polished cover letter as this will be your first writing sample. Also, have your best and most recent publications ready upon request. Medical writing positions typically request a couple of your publications as professional writing samples.
What credentials do you need to make the jump from academic scientist to medical writer?
Seventy-two percent of all medical writers have a graduate degree. And over half of these graduate degrees are doctorate degrees. In addition to your graduate degree, you can build your resume and network simultaneously through writing courses offered at your local university. One example of this is the certificate course program on Medical Writing and Editing at the University of Chicago Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies. While less effective from a networking aspect, you can also take advantage of massive open online courses (MOOCs) like Stanford University’s “Writing in the Sciences” course which I would highly recommend to anyone that wants to improve their overall communication skills.
These courses can be a great transitional bridge from academia to industry. And these courses are also a great opportunity to network with the instructors (who are consistently recruited from industry) and the local professionals from nearby companies that are taking the course for their professional development.
Who is going to catch you after you jump?
It’s not just big pharma that’s looking for medical writers. Medical device companies, biotech startups, clinical research organizations, and healthcare systems are all looking for scientists who can effectively communicate high-level concepts to a diverse audience. I suggest joining a medical writing association like the American Association of Medical Writers (AMWA) or International Society for Medical Publication Professionals (ISMPP, pronounced “is-map”) to connect your scientific training to your proactive interest in being a medical writer.
AMWA is the most recognized organization among the medical writing community, and they offer a certification program in medical writing. At their annual conferences, you can network with nearly 1,000 writers, take their certified courses in medical writing, and participate in speed networking events. AMWA also has local chapters all over the country that host networking events in your area! The American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (ASPET) also has a great overview of career paths in medical writing that was presented at the Diversity & Mentoring Breakfast during the 2014 ASPET Annual Meeting.
What kind of salary can you expect as a medical writer?
Medical writers at the bachelor degree level can expect to earn an average salary of $84,000. Writers that hold an advanced degree, like a masters or PhD, can expect to earn an average salary of $91,000 or $103,000 respectively. For comparison sake, the national average salary for a full professor is approximately $104,000, and for a senior scientist in big pharma the average salary is approximately $110,000. It’s no wonder that medical writing was featured on CNNMoney.com as “an interesting 6-figure job”!
Why is medical writing the perfect niche for academic scientists?
A medical writer leverages their scientific expertise to advocate for the latest technologies and therapies. They advance these treatments through regulatory hurdles, and global marketing campaigns, so that the patients and societies that need these innovative technologies can benefit from the latest discoveries that our scientific community has to offer. Whatever your credentials may be, there will likely be a position out there for a medical writing career that specifically matches your unique scientific background. So be sure to have your transformed, translated, and tailored resume ready to distribute at your next medical writing organization meeting, and use your new network to jumpstart your new medical writing career!