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Career Spotlight: medical and scientific writing

Written by: Maryia Khomich

For scientists who enjoy reading, writing, and talking about science, but dislike working in a laboratory, a career in medical or scientific writing may be a great career option. Medical and scientific writers have a deep knowledge of scientific topics and enjoy writing about them. Most medical writers have a scientific or medical degree, a hawk-eye for details, and they thrive in a deadline-driven environment. Many are drawn to the field because they enjoy staying on the cusp of scientific discoveries while ultimately supporting the future of healthcare and research.

This is a diverse field and includes several types of writing:
• regulatory medical writing (e.g. producing clinical trial protocols, study reports, and other types of regulatory support for medical products)
• medical communications (e.g. creating educational materials, posters, scientific event support, and more)
• medical journalism (e.g. drafting news articles, blogs, or other popular science publications)
• promotional medical writing (e.g. writing website content, television advertising, marketing materials, patient information leaflets, and more).

Jackie L. Johnson shares her experience in the field and gives a few tips on how to transition from academia into medical writing.

Job title: Managing Director – Medical Communication
Company: JLJ Consultancy B.V., Amsterdam
Highest level of education (and study field): PhD in Cancer Biology, 3-year postdoc from The Netherlands Cancer Institute (NKI) with Rene Bernards in functional cancer genetics

What does a medical writer do?
It is variable and depends on the type of medical writing. I have done some regulatory writing projects, which support the process of taking a novel drug from the bench into the market. But the bulk of my work is in the med comms arena, which is something that most PhDs would be familiar with, e.g., drafting posters, abstracts, and manuscripts. I also frequently support the development of slide decks for trainings or scientific events.

Where can a medical writer work?
Medical writers often work in pharmaceutical companies, agencies or as freelance – although there are plenty of other avenues for sure. Other job options include medical education companies, newspapers (medical journalism) and different online outlets (such as remote medical writing positions for health websites or news outlies/ conference coverage websites). The opportunities are truly growing each year.

How did you make a career transition from scientist to medical writer?
For my transition, I aimed to flex my writing skills as much as I could, and to just put myself out there and meet people outside of academia. I did formal training with the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) to earn a certificate in medical writing. I also took the Stanford University “Writing in the sciences” Coursera course. I then attended workshops at the European Medical Writers Association (EMWA) live events. To start writing more, I started getting some early projects by editing English text from the communications department at the NKI. I also edited manuscripts for non-native English speakers through a global scientific communications company as a freelancer. Not really science related, but still relevant, I wrote over 50 blog posts on various topics—including food and expat lifestyle. After about 3 years of doing bits and pieces of writing or editing activities, I decided to hang up the lab coat for good and took on writing activities full time as a freelancer. I’ve been enjoying this path now for 6+ years.

What transferrable skills have you acquired prior to becoming a medical writer?
Client management, project management, and being a team player are all great skills to develop, and they can really benefit you in any job. Many academics work independently, so it’s wise to go after any opportunity to interact with other colleagues. There is a misconception that medical writers are toiling away alone by candlelight, but this is far from the truth. Every day I need to send very diplomatic emails, host meetings, and meet key deadlines all while working in a cross-functional team. These skills can be learned on the job (and usually are) but it doesn’t hurt to already start during your scientific trainings.

Are all medical writers native English speakers?
It is true that a lot of native English speakers are medical writers, and most projects are in English; however, there are also projects in other languages. In general, writing in English is a skill that can be taught and learned…so even non-native English speakers can be excellent (English language) writers.

What is the best part of your job?
The best part of my job is the diversity of the work. Unlike in academia, where I focused on one specific area for 10+ years, as a writer I have been asked to write about nearly every major medical field including cardiology, neuroscience, dermatology, immunology, and cancer. I probably wouldn’t have taken the time to learn about all these topics so deeply on my own, so I am lucky to have this as an opportunity to learn more about fascinating topics and deepen my scientific knowledge. If you are somebody who likes to study and to learn new things, a career in medical writing is very fulfilling.

What motivates you as a writer?
My biggest motivator is knowing that my writing impacts patients, scientists, caregivers, and other medical stakeholders directly or indirectly. There is a real sense of contributing to the world when you work in a fast-paced, deadline-driven environment.

What was the most challenging project you’ve worked on?
The most challenging project I did was a scientific ‘road show’, which was basically 6 scientific standalone meetings in 6 days. A scientific standalone meeting is similar to symposia at a medical congress, but it is not associated with a congress, hence the term ‘standalone’. Each standalone meeting in the road show was a live event that took place in a major city in the UK: 6 different cities in 6 days. As the writer, I had to produce and coordinate all the speakers' slides, and there were 3 different speakers at each event—so 18 different slide decks. For each of those speakers, I had to tidy up the text, put their slides into the slide template, and then coordinate the MLR (medical, legal, regulatory) review process. It was a huge undertaking for one writer, but thankfully I could lean on a few colleagues to help when I felt too swamped.

Is it possible to develop a passion for writing?
I don’t think you really develop a passion for writing—either you know you enjoy the process or you don’t. If you don’t like to write, then there are tons of other roles for you. But if you enjoy writing, but also find it difficult at times, I do think it becomes easier the more you write.
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