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Tooling Up: The Medical Writing and Corporate Intelligence Career Tracks

Someone recently asked me how I choose the careers highlighted in my regular Career Tracks columns for Tooling Up. Usually I watch the discussions on the Science Careers Forum (for which I serve as moderator) and see what career paths the participants are interested in. I choose what seem to be the most popular career tracks for further exploration.

This month's Career Track column combines one of the most-asked-about careers on the forum -- medical writing -- with one of the least-known career tracks for scientists: corporate-intelligence sleuth. The combination comes in the career path of Jim Gardner, one of our regular posters on the forum, who has been providing advice there on careers in medical writing for at least a decade. He worked for 6 years as a medical writer with two pharmaceutical companies before moving into a new category of job: Jim is currently the senior manager for global business intelligence at a major pharmaceutical company.

Medical writing is a good starting place in industry, because, besides the fact that it's a solid, integral career track by itself, it can also be a gateway into other positions within pharma and biotech.

A career away from the bench

In 1996, Jim had just graduated with his Ph.D. in neuroscience from Princeton University, where he studied sleep physiology. But in the months before graduation, he developed terrible allergies to the animals he had been using in his studies, which forced an abrupt shift in his career path. Suddenly those prestigious labs he had been speaking to about postdocs weren't as attractive as they had been.

Jim's options were to work at the bench in physiology studies, or to start an M.D., which would allow him to work with humans. The bench work didn't appeal to him as he felt burned out with basic research, and starting an M.D. wasn't in the cards; he and his wife had two young children by the time he was leaving graduate school. He needed to make money, not spend it on tuition and fees.

Jim attended one of my science-career workshops the year he graduated, and from there he began talking to industry employers, even though everyone in the lab told him, "You've got to do a postdoc." He applied to a temporary staffing firm, indicating his interest in medical writing, and the firm immediately put him in touch with Wyeth (now part of Pfizer), which was developing a new type of sleep drug.

"They were hungry for people who knew the field and who could write," Jim says. "They were so short of medical writers at the time that they didn't let me leave the building on my interview day. I signed up on the spot." One lesson he learned in this process was that it pays to know the field you'll be writing about. "That's one of the keys to looking for a medical writing job. You go where you have experience," he says. So it pays to do the research on what companies have in the pipeline.

The number of medical writers a firm employs can vary dramatically. In a small to midsize biotech company, there may be two or three people whose job is exclusively to write. But in a larger company, employers need dedicated staff members for every molecule in clinical development and for marketed products, where they're needed to keep current the technical literature doctors need to prescribe those products.

Moving up the ladder

Jim had been at Wyeth just 5 months when a recruiter called, seeking to introduce him to the large company where he still works today. His job in the new firm was also as a medical writer, and he absolutely loved the work, especially its variety.

"I was assigned writing projects for many different departments, although much of it came in the form of regulatory documentation," Jim says. "But, even there, the work can be quite varied. For example, there is no end to the number of clinical-study reports that cross the desk of the medical writer. Also, another interesting type of project is what are called Investigator's Brochures, which are basically extensive reports detailing all the research on a prospective drug to date. These are provided to the doctors who elect to work on clinical trials that advance these drugs through the regulatory pipeline." These brochures must be updated regularly as data come in from new studies, keeping medical writers busy.

Because I know that a regulatory submission for a new drug can literally fill up a moving van with files, I knew Jim wasn't kidding when he said that there was no shortage of work. But I also sensed that this fellow, a competent and able manager, wouldn't have been happy sitting in a corner somewhere pecking away at his keyboard. But that's not what he was doing.

"A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that medical writing is a job for a loner. In reality, it's a leadership position in a company, one that requires a great deal of people skills," says Jim. "You're responsible for getting a critical document out the door, one that requires input from a variety of people, whether [it's from] physicians, biostatisticians, or even programmers. It's all project management, and [project management is] one of the greatest things you learn in the job."

During the first 5 years of his career as a medical writer, Jim worked on many projects that didn't move forward, including a COX-2 inhibitor that the firm chose not to advance to the market. His big break came when he got to work on a new-product application for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. One of his employer's big biotech investments had paid off, and the product was going to market. Jim was the head writer who took it through the regulatory-approval process.

The corporate sleuth

By early 2002, Jim had written every kind of document a medical writer could be asked to write. He was itching to broaden his writing and research skills into some other area. It was then that he spotted an internal posting for a position called "corporate intelligence."

All major companies have a department like this, a small squad of writers and researchers with scientific backgrounds -- they must also be capable of writing and speaking well -- who are tasked with making educated guesses about what's in the pipeline at competing companies.

Jim considered himself a big reader, and he had always kept up with his field in journals and business magazines. The job requires keeping tabs on the company's competition by reading everything about their current and future product development: journal articles, business-magazine reports, and regulatory filings -- while also maintaining a very busy travel schedule. "I go to conferences and listen to all the key people in our fields of interest, just to hear what they are saying about who's doing what and about what the next steps are likely to be." The job was a perfect fit. He was very happy when he was given the internal transfer.

Jim and his colleagues produce reports, which they present to management, showing exactly where their own company's development efforts stand and drawing comparisons to where competitors likely are. Jim and his colleagues are the "eyes and ears" of his employer in the outside world, in a tough, competitive market. "I consider my work to be the early warning system for our corporation," Jim says.

Corporate intelligence staff members also work closely with the business development and scientific licensing departments, helping these teams understand what kinds of molecules or technology they should be looking for each year. The pharmaceutical industry now favors getting their new product leads from either academia or smaller companies, and Jim says that the intelligence staff members rate these before they are acquired. They even give them a score so that all the players know how important each is to their employer.

Paving a career path

Corporate intelligence is not a career track you can enter easily from the outside world. Because of the small number of staff members employed in this category in each company -- a big company might have a dozen people -- and because of the specialized knowledge required for the job, these positions generally go to people who already work for the company.

That's why medical writing is a good starting place in the industry, because, besides the fact that it's a solid, integral career track by itself, it can also be a gateway into corporate intelligence -- or business development, or licensing. Once you've got a foot in the door, you may find that a wide variety of internal transfer opportunities available to you.

Photo (top): Casey Fleser

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