Okay, so onto Act II, or how I landed that first medical writing job out of grad school. I have to admit, this was tough. A scientist to the core, of course I did as much research as possible, scouring the Web for continuing medical education agencies, healthcare communications agencies, and even healthcare advertising agencies. I followed the rules: for companies that had posted job openings, I wrote targeted cover letters and tweaked the Objective Statement on my résumé to fit the specific listing. And then I broke some rules: for companies with no job openings, I still wrote a (smokin’ hot) cold call cover letter, inserted a generic résumé and my portfolio, and sent it all to whoever sounded the closest to being involved in the writer hiring process.
Sounds easy, right? Think again—producing my cover letters, résumés, and portfolio took a lot of introspection and just a bit of creativity. I had to figure out how to turn my academic CV into a résumé that would sell me as a medical writer. But wait – those letters behind your name should have opened some doors, right? Nope. In fact, in many ways, having a PhD hurt me rather than helped me. I was overqualified, or I had no experience in health care or medicine, or I had been trained in scientific writing, not medical writing, or I had a skill set that was too focused, or, or, or…
Before I started my job search, I had the opportunity to talk with some molecular and cell biology PhDs who had left their postdoc positions to become medical writers. They insisted that there were skills I had acquired in graduate school that would help me as a medical writer. These skills should be near the top of my résumé, no more than 3 bullets, one line each. Here’s what I came up with:
- Interpret data from a wide variety of therapeutic areas and medical specialties
- Identify and develop the underlying narrative within complex datasets
- Use language to construct a logical flow of ideas and communicate key ideas and concepts
The first bullet came from my background in physiology – although I specialized in endocrinology, I wanted to emphasize my understanding of the body as a whole, regardless of the system, and the effect of therapeutic agents on it. Going deeper, my training in cell and molecular biology also lent itself to understanding the mechanism of action of diagnostic or therapeutic agents.
Of course, there are more skills I could have listed, like organizational skills, multitasking, patience, determination, integrity, etc. But instead of loading up my résumé (which should only be 2 pages, maximum) I included some of these skills in the body of my cover letter.
The other difficult part was pulling together a decent portfolio. I needed as many examples of writing as possible that were NOT connected to my research. So let’s see, writing samples that showcased my ability but were not journal articles: a couple of textbook chapters, a handful of review articles, a departmental newsletter article, and slide presentations on cell biology that I prepared for a biotech company. Thin, but something was better than nothing.
No one was going to see my portfolio unless I could get them past the cover letter, though. So I approached the cover letter as another writing sample, the first chance to show I could write well. Here’s a tip – double and triple-check your writing, then check it once more, and then give it to someone else to check again – there can be absolutely no grammar or spelling errors. It’s bad enough to have a spelling mistake in a cover letter or résumé, but when you’re applying for writing or editing jobs, a typo the best way to guarantee that your résumé ends up in the trash. Now that I’ve been on the hiring side, there’s nothing more disappointing than a typo, even more so when the candidate is otherwise stellar.
So I sent out A LOT of resumes. I got A LOT of interviews. I dutifully wrote my thank you notes. It took 3 months, but a continuing medical education agency “took a chance” (their words, ugh, my ego) on me and my career as a medical writer had begun.
Don’t miss the final Act – how my writing style and perspective were forever changed once I left academia…riveting stuff!