Career options: medical writing

One of the most visited blog posts here is the ‘Downloadable Medical Writing Guide’, so it came as no surprise that there were plenty of interested researchers at last week’s Careers Spotlight talk from Dr Julia Coleman of Synergy Medical.

How did Julia get into Medical Writing?

After 11 years working at KCL Breast Cancer Unit, Julia decided it was time for a change.  Talking to her supervisor inspired her to look at medical writing; she followed that up with a conversation with Terry Jones in his past capacity as Grad School careers consultant.  She joined LinkedIn and initiated conversational threads about getting work experience (which did result in getting work experience!) and spent a lot of time researching the sector online, getting to know who she needed to know, including KCL alumni.  Persistence and grit paid off, and around seven months after her first application, she got a job.

She says of making a career decision that sometimes there comes a point when you just have to choose one career and go for it.

What does a medical writer do?

It will depend on the kind of agency you work for.  Writing up clinical trials, opinion pieces, congress materials, patient leaflets, GP information.  Posters for conferences, abstracts or articles.    One definition is ‘communicating a high quality clinical and scientific data and information to a range of audiences and formats’.  You have to work within scientific protocols and regulations.  Often deadlines might seem a bit falsely early but they are set like that because the clients need time to check the detailed information.

There are basically three different roles in the sorts of agencies Julia works for: firstly where you sit and write (and you could specialise in the kind of writing you do, eg just doing regulatory writing); secondly where you might edit; and finally where you get to project manage work and liaise more with clients.  Ultimately, you might aim to be ‘Head of Scientific Services’ within an agency where your role would be more business-getting as well as signing off work.  It is also possible to work in-house within client companies.

How do you get in?

You need to have prior experience of writing in some capacity or other (other than just your PhD thesis!).  Ask if you can contribute to a department’s web page; write some article precis; be bold about contributing to any kind of additional writing.  They will be looking for (obviously!) a good standard of English; the ability to analyse and pick out data; coping under deadlines; knowing how to data search; knowing how to present data; being accountable and responsible.

Some agencies may ask for a portfolio at interview.  At interviews, it may be an informal conversation where you get the sense they are checking to see if they can work with you.  At other places, you are likely to have to write a sample piece, or spot mistakes in an abstract or possibly write a patient leaflet based on resources given you in the interviw.

Your subject knowledge doesn’t necessarily help you – you would need to be prepared to write about whatever the client needs.

Some firms deliberately take on graduates with no experience.

Julia wrote 20 or 30 speculative letters; signed up with four or five agencies; had three interviews and three writing tests before she got her first role.

For more sector information go to www.careerstagged.co.uk and use the tag ‘medical writer’.