I remember telling my PhD advisor pretty early in the game that I didn’t really see myself continuing in academia, going tenure track route, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do instead, and that I wasn’t sure if I was cut out for grad school, etc, etc. My PhD advisor is one awesome lady, with great poise, and so after just a single blink, she sat back and said, “What you do with the degree is up to you, just see it through, and then you’ll be in a better position to choose what you want to do.” Did I mention that my PhD advisor is one awesome lady?
So in graduate school, it became clear to me that I really preferred to see the big picture, the story that the data told when all the figures were lined up, AFTER all the grueling hours at the bench and in the animal facility, the disappointments, the late nights at the microscope. And I was a pretty decent writer, with my liberal arts undergrad background. My advisor recognized this way before I did, and she started giving me just about every opportunity possible to write or edit manuscripts, grants, textbook chapters, invited reviews, dissertations, you name it. I was developing some killer academic writing skills. (I almost—almost—just wrote skills with a “z.”)
Around year four of grad school, I had the opportunity to freelance at a biotech company that was developing insecticides to interrupt mosquito reproduction, and they were ready to ramp up their R&D efforts. The company was holding a series of advisory boards with key researchers in entomology, and they needed someone to translate what the scientists were saying into language that the executive board could understand, so they could develop their business strategy (bug reproduction, rat reproduction, what’s the diff?). For me, it was a great introduction into teaching science to a lay audience, but it was also my first glimpse of how science can inform business decision-making. I produced my first SWOT analysis out of one of those ad board write ups! Well, it was exciting for ME, anyway. My perspective got just a bit wider than just my bench, my lab, my next paper, or even my dissertation and degree.
After each of these ad boards, I would return to the daily grind of lab work. But I could feel my career starting to move towards writing, communicating…or something. I attended every workshop on “alternative careers” given at my university and through the local chapter of the Association for Women In Science (AWIS). I talked to everyone I knew who might know anything about science writing. Previous graduates, post-docs who made the transition to writing, anyone.
After I graduated, I looked for a real, live writing job (see Act I and Act II) and finally landed one in medical education…where I promptly found that my mad skillz (couldn’t help myself, sorry) in academic writing weren’t going to be of much use. But my experience writing textbooks and reviews and slide presentations would. (I can’t believe my first presentations in grad school were done with actual slides that I had to shoot and then arrange in a carrousel—PowerPoint may be aggravating, but not THAT aggravating.) The part I had to learn was messaging (that would be with an “e” not an “a,” smart alecks) and this thing called fair balance. My writing style became nuanced, word choice became crucial, and the “flow” of the story needed to be strategic and targeted, not just scientifically or medically interesting. I also learned a lot about medicine and the practice of medicine in a very short time. Oh, and tons about issues of transparency, accreditation, the perception of pharma-funded education, and compliance issues. But that’s a story for another time.
When I moved into healthcare communications and advertising, my writing style changed subtly again, as I learned more about the intersection of science, medicine, marketing, and tactical planning. I never really let go of my science background or the desire to write a pithy story, and I found it challenging to write ad copy, distilling a complex story into a succinct, meaningful phrase or two. I have to constantly edit down and edit down again. And again. Thankfully, there are plenty of writing projects in healthcare communications that do not involve ad copy, and I try to get assigned those projects.
During all of this being-out-in-the-real-world stuff, I continued to do academic writing and editing through my freelance company. My awesome PhD advisor kept sending me articles and grants to give them the Tobin touch, and I credit her for my company name. Continuing in academic writing meant that I could still think like a scientist and communicate like a scientist, but now I had a new perspective on writing and the power of communication, and a whole new set of writing skills and experiences to draw from.
I think my next post is going to explore that subject – how academic science writing makes me a better healthcare communicator, and how healthcare communications and marketing has made me a better academic/science writer. Stay tuned!