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The Medical Writing Career Path

Posted on 12/15/2015 9:07:15 AM

Amy Chung 150x200By 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:

  1. Strong communication skills with presenting research findings at lab meetings, seminars, and conferences.
  2. Ability to successfully complete projects under aggressive timelines: producing research papers, grant proposals, and conference abstracts.
  3. Effective management abilities mentoring and training undergraduate students, graduate students, and lab technicians.
  4. 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
  • editor
  • 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!

Sources/Additional Information




Comments (11)

The job description, challenge, and benefits of a medical writer were well-written. One can becomes a medical journalist, as I did, attend and report on advances in medicine in print or on the web and continue as a biomedical scientist. by Eugene Conrad on 05/09/2015

Thank you so much for a well written much needed article. You are describing my exact situation , academic researcher thinking of changing careers to medical writing. This was most helpful ! Thanks again ! by Nehal on 12/13/2015

ya, article is very interesting and encouraging. i went through it and felt very happy to be a part of the profession. Thank you very much for sharing the same. by Rabi narayan on 03/03/2016

Thank you for everyone's comments! Medical writing is a fun field indeed, with a great lifestyle and a ton of science and data! by Amy on 05/19/2016

Your article is very enlightening, and very educative. I have sort for an article like this in many places and for a very long period of time. I will put most of what I learned here into practice. by Dr. Benjamin Offoha on 05/24/2016

This is a very stimulating introduction about medical writing. I always feel that I should do something extra about pure scientific experiment. That is way I often volunteer my time to translate, edit or review some scientific literature, manuscripts, abstract. This article makes me think medical writing might be a profession that I could consider next. Thanks a lot. by Grace on 07/06/2016

Hello , I have a question being that I have an interest in becoming a medical writer in the future I have read about after people receive a Bachelor's degree instead of going on to receive a Masters degree they went on to receive an certificate like University of Chicago of there is one from I think University of San Diego and also Jame Lind Institute online to save money and not have a lot of student debt. I am wanting to inquire about jobs as far as do they require a Masters degree or would receiving a certificate from a University work just as well . Will having the Bachelor's degree with a certificate help or will it hinder your chance at receiving the type of job you have a specific interest in? I would also like to inquire since I have been looking into colleges particularly online which is the best degree path ? I do know writing and communications and science are very important so do you taylor your degree and take the necessary classes or is there particular types of degrees that help you stand out and show job recruiters you are very interested in and invested in becoming a medical writer ? I would greatly appreciate if I could get emails with more information because I really would like to go about this the right way and not get into student debt and have taken courses and or received a degree that's absolutely useless when trying to get into the medical writing industry and also any information on how to break into the freelance writing and how greatly does it differ from going to work in a physical location versus a remote work from home freelance writer . Thank you soo much in advance for any additional information and guidance you can give me .My email is flomommeshe@hotmail.com by Meshe Flores on 07/24/2016

How does a technical writer make the jump into medical writing without any medical degree or background. by rashider on 08/04/2016

What is anyone's input on someone who is a generic technical writer interested in medical writing, but doesn't have any background in science or medicine? by KJ on 10/12/2016

I am on the journey of making the career leap I to medical writing. I have been an English teacher does 9 years and have a masters. I decided to begin my journey by taking classes at the local communtil college within the continuing education department. I started with Medical Terminology and a course in Medical writing. I will also be taking a Medical Tech class. While looking around the job market, I noticed that these were the basic skills that were being asked for at an entry level job. by Emily on 11/19/2016

Hello, I am a rheumatologist, I am highly interested to becoming a medical writer. Can you give some opportunity where I can write and show my skills by JA on 05/24/2017

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