Frustrated to elated: PhD student to medical writer

I haven’t posted on this for such a very long time so I’m doing a bit of an off-the-cuff update here. The airport brings the writing out in me. A cheeky prosecco in the airport bar definitely seems to help. Mainly though, I think it comes down to me feeling like I need to look like I’m doing grown-up things on my iPad with all these business types around. That’s the problem with iPads – everyone can see exactly what you’re doing on this big screen!

So what does happen when you quit (your PhD that is)? Well for me, things have gotten better. A lot better. Obviously, every situation is unique, but it’s been more than 6 months for me and when I think back to the PhD days it’s like looking at one of those pictures where it’s the same place but rainy and grey on one side and all blue skies on the other. Same person, different outlook. So, so different.

I hadn’t actually realised before how much my life had been disappearing outside of my PhD. Life actually takes quite a lot of time as it turns out, and it’s flipping difficult to squeeze it all in to the few exhausted hours you spend awake outside of the lab during a PhD (or one like mine was anyway). Now, I find work to be a bit of a break from everything else. That aspect couldn’t be more different.

What about the work then? I’m a medical writer at a medical communications agency now. I would imagine many of you don’t know what that means, since neither did I a few months back. It’s a hard thing to sum up since we do so many different things but I can give you an idea of what my days are like. The obvious thing is that I write copy and so far that’s all been for pharma companies. Recent highlights would be going to a conference in Amsterdam where, as you might guess, it was my job to attend sessions and write a report for the company who sent me. Aside from this, though, there were a whole bunch of other things going on. We (my agency) organised an industry satellite symposium (from my student perspective, these were really just a place to get better food) which went really well and we organised other things like awards dinners etc. I really enjoyed these actually – I love meeting all the other people working in this industry and finding out what everyone does and where they came from. Plus I’m just a chatterbox so these sorts of things are fun for me.

That’s the travel side of things anyway. And there’s a good bit of it; I’m heading to Greece in August and (all going well) Australia next year, as well as who knows where else in between. That works for me – I LOVE to travel. Most of the time my job is a desk job though. I might create a slide show for someone to present at a meeting; create a manual for training sales reps, or maybe make a cartoon guide to help advise/instruct patients whose medicine is complicated to take. My favourite thing, probably, is how much you need to work in a team to get things done. I realise now that I just don’t work well in isolation and I like coordinating with the clients, designers and the accounts team to work everything out. It’s definitely better that way. If I ever run into a problem I can’t figure out, I don’t continue hammering away at it, getting more panicked (actually that sums up my PhD quite well ha!), I just figure it out with someone else. It’s perfect for me.

If anyone reading this happens to be thinking of a career move into med comms, or would just like to know a bit more about it (albeit from a relatively newbie perspective), then please give me a shout!

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26 thoughts on “Frustrated to elated: PhD student to medical writer

  1. Hi, thanks for the post. May I ask what your PhD was on? I would like to know whether any PhD would do or whether only PhDs in the pharmaceutical/drug field are considered?
    Also, would you say medical writing is mainly for pharma companies, or medical devices as well?
    Thanks in advance.

    • Hi Tammy, thanks for reading! My PhD (though it will now be an MPhil) was Neuroimmunology โ€“ multiple sclerosis in particular. I knew nothing about the pharma industry when I begin and my background was very much basic science. That is true of most people here โ€“ we have some with PhDs and some without; a PhD is always beneficial but not a necessity to become a medical writer. A science background from any biology-related field would be fine.

      What is the scenario you’re thinking of? Are you doing a PhD at the moment or considering your options etc?

      • Thanks for the reply. I was just curious as to how a PhD would be considered and if the topic would have much of an influence.

  2. I happened to come across this blog just when I needed it most … That there ARE jobs out there which does not require a PhD. I was just given some bad news today. The bottom line being I will be unable to complete my PhD. I had just finished my first year …
    I have always heard of “Medical writers” but did not know very much about them. What you described sounds like something I have not experienced in a very long time. The last year for me have been long periods of panicking and feeling like I have failed not just myself but others involved in my life. Moreover, I am … well was doing a part-time PhD. So instead of the usual 4 years, I had 7. I had literally planned by life around my Phd for the next 5-6 years.

    Any advice from you would be great. And thank you for writing this!

    • Thank you for your comment! So sorry to hear that you’re having a hard time; I really feel for you. What kind of PhD were you doing? That must be a bit of a shock to have all your plans swiped from under you. Doing a PhD really isn’t for everyone though; some people I’ve spoken to really quite enjoyed it, which made me realise that it just didn’t suit the way my brain works and the way I work (although the type of project and supervisor are also massive factors). My brain just needs more positive feedback!
      Whatever you do, don’t think that the year you spent was wasted. You will have learnt a huge amount in that time, although you won’t actually figure out what those skills are until you are in a new job and you have to use them. You also have to try and undo the thinking that you’ve been failing. The first year of any PhD is pretty much a bunch of ‘failing’ but it’s how you learn โ€“ the hard way!
      Are you thinking of getting into medical writing? I honestly didn’t even know what it was when I quit my PhD ๐Ÿ™‚ I just did a LOT of googling jobs and applied for lots. Plenty of them didn’t respond, so don’t be disheartened. It just takes the right one to come along. Now I can’t even imagine what I would have done if I hadn’t quit. I love my life now!

      • Thank you for your encouragement ๐Ÿ™‚
        I had a great project. I was doing my Phd in Cardiovascular Sciences. I did learn a great deal and I had a really good mestor; a post doc who was overseeing my project.

        I am thinking of medical writing. I am still not sure though what it is that the job entails though. And how does someone without any background get a foot in without any experience … Is it luck?

      • To be honest, there is a real range of work in medical writing. I still didnโ€™t really know what the job was going to be until I started! I do a lot of different projects, some examples at the moment are: making a USB to advise patients using an inhaler; editing Powerpoints for clinicians; making an app to help doctors treat patients with drug-related side effects; going to conferences and writing reports. There are also more regulatory and technical writing roles, for example with companies who organize clinical trials (CROs). Being good at writing and enjoying learning about science and medicine are the most important pre-requisites I would say.

        In terms of experience, I had none before I started as a โ€˜traineeโ€™. My science background has been incredibly useful though, and the massive kick-in-the-arse-that-is-the-PhD-experience really prepares you in terms of organizing workloads and taking ownership of your work. Some employers do ask for a PhD, though most donโ€™t as far as I can see, and many people I work with donโ€™t have one. There are internships with medical communications and medical education agencies, although these are fairly low paid (min wage I think) and you mustnโ€™t be more than 2 years since graduation I think. This site is good and has a mailing list also: MedComms Network. There is always an element of luck with finding any job, you just have to find the place that suits you! It also helps that I was able to live anywhere โ€“ my job now is in the South East and there are a lot of pharma and med comms places down here.

  3. Hi! Very interesting post! I have always been interested in a career in medical writing but currently have only an MSc and not a PhD. Would you suggest to just apply for job positions advertised online..or could someone actually contact the medical communications agency asking for any possible opportunity as trainee medical writer?

    • Hi! Thanks for commenting! I would certainly recommend contacting companies, as I’m sure they will appreciate the initiative taken (even better, they don’t have to pay a recruiter :)). Just make sure your CV and covering letter are VERY well proofed. The site I recommended previously (http://www.medcommsnetworking.co.uk/) is good place to start also as you will find names of companies so you can find out more.

  4. Hello! Thank you for the great post and helpful information! I graduated with a Ph.D. in Microbiology in December, and after a couple of months of detoxification from grad school and soul-searching, decided that I want to pursue a career in Medical Writing. There seems to be quite a few positions available, but most of them require prior medical writing experience, which makes sense, but we all have to start somewhere, right? Do you have any advice for an aspiring medical writer? Where and how should I start? Also, I am a Japanese-English bilingual, and knowing that there are not too many of Japanese-Endlish speakers in science, I am hoping that there is a perfect niche for someone like me to fill………….

    • Hi Abbey, thanks for commenting! Congrats on the PhD, you must be so pleased! Also, well done for figuring out your next steps, it’s not an easy task I’m well aware ๐Ÿ™‚ I’m sure there will be a job where you can use your language skills โ€“ always a good thing to have and there is plenty of work in this business in/with Japan. Here are a couple of positions I’ve found which don’t absolutely require experience: http://goo.gl/UPzILr, http://goo.gl/Q1jIyH, http://goo.gl/fnLigO. Can I ask where you are located? Flexibility to move for your first role would be a real advantage!

      • Thank you very much for your reply and sending me the job posts! I did not realize that you are in UK! I am actually in living in the US ๐Ÿ™‚ I’m unable to relocate to other states right now, but it seems that many positions are home-based with some traveling. I will keep looking for open positions and keep trying!

  5. Hi! Found this post very useful so thanks! Looking to get into medical writing, i’m just completing my MSc in Toxicology and really want to gain a trainee position without having to do a PhD. I’ve sent a lot of speculative applications to med comms agencies even if they do not have job vacancies at the time just to put some feelers out and try to get my foot in the door. Also applied for a couple of trainee/junior positions but no luck yet as I am well aware I am in competition with people with PhD’s. How likely is it that I can get a job in medical writing without a PhD? I am looking for internships to try and gain a few months experience in the industry to help me secure a full-time position but are finding these hard to come by, do you know of any place where they can be found?

    Any help you can give me would be fully appreciated.!

    • Hi Lewis, thanks and glad you found it useful! You’re definitely on the right track sending some speculative applications. Just make sure there are no errors in them ๐Ÿ™‚ Check, double check, triple check, get someone else to check. It really doesn’t seem to me that a PhD is particularly necessary for medical writing โ€“ your MSc research experience will have expanded your skills a huge amount already. The types of medical writing jobs available vary a huge amount; do you want to be on the more technical writing side of things or perhaps more creative and diverse? In all likelihood, though, you won’t know the answer to this until you give it a shot. This website should definitely be your first port of call if you haven’t checked it out already: http://www.nextmedcommsjob.com/. I’ll drop you an email so I can give you a bit more specific info if you like ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Hi

    I have very recently decided to quit my PhD after 2.5yrs. I’m also looking at mastering out. I was wondering how you find preparing a masters thesis after leaving, how much support your supervisor still provides and how difficult is it to work and write it up?

    • Ah good on you, it really is a horrendous decision to have to make, so well done for knowing what’s right for you and making it happen. To be honest, I think it very much depends on the person. I’m very much a teamworker and task/deadline driven, so I find it very difficult to sit down to such a large project and focus. It helps if your data is in good order too. Fortunately my supervisor is very supportive and has been very patient with me โ€“ your supervisor wants you to succeed too, so I’d imagine they’ll help you out ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. Hi
    I am currently in my second year of study at an osteopathic medical school in Florida. I have been seriously questioning my decision to become a physician for about a year now and have become interested in the field of medical writing. I have not been able to find medical writing jobs that did not require at least a year of experience within the field, and was wondering if I have any shot at getting these jobs.

    • Hi Joel, sorry to hear you’ve had a hard time looking for jobs โ€“ I notice this was a while ago, have you had any luck since? I’m not sure how different things are in the US, but in the UK there are certainly agencies who will take on new writers without experience. I think the key is finding an open minded employer who has the foresight and patience to take on employees for their potential. My only advice would be to make your application/CV shine and demonstrate how all the other experiences you have had will make you a good medical writer. Pick out any small amount of writing experience you have had (proofing work for other students, literature reviews etc.). I’m not sure of your circumstances and how long you have left of med school etc. The situation in the US is alot different from the UK and can be very expensive, I’m aware, but it is worth noting that a medical degree would be very useful should you want to get involved in the pharma side etc. Any more questions do just give me a shout! ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. I am 58. I love science & writing.

    I’m good at writing and get a buzz learning about science, medicine and staying healthy.

    In July 2014 I was awarded a Postgraduate Diploma in Medicinal Chemistry from the Open University. This 120 credit diploma means I’m 2/3 of the way to gaining a 180 credit MSc. In 2015 I plan to complete a 60 credit Project to gain a MSc.

    I have an honours BSc in Biochemistry and a Masters in Business Administration (MBA). I have 35 years experience mostly in strategy, sales, marketing & e-commerce type roles in fine chemical and IT sectors.

    I don’t really want to start another business or get a dead-end job to earn a few ยฃยฃs. So I’m seeking a job as an Account Manager, Medical Writer or some other role in a medical communications agency in London or South East England.

    LittleMissTcell on January 7, 2014 at 4:09 pm said: “Some employers do ask for a PhD, though most donโ€™t as far as I can see, and many people I work with donโ€™t have one.”
    That is very encouraging! But is my age a lethal handicap to getting a job in MedComms? Could my experience be valuable to agencies or the Pharma industry?

    • Hi and thanks for your message! This is a difficult one for me as I feel very underqualified to comment. In answer to the question of whether your experience could be valuable, I think that’s a no brainer. It’s obvious that you have a bucketload of experience that would be incredibly useful in a medical communications agency. That’s about all I can really say.

      I’m only in the beginnings of understanding how business (er… and the world) works and, in general, I find a lot of it very frustrating. While I’m lucky to work in a small business where I think things are run in a very fair and open manner, I’m aware that politics can dictate a lot of hiring/firing elsewhere. I think the biggest challenge when you have a lot of skills, but without that straight-up experience on your CV, is to get a chance and get noticed in the first place.

      As I mentioned, I’m really very inexperienced to be doling out advice, particularly since I’ve only worked at one medcomms agency so my view is potentially very narrow. In terms of age, the company I work at is very ‘young’ in all senses, but again I’d add the caveat that I’ve not worked anywhere else! I’d be really interested to hear how you get on and wish you all the best!

  9. Hi, I stumbled across your blog in the depths of phd despair one evening, and have found it very helpful. Nice to know I’m not the only one going through these things. Funnily enough I am also doing Immunology, and am interested in being a medical writer. I would love to hear about your experiences as a medical writer so far, if you wouldn’t mind emailing me back!

    Best wishes,
    M

    • Oh dear, sorry to hear you’re in the depths of PhD despair, Melissa. I can certainly relate! Always nice to hear from a fellow immunologist โ€“ it really is a great subject to apply to other areas and gives such a good basis of human biology understanding. Are you far into your PhD? What research are you doing and are you enjoying it (aside from the despair…)? Between working and writing up my thesis in the evenings at the moment, my brain is slightly addled, so I’ll probably be able to help you best if you have specific questions ๐Ÿ™‚

  10. Hi LittleMissTcell,
    I have a PhD and postdoctoral work in which I published 4 first-author papers. I have been doing tech writing (abstracts, clinical, marketing, regulatory) for a couple of years now and recently got an offer for a regulatory affairs role, writing FDA submissions. My ultimate desire is to do medical writing and have more of a broad skill set and job description but I was wondering if a couple of years in regulatory will actually help me get a medical writing job down the line. Will I still be able to use past experience to my advantage or does there come a time where the experience is too far in the past to be relevant? I also don’t want to pigeonhole myself into regulatory. Thanks for your thoughts!

    • Hi LoveScience,

      To be honest, with that sort of experience I imagine you will have your pick of jobs, no problem! If you are looking for more variation, then medical writing is a good option, although each agency/job is different. I imagine many companies would find your regulatory knowledge super valuable, even if you are branching out โ€“ that is always relevant! If by past experience, you mean your PhD/postdoc, then it will definitely be an advantage. I think the value of academic experience is very little about the knowledge acquired and way more about the critical thinking, problem solving and independence it gives you.

      The most important thing, to my mind, is to find a place to work where you feel like you will fit in and they will give you the freedom to grow in a direction that suits you. Once you’ve got that, you’re on to a winner! ๐Ÿ™‚

  11. Hi everyone,

    We’re a medical communications agency and have some urgent vacancies for Bilingual Japanese Medical Writers. If anyone of you is interested, please send in your CVs to my colleague Melissa Dias at melissad@cactusglobal.com. Do not forget to mention this blog as the source of your information.

    Thanks,

    Minhaj

  12. Hi, its interesting to know your story. You are doing great.
    I am currently post doc at NIH. I am also volunteer writer for NIH newsletter. I wish to move from bench into science writing. Are there any part time writing opportunities for post doc candidates, which will help in building my credentials.
    Need your thoughts on this matter.

    Thanks
    Manju

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