In the past week, I had the opportunity (and pleasure) to talk to some bench scientists who are interested in making the transition from research in academia to a career in writing and editing. They asked me some of the same questions: How did you make the transition and land your first job? How did you translate your research training to the “experience” section on your résumé? What kinds of writing suited your skills and training as a bench scientist?
I thought my answers might make for some good blogging fodder. So I’m going to start with the last question in part one of a three-part series.
Act I: In which I discover the many types of medical/scientific writing
When I was trying to decide what to do with my PhD, I did a lot of research on alternative careers. Writing, consulting, the law, pharma. My liberal arts education ended up getting the best of me and I found myself gravitating toward writing, but what kind? I found there were many options, some of which fit my particular set of skills and interests and some that didn’t. Actually, as I’ve become more and more engaged with the online writing community in the last month, my understanding of the types of writing being done out there has changed. So much so that I am contemplating a tweak to my tag line, from “Scientific and medical writing, editing, and consulting” to “Medical and life sciences writing, editing, and consulting.” My mistake, equating biology and science. Whoops.
But getting back to the topic: there are many ways to classify the types of science and medical writing. The following is just the way I perceive it – in other words, don’t take my word for it, just use my word as a primer for your own research into all the opportunities out there!
Although science writing and science journalism are often used interchangeably, they are not the same thing. There are many science bloggers who are science writers but not science journalists, for example (heh). And when I assist researchers with their manuscripts and reviews, or design posters or write Web copy or research summaries about a scientific topic, I am acting as a science writer, not a journalist. I would further subdivide science writing into specialties: life sciences, physical sciences, science communication, technical communication, science policy, science education, etc.
As I’ve come to learn in my interaction with AMWA members at various functions—and I am looking forward to learning more at my very first AMWA annual meeting in November!—there are several subcategories of writing that fall under the medical writing umbrella.
- Educational – clinician education (CME, CE), consumer education (patients, caregivers)
- Healthcare communication (branded and unbranded) – clinician education, sales rep training
- Pharmaceutical/device promotion – copywriting for advertising or marketing
- Manuscript/grant writing – for clinical researchers, institutions, pharmaceutical R&D
- Regulatory – preparation of clinical study reports, new drug applications, etc
- Journalism – in various media and for various audiences
Again, this is not an inclusive list, this is just based on my experience. And it gives you a place to start your own Google searches, at the very least.
When I first ventured away from the bench, I found that medical education was a pretty good match for my background (molecular physiology) and prose style (ahem, dissertation anyone?). Give me a drug, and I’ll give you everything you want to know about the associated physiology, pathophysiology, and therapy. (With plenty of fair balance, of course.) Educational writing let me dig deep into the literature so that I could tell the whole story, with a comprehensive background and solid references. Keeping up with all the CME rules and ACCME certification requirements might have been the most challenging aspect of working in med ed, actually.
I’ve since moved into healthcare communications and promotional copywriting. Of the two, healthcare communications fits my skill set and temperament better than copywriting. I’ve come to accept that I lean more toward the left brain when it comes to writing. And I also tend to write a lot. Which doesn’t work so well in ads, apparently. In any case, the copywriters are only too happy to hand off the 100-slide set projects, mechanism of action video scripts, and monographs, and I am equally happy to hand them the one-page ads, e-blasts, or banner copy jobs. With healthcare communications, I may not get to dig as deep into the background as I did in med ed, but that’s helped me learn to self-edit, to get to the heart of the story and target it to a specific audience and for a specific purpose. Again, the most difficult thing for me to grasp has been the rules—what can and can’t be said per the FDA, placement of text, size of text, etc, etc. I am baffled on a daily basis, to be very honest, and I’ve been doing this for nearly 6 years now.
So, what’s my advice to those considering a transition from the lab to the laptop? Think about what kind of writer you are or want to be, what types of writing make you happy—do you like to give a comprehensive and detailed story? Or do you like to step back and write about the bigger picture? Who do you want to write for? Doctors? Patients? Students? The FDA? The general public? On the flip side, what kinds of writing do you like to read? Is there a science or medical writer out there that you admire, whose writing style is what you aspire to?
So that’s my two cents on that subject. Stay tuned for Act II: Adventures in creative résumé-ing