Tag Archives: career path

Diversifying vs. Finding a Niche

So a long time ago, I wrote a post on the importance of finding a niche. It’s important, otherwise you run the risk of overextending yourself, maybe taking jobs that don’t quite fit your particular skill set and getting paid relatively little as a consequence of climbing the learning curve.


I have also been struggling recently with how to increase my income. I could raise my hourly rates, which doesn’t always work out. I could attempt project-based pricing. I could quit being a solopreneur and throw in my lot with an editorial group. Or I could find more clients and/or work more hours, which will inevitably lead to burnout.

I was also given the advice that I should find different clients. Hmmm.

Some history: I took a very gradual route to full-time freelancing. I had a full-time job, so the freelance gigs I took were like a bonus. Also, my day job was in content development for continuing medical education and healthcare communications companies, whereas my freelance jobs were in scientific manuscript and grant editing. Very different. Day job: big projects in medical writing with project-based pricing. Freelance: smaller projects in science writing and editing with hourly pricing.  When I switched to freelancing full time, the majority of my work became science writing and editing, billed hourly.

Every once in a while, I still do get a big project in healthcare comm, but for the most part, manuscripts and grants are my bread and butter and university researchers are my main clients. Even though I had settled in a niche, I also decided to keep my experience up on my website, classified by client and the types of services I am able to offer to each. Maybe deep down I recognized the value in presenting myself as someone with a broad skill set, but I am still hesitant to leave my “niche” and risk overextending my one employee. Which I have done in the past and I’d like to avoid for sanity’s sake.

Another factor is the current state of federally funded research. It’s dire. Scientists are being laid off. These are my clients. They don’t have a whole lot of money to invest in developing a grant proposal that is less and less likely to be funded. Hopefully that’s where I come in, to help them get it funded. But it can be hard for them to weigh the need to hire a grant editor when they are already struggling to keep their labs going. It’s not yet clear whether the current situation with NIH funding is going to drive business or dry it up. To be safe, diversifying is probably a smart thing to do.

Now, how to diversify without overextending? There’s a skill I really need to work on.

Balancing freedom and security in a freelance career

I’m one year into my freelance career in biomedical writing and editing, and I just passed my two-year blogiversary. So, I suppose it’s time for me to take a look back and evaluate my progress.

In general, freelancing boils down to balancing the need for financial security with the freedom to plan my own day. Freelancing is alternately terrifying and satisfying. Every month I manage to make my income goal, but at the beginning of each month it’s not always clear that it will happen. Summer is particularly anxiety-inducing; most of my clients are academic researchers and their summers are fairly quiet. I fill in the blanks with writing jobs from Japan – not the highest paying gig, but when my schedule is looking light, I’ll take it to fill the gaps.

The satisfying part is that I am a successful  business owner. Even if it is a tiny business of a single employee. Somehow, I am making this work, and that’s kinda cool.

I’ve also learned that even though I am a night owl, it is neither wise nor physically possible to sustain that schedule. It was a holdover of how I had been doing freelance while working full- or part-time during the day. Night was for freelance jobs. It took me a year to get used to it, but I now write and edit during the day, working a full day with short breaks to walk the dog, work out, and eat lunch. Sounds boring, like I switched one office job for another, but the reality is that my schedule is my own. I have time. No more taking my lunch hour to rush out for an errand and then rush back to the office. No fighting weekend crowds at the supermarket. I can take my kids to appointments, I can join them on field trips, and I don’t have to keep track of how many vacation days I’ve used. And I definitely do not miss the daily commute to and from downtown Chicago.

The rollercoaster continues. Sometimes pride in my business wins over self-doubt over finances, other times the fear of financial insecurity wins out over the benefits of freedom and time.

In the end, though, I ask myself one question: “Do you like what you are doing?” And the answer is a resounding “Yes!” Biomedical writing and editing continues to be intellectually challenging, requiring me to creatively merge science with language to communicate complex concepts. It is also personally satisfying to use my particular skill set to help my clients and to have the opportunity to learn something new with every project.

So, that settles that, I think.

Training grants: I had no idea…

I just finished working on an NIH training grant (T32) for the very first time, and I have to say, I had no idea.

First off, a definition: the NIH T32 grant mechanism is “the primary means of supporting predoctoral and postdoctoral research training to help ensure that a diverse and highly trained workforce is available to assume leadership roles related to the Nation’s biomedical, behavioral and clinical research agenda.” Okay, so NIH is putting funds toward training tomorrow’s scientists. I can understand that.

So what was I floored by? Not just how involved the preparation of a training grant is, how many tables there are, and how much information is requested from the NIH (and it is truly immense), but that NIH-funded training programs at academic institutions rely on the success of their graduates and fellows. And that “success” is very precisely defined and quantified. From the T32 parent FOA, here are the scored review criteria for the program’s training record:

  • How successful are the trainees in completing the program?
  • How productive are trainees in terms of research accomplishments and publications?
  • How successful are trainees in obtaining further training appointments, fellowships, and career development awards?
  • How successful are the trainees in achieving productive scientific careers, as evidenced by successful competition for research grants, receipt of honors or awards, high-impact publications, receipt of patents, promotion to scientific leadership positions, and/or other such measures of success?

As a grantwriter, none of this should have surprised me. But my first reaction was, “Wow, I bet my institution’s program directors cringe when they have to add my information to their tables.” My second reaction was, “At least I am nearing the 10-year mark, so they won’t have to put my information in their tables for much longer.” I published 3 papers and several reviews and textbook chapters and completed the PhD program, so that’s at least something, but I promptly left academia to be a biomedical writer. Oops. At least now I know one of the reasons why professors shake their heads sadly when they watch their graduate students leave academia…but that’s being cynical, so anyway…

After getting over my initial emotional and somewhat defensive reaction, I started wondering how much (or how little) graduate students on training grants really know about where their stipends and tuition come from. I knew I was on a training grant at two different points during my time in graduate school, but other than that, nada. Like all students, I knew I had to publish, present my work at meetings, and participate in journal clubs and seminar series in order to graduate. But I had no idea that these performance expectations were specifically associated with training grant funding or that my personal success would have an impact on future training grant funding for the institution. I didn’t know that my recruitment and enrollment in the program were just as crucial for me and my career as they were for the institution and its future in graduate training.

I wonder how much of this information is ever shared with trainees. Are trainees curious about this, or did they, like me, have their nose down at the bench, blinders on, just working towards the next paper, meeting abstract, and eventually, their degree? Of course, graduate trainees are encouraged to “succeed,” but I wonder if they realize just how much the institution depends on them to succeed and to do so in very specific ways (see list above). I think that even though it might not change how hard a graduate trainee works, it is surely helpful to let them take a look inside the machine and understand the importance of their own training success on the program as a whole.

In the end, working on a T32 helped me appreciate how graduate programs are judged by the NIH, the criteria that are used to measure success, and why graduate trainees are encouraged to stay in research. Which is good for a me to know as a grantwriter, even if I had no idea during graduate school.

On niches and boundaries

2012 will be my first year as a completely independent freelance biomedical writer and editor. My freelance business has been through the various stages of hobby to side work to part time job to full time job, and this will be the first year that it represents all of my income. No pressure, right? When I first decided to make the final leap to full-time freelance last summer, I was understandably anxious about income and whether I could make this work without leaving me and my family eating macaroni and cheese every night. So I took any biomedical writing/editing projects I could find, regardless of whether they were proofreading, editing, or writing; regardless of the client: academic, agency, or not-for-profit; and regardless of the topic. I soon came to appreciate two things: (1) I am not “built” for all projects and (2) my time is limited and therefore precious.

What do I mean by being “built” for certain projects? I am one of many professional biomedical writers and editors. But my education, background, and experience make me unique. The question is, what kinds of projects, clients, and topics best suit me so that I am spending my freelance time in the best possible way? By taking any projects because I felt I had to in order to stay solvent, I was getting frustrated with the jobs I could do easily but that paid too little and also frustrated with jobs that were outside my comfort zone that made me struggle and feel I was wasting time. 

There are only so many hours I can work in a week, and so I needed to find those jobs I was best trained for in order to make the most of my time. I first had to admit that there were boundaries – a difficult thing to do because it felt like closing doors and because I never want to admit that I can’t do something. But it really wasn’t about saying I wasn’t able, it was more about saying that I have to choose the best projects that fit my particular skill set. I’m sure that I needed to go through that first anxious period of accepting every job, no matter how small or out of my niche, to learn this lesson.

The other important thing I came to realize is that while taking jobs that were outside my comfort zone could be personally frustrating, it is also not good business practice. Just like me, clients are looking for the best fit for their projects so they get their money’s worth. Accepting a job for which I am not a good fit may not lead to the best outcomes – for me or the client. It is far better to learn as much information about the project up front, evaluate the project through the lens of my ability and training and schedule, and then turn it down if the project just doesn’t fit. Better that than struggling and getting frustrated and, perhaps worst of all, running the risk of letting down the client and damaging my reputation.

So now I understand my boundaries – what’s my niche? I’ve discussed this in other posts, but I’ve come to realize that biomedical grant writing/editing and manuscript editing for academic clients is where I shine. My background in research, my experience in healthcare communications, and even my stint in healthcare advertising, have come together to give me a 30,000-foot view, an objective eye, and an appreciation for the funding agency’s perspective.

I admit, I still take jobs that aren’t grants or manuscripts but that are still within my comfort zone. But grants and manuscripts now make up the bulk of my projects. As much as I hate the idea that I might be limiting myself, that I am capable of much more, I have to accept that I am one person, and physically unable to do everything. (I have to sleep at least a few hours a night!)

So those are my thoughts on niches and boundaries – now, back to work!

Thoughts on Growth

I wished I could have made it to 50 posts before the end of the year, but alas. In any case, I thought I’d do one more, before I plunge back into grant editing for the February NIH cycle.

I was thinking about growth today – my professional growth as an individual writer and the growth of my freelance business – and where I want to go with this in the next 5 years. Professionally, I will never stop looking out for opportunities to learn new things, and will likely continue taking workshops through AMWA and other groups. This coming year, I’m planning on attending the NIH Regional Seminar on grants in Indianapolis, and I’m considering taking a similar workshop from the NSF and a local course specifically for SBIR/STTR grants. I’m a career student, I suppose! I also joined NORDP, and will continue my memberships in AMWA, CSE, BELS, and EFA – these are all amazing resources for keeping up with what’s going on in the field, finding new business leads, and networking.

Business-wise, I’ve just had to decide I need to reign it in with the growth. At this point in my career, I’m not interested in expanding my business to include other writers, so I continue to be incredibly busy just doing the writing and billing, with very little time for doing things that would grow my business – marketing, blogging more regularly, etc. I definitely would love more time to check in with my LinkedIn groups, participate in Twitter conversations, and read others’ blogs.

But when I’m busy, I’m really busy, and I have to be careful that busy doesn’t turn into overwhelmed and exhausted, and definitely not into burned out. One thing I hope to be able to do in the next 5 years is to hire an assistant to help with the administrative stuff – that would be an enormous help. Whether or not to grow my business further is something that will just have to wait. I’m not quite there yet. In the meantime, I am keeping close track of the careers of a few of my successful colleagues and watching how they are expanding their businesses.

But reigned-in growth doesn’t mean no growth at all. I have done pretty well within the grantwriting/editing niche this year, and I’m looking to expand on that to include NSF (biological sciences directorate) and NIH small business and technology grant mechanisms. Which is why I’m considering taking the workshops that are being offered this year in the Chicago area.

So that’s where I’m at as we enter 2012. Next year, I’m going to focus on settling into the freelance life a little more (can we say sensible scheduling?!), continue pursuing grantwriting as my market niche, and basically stay the course.

I hope everyone has a fantastic new year! See you on the other side…

Two days in…and it’s all about time

Well, I am officially my own boss. Everything is completely up to me. The best part? I finally have huge blocks of time available to me…during the day. There shouldn’t be any reason for me to be up at 3AM anymore. Rather than “fit in” my freelance work around other responsibilities, now my responsibility IS my freelance work. The other great thing is that I am no longer having to switch from task to task, having to physically and mentally move from freelance work to contract job to staff job. It’s all in one place now, in my home office. I feel efficient and focused for the first time in a long time.

Now that I am fully freelance, I can also expand my Web site (or is that website?) to reflect all the services I offer. No more conflict of interest…on to phase 2 of my business plan. I can also visit clients and pursue career development opportunities without having to schedule vacation days. My time is my own.

Although I am (obviously) giddy with my newfound freedom, I can anticipate at least one big issue. July is a relatively slow month, and I can’t kid myself that it will stay this calm and under control. In fact, the chaos will probably resume as early as next week. So I predict that my biggest challenge will be overpromising. Just because I have these unbroken blocks of time to work with doesn’t mean I need to completely fill them. I have to watch my schedule closely and set realistic deadlines.

But two days in, I have to say am thrilled with my decision to finally take the leap to a freelance career. It took me 5 years and many baby steps to get here. I’m a little proud of what I have accomplished, a little anxious about how to proceed, and very excited about moving forward.

My Path to Freelance

I had lunch last week with a former fellow graduate student who wanted to pick my brain about freelance medical writing. It just so happened that she caught me at the point in my career path when I had finally decided it was time to go completely freelance, after years of doing both freelance and salaried work (first in med ed and then in healthcare comm). As many medical writers and editors will tell you, there’s no single path toward a career in medical writing. For me, there was trial and error, fits and starts, plans and revamped plans, trying a bit of this, and then that — it wasn’t pretty, but eventually I landed where I wanted to be.

My journey to this point has been anything but smooth. There was always that 5-year plan in the background, but those 5 years were fraught with late nights, anxiety, self-doubt, interspersed with hopeful glimpses of what life could be like if I were to go completely freelance: long stretches of time to write, the ability to get up from the computer and go for a walk, the option to go grocery shopping at a reasonable hour. I knew I had to get there, but some days (and very late nights), it didn’t seem possible.

At first, my freelance writing gig was truly a hobby. A way to keep one foot in academia after graduate school, as I ventured out into the world of medical writing. Then my freelance client list started to grow, and I was working almost every night on freelance, after working all day in the office. I trademarked my company name and became an LLC. I tried working as a copyeditor for a journal and as an author’s editor for non-native English speakers, and bid for jobs on those online freelancing sites.

But the turning point came last year with my Web presence. First I put up my company Web site, then last summer, I added a blog, a Facebook page, and a Twitter account. I started getting clients from other states, inquiries based on my blog posts, traffic from my LinkedIn page. Soon my freelance hobby had become more than 50% of my income.

And then the epiphany that my particular background in bench science and academic writing, combined with my experience in med ed and promotional medical writing, made me particularly well suited to become a grantwriter/editor. Marketing science, linking science to health. Looking back, it was kind of a Duh! moment, but it really marked the point at which I could see my freelance career becoming a reality. Taking on my first contract client specifically for grantwriting earlier this year was the final test – if all went well, then it was time to strike out on my own. (Hint: it went well.)

As my freelance ramped up, my office work ramped down. It had to, there are not enough hours in the day or brain cells in my head. And I never wanted to get to that point were I was doing many things but not able to do any one thing particularly well. So first I went part-time at the office, and now I hope to keep my former employer as a client as I join their freelancer pool.

So here I am, about to embark on the next phase of my career path. I am certainly anxious, sad to leave my friends and co-workers (though I will see them from time to time, I hope), and freaked out that I am on my own and will succeed or fail based on my own decisions and abilities. But I am also excited, relieved, and just a tad proud that I have made it this far. I’ll keep everyone posted on my continued journey…