Careers in Medical Writing: Leaving the Bench Without Leaving Science--The Start of a Rewarding Career as a Medical Writer


"So, I heard you left science," the person on the other end of the phone says with a concerned tone in his voice. "No," I reply. "I didn't leave science. I left the research bench."

This scenario has become all too familiar to me, because 4 months ago, I took the plunge and left my postdoctoral position to pursue my interest in medical writing. Like many of my former colleagues, I had positioned myself on a track to go into academia or industry as a research scientist. However, after several years as a postdoctoral fellow--first at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and then later at Northwestern University--I realized that I was pursuing a career track that I no longer wanted to follow. But, what else did I want to do? What else was I trained for?

Interests and Opportunities Beyond the Bench

I started to attend "alternative career" seminars and to formulate a picture of my ideal career. I knew that I wanted to stay in a scientific profession, but I wanted it to be something that encompassed only the most rewarding aspects of my postdoctoral position. As I tried to identify my needs and desires, I thought about how I ended up on the research track to begin with; and I recalled that I initially became a pharmacologist because I was fascinated by the complexity of the human body, I was intrigued by the design and use of drugs to alter our physiologic state, and I wanted to keep myself informed about current trends in disease management.

Although this assessment indicated that my core interests had not changed, somewhere along the line my enthusiasm for bench research had been dampened by the reality of day-to-day research work. Over time, I recognized that I was happier when I was writing or reading about scientific developments than when I was conducting experiments at the bench.

But, would I enjoy writing every day for the rest of my life? What kind of writing could I do for a career? Would anyone hire me as a writer without formal training? These are some of the questions I had to address once I accepted the notion that I did not want to continue doing research.

The Writing Career That Is Best for You

I turned to the Web for answers, and I soon identified several types of writing careers. Technical writing of product-related information seemed too dry for me. Regulatory writing required knowledge of government guidelines and involved writing large, detailed documents, and although it might utilize my pharmacology background quite nicely, it did not look like it would generate the kind of excitement I was looking for. Scientific journalism, on the other hand, sounded plenty exciting, but never having taken a journalism class, I was not sure if this was right for me. Medical writing, though, seemed to be just the outlet I was looking for.

The field of medical writing is very diverse and can include writing journal articles, textbook chapters, research or meeting monographs, educational materials for health care professionals or patients, and promotional pieces for pharmaceutical companies. Medical writing offers a creative opportunity that varies in both content and style. I was, therefore, pleasantly surprised to learn that numerous medical communication companies throughout the United States need writers with scientific expertise.

Although freelancing is always a possibility, I decided to accept a position in a pharmaceutical advertising company that also conducts market research and has a strong education division. I had a long-term secondary interest in acquiring business and marketing skills to complement my scientific background, so this seemed like the perfect fit for me.

Taking the Plunge

As my start date approached, though, knots grew in my stomach, and I wondered whether I had made the right choice. Fortunately, my fears were quickly allayed as I found that my graduate school training had prepared me equally well for success on this new career track. With the exception of specific technical skills, I applied the same skill set that I used as a researcher in my position as a writer. The abilities to collaborate, communicate clearly, manage projects, adhere to deadlines, and solve problems creatively are of value to any employer. In addition, I was glad that my graduate adviser had taught me how to promote and "market" my own research projects, because these skills came in handy for the writing position as well.

Rewards of Medical Writing

Since I began my new career, I have been inundated with questions from students and postdocs about my move to the business world. I tell my colleagues that some of the things I enjoy about being a medical writer include the finite and tangible nature of the work; the variety of creative projects I get to pursue; the unique blend of multiple disciplines including creative writing, art, science, marketing, and law; and the ability to stay current with developments in pharmaceutical sciences. I also enjoy participating in promotional activities and co-directing an educational program for my co-workers that allows me to continue another aspect of my research career that I particularly enjoyed--teaching.

Points to Consider

I tell my colleagues that if they are considering a career as a medical writer, they should keep in mind that companies vary in size and specialty and that each has a different character or atmosphere that requires investigation. Some can be competitive pressure cookers (out of the frying pan and into the fire), and others aim for a more team- and goal-oriented approach. Lastly, I tell them that as they move into the business world, they will have to make some adjustments that may include working in a cubicle, having strictly defined working hours, being supervised regularly, and working in an environment that isn't primarily composed of scientists.

The Grass Just May Be Greener

So, if you too are considering a move beyond the research bench, you may have to get used to your former colleagues calling to ask why you "dropped out of science." But, if you have the courage to take on the challenge and veer off that well-worn academic track, then, like me, you may be rewarded with a fulfilling career, a job that you enjoy going to every day, and a world of opportunity at your doorstep.

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