So I was thinking about posting a list of skills I use in my job that I learned specifically during my Ph.D. But as I started writing out a list of those skills, I realized they all converged onto 1 “mega-skill” in particular.
It’s “consolidating and communicating published information”.
The overall goal is to familiarize myself with a topic regardless of my own “expertise” in it, and then communicate my findings for a practical purpose.
In my case, the purpose of this is to educate an audience – the folks that use the product I make as a medical writer. So I’m reading a bunch of papers and consolidating everything that I’m reading both mentally and written down so that it’ll be a useful nugget of info for the learner.
And so I’m doing that over and over and over again.
That’s what I summarize in the term, “consolidating and communicating published information”.
Now, you might be wondering why I’m calling it 1 skill when it appears to contain multiple separate activities. It’s for the reasons I mentioned above. It’s all for 1 purpose, to educate patients that use the materials I prepare in my medical writing job.
Plus, the entire combination of activities – planning, reading, thinking, consolidating, and communicating – happen so simultaneously, or in really close association with each other, to where they feel like 1 “mega-skill”.
Non-ac/industry job search tip: It’s how I’d write it on my resume, too. That’d be a great bullet point.
It’s not important for me, personally, to separate those individual skills and recognize them all separately as skills that I gained in my Ph.D. In fact, some skills, like the “thinking about what I learned and deciding how to best communicate it to the customers”, is stuff I learned through my tutoring experience and not in my Ph.D. (I didn’t TA).
And no, don’t worry, I’m not minimizing the Ph.D. experience or saying it was pointless. I still think having a Ph.D. helped me get the job – and I have PLENTY of blog posts that go into detail about that!
So what does this mega-skill of “consolidating and communicating published information” entail?
To break it down even further, it consists of:
- Being assigned the topic & audience.
- Mentally figuring out how in-depth I need to go with my work. Reminding myself I’m not writing a review paper here. I’m not writing a dissertation here. My audience isn’t other scientists. I’m writing informational content for patients.
- Looking up well-designed papers that describe various aspects of the syndrome that I want to be sure about, such as genetics, environmental causes, epidemiology, treatments, etc. I don’t try to read every single paper that ever existed on each topic, but I don’t just go off of the first paper I find.
- Writing my findings and creating my product, making it look appealing and learner-friendly using visuals and other things that my company provides.
And remember, this is all happening not in a sequential fashion, but all together at the same time, aside from #1. I’m constantly thinking about how it can come across to the user, digesting what I’ve already learned, writing some sentences, gathering graphics, checking facts using a few review papers, writing other sentences, fixing sentences, etc. It’s honestly one giant process and that’s why I see it as a “mega-skill“.
So yeah! Just thought I’d put that out there because it was kind of a cool revelation.
It’s been interesting to me to realize that other things that are such a big part of doing a Ph.D. like writing papers, doing labwork, writing funding proposals, etc., aren’t part of my job.
I’ll get into a couple of those below!
You’d THINK that writing papers during your Ph.D. would prepare you for a medical writing job. Sure, the aspect of literature search and consolidating information, definitely.
But I don’t have a 1st-author research paper, didn’t include my review paper or other publications in my resume, and they didn’t even come up in the job interviews I did.
That’s why I didn’t say in this blog post that the 1 skill I use from my Ph.D. is “writing”.
Plus, that academic style of writing that I learned and did for the past 6 years (dissertation, qualifying exam proposal, abstracts, etc.) isn’t THAT useful for my medical writing job – or for other jobs I applied to!
For my medical writing job, I have to actively make sure that my writing is colloquial, active, and clear. Not using words like “elucidated”, “therefore”, or even “represents”. No more generic, “covering your butt by saying things vaguely because the field isn’t fully understood” words like “likely”, “mostly”, or “generally”. And I have a habit of starting my sentences with “However”, so I have to stop that!
I’m not saying academic writing is TOTALLY useless. As I mention in many of my blog posts, medical writing is a large umbrella category with many different types of products. Some of those products are more formal and have an academic audience. Some companies might want to know about your publications! But in the dozen or so industry job interviews I did, publications literally NEVER came up.
It just so happens that my product (and others!) are very practical and don’t benefit from the academic writing style. In fact, my managers (who also have Ph.D.s and went into industry from academia!) discourage writing academically and empathize with me as I try to stop my academic writing habits.
You can find a list of the types of things medical writers write here: https://info.amwa.org/ultimate-guide-to-becoming-a-medical-writer#what_do_medical_writers_write
Discovering Something New
So it’s been pretty interesting to me that I spent 6 years doing a Ph.D. trying to discover something new, but in my medical writer job I’m consolidating established knowledge.
And guess that, I’m much happier doing that!
I realized as I was doing my Ph.D. that although I loved learning new science facts, I didn’t have a really deep interest in any 1 topic, at least not enough to keep doing research for the rest of my life.
Think about all those professors you know, who are super passionate about a topic, constantly applying for grants to research something for years on end, publishing, moving the field forward ever so slightly over decades of their careers.
I realized very early on that couldn’t be me.
I love how my job is genuinely interesting to me because the topics switch up every few weeks. Actually, I balance 2-3 projects at once (of varying importance and usually only 1 is a super important client project), so I don’t get tired of any 1 topic for too long. The work I do is practical, education-based, and much faster-paced than academic research, and that’s why I love it.
I love learning about and familiarizing myself with medications and diseases I’ve always heard about!
And yes, I have fully accepted the fact that I will slowly forget laboratory methods that I got pretty good at (even if they didn’t spark a ton of joy) and spent close to a decade “training” myself to use.
But I couldn’t care less because I’m super happy with the work I do now!
Funny how things turn out.
This blog post started out, like I said in the intro, with me trying to come up with a list of the most important transferable skills from my Ph.D. that I used in my job applications and that I use now in my job.
I couldn’t think of that many to begin with, and the list got shorter and shorter because I was looking at it from my own experiences and what I do in my current job. That’s how I decided to write a blog post on the only important skill, which is to consolidate and communicate published information.
I think the reason why this skill is so important in industry is because as people with Ph.D.s, we have spent a long time training and practicing the art of research. That involves evaluating studies, understanding what good research is, knowing the lingo for and patterns in how people present information, etc. All that background experience comes together in effectively consolidating and communicating published information.
It’s hard to read papers and evaluate if they’re any good if you yourself don’t have research experience!
Plus, in industry, that information that we extract from the literature is what helps companies develop new products and work with clients.
The bubble of academia conditions people into thinking that making discoveries is the most noble and pure work you could do, and everything else is “selling out”. But what’s the point of discovering new things if you’re just going to put it in a jargon-filled, paywalled paper and it doesn’t actually help people in your community that you claim to be helping?
That’s why I like my job so much – my products are directly used by patients and healthcare providers. It’s more my speed!