If I could go back, I’d tell myself that getting a job as a medical writer isn’t just “applying for a bunch of “medical writer” positions until something sticks”.
I don’t know about you, but I like going into things with a plan.
Whether that’s a day out, a vacation, or the laboratory experiments I used to do. I always have some semblance of a plan. You know what I’m talking about.
I get a couple of Twitter DMs and emails every day from people asking:
- How they can become a medical writer
- How I became a medical writer
- What they need to do to become a medical writer
These are quite broad questions, and I try my best to answer each of those messages in a tailored manner.
At a certain point, though, I realized I’d been answering using the same sentences, sharing the same links, and essentially saying the same things. Not because I was rushing my responses, but because people seemed to be coming at it from a similar point of view – as outsiders who just want to land a role.
So, I’ve summarized my top advice below for easy access.
Below are the top 3 things that I think helped me when I was applying for medical writer jobs.
1. Understanding which type of product I wanted to work on.
I remember exactly a year ago, in August, I was wrapping up my dissertation while attempting to apply for jobs.
I’d heard of “medical writer”, and had done 1 informational interview, and thought I knew everything I needed to know. I also thought I wouldn’t mind essentially taking what I could get in terms of my first job, even if it didn’t excite me THAT much.
This rather defeatist way of thinking didn’t help me land many interviews. I only went through 1 interview process before ultimately being rejected after I submitted references at their request (should I have left out my toxic former PI from that list? We’ll never know).
I had a pretty narrow understanding of what medical writers did, and looking back, I wish I could’ve known more about how many options within medical writing that I had!
I mention this in my Job Search Timeline blog post where I describe what happened in my job search process month-by-month, but I took some time off of job applications once I started my postdoc, for multiple reasons related to some toxic former PI manipulation as well as low self-esteem.
But during that time, I looked into medical writing a bit more, and realized it was more diverse of a field than I had initially realized! That’s when things changed for the better. When I started applying for jobs again in January 2022, I had a much easier time getting interviews, and had signed my job contract by mid-February.
As I’ve mentioned in numerous blog posts and Tweets, medical writing is an umbrella category term that encompasses the preparation of all sorts of products.
Before you go out and start applying for jobs willy-nilly, try to narrow down the area that you want to work in. It doesn’t have to be extremely specific, but this can help you play up your strengths (mentioned in the next bit).
Take a look below. All these products result from the work of medical writers! (Taken from: Ultimate Guide to Becoming A Medical Writer, AMWA)
- Abstracts for medical journals and medical conferences
- Advertisements for pharmaceuticals, devices, and other products
- Advisory board summaries
- Continuing medical education materials
- Decision aids for patients
- Grant proposals
- Health care policy documents
- Health education materials
- Magazine and newspaper articles
- Medical and health care books
- Medical and scientific journal articles
- Marketing materials
- Poster presentations for medical conferences
- Regulatory documents, including FDA submissions
- Sales training
- Slide presentations for medical conferences
- White papers
For example, I saw that list, and immediately knew which ones I wanted to work on in my job: Advertisements, continuing medical education materials, decision aids for patients, health education materials, and marketing materials.
On the other hand, I knew I wasn’t interested in stuff like abstracts, journal articles, regulatory documents and FDA submissions, and white papers. Maybe I would be sometime down the line, but not right off the bat.
Looking at the list above, which ones spark joy? Which ones sound boring and stuffy? Which ones sound way too intimidating for now? It’s okay to be a bit selective! Try to answer for yourself.
It’s also important to keep in mind that these roles will likely have different levels of experience required to be considered. This usually doesn’t mean postdoc experience. I mean, industry writing experience and experience in the areas that are relevant to those jobs, like clinical trials, pharmaceutical development, biotech products, sales experience, etc. Not all jobs are the same.
Don’t fret if you aren’t eligible to apply for a certain percentage of the medical writing jobs you look at. That’s totally normal. No one’s eligible for all jobs they consider!
What also helped me narrow down which kind of medical writing I wanted to do was to look into the actual industries IN “industry” that hired medical writers. That was key in allowing me to start looking up actual company names based on the categories shown below, and find concrete job listings to peruse and study.
Companies that hire medical writers (Taken from: Ultimate Guide to Becoming A Medical Writer, AMWA)
- Associations and professional health care societies
- Authors or investigators
- Biotechnology companies
- Clinical or contract research organizations (CROs)
- Communications, marketing, or advertising agencies
- Government agencies
- Health care organizations or providers
- Medical book publishers
- Medical device companies
- Medical education companies
- Medical schools or universities
- News outlets for health/medical news
- Peer‑reviewed medical journals
- Pharmaceutical companies
- Trade journals for health care professionals
Sure, it’s possible that the Venn diagram of “cool products” from list 1 and the types of companies from list 2 that you gravitated towards may not be a perfect circle. But this should help you narrow down the options a bit.
Why am I going on about narrowing down your options and being more informed about the types of products you could work on?
Keep reading to find out.
2. Identifying the responsibilities of the role and what experiences of mine align with them.
So once you identify the kinds of products that fascinate you, and the general areas and companies you want to work in, you can also start to look inwards to identify skills of yours that might be a good fit for those jobs.
I was especially interested in any sort of medical writing job that allowed me to tap into my experiences tutoring and working with clients, because I KNEW those experiences were slightly unique and put me in an advantageous spot compared to other Ph.D.s.
At first, tutoring KIDS and working with parents/tutoring coworkers might sound pretty random and you might wonder how that’s even relevant to medical writing.
Recall how I said in Section 1 that I was really interested in medical writing work for “advertisements, continuing medical education materials, decision aids for patients, health education materials, and marketing materials”.
Now, do you see how my tutoring experience and client-facing work makes more sense?
Preparing medical writing products that communicate science to patients and other laypeople, as well as investors, sales teams, students, and customers takes a different set of writing and communication skills than plain old academic writing.
Going for roles that I was genuinely interested in, and therefore could use my previous experiences in, resulted in a much higher interview invitation rate than when I was applying haphazardly to any medical writing job I came across.
What do you do that you actually enjoy? Writing scripts for a science-y podcast? Doing STEM outreach in middle schools and high schools? Teaching over labwork? Writing laboratory methods down for others to use? Trust me, there’s a niche for that in medical writing. You just have to look.
3. Taking advice from people who know what they’re talking about.
I’ve mentioned in my Everything That Happened With My Toxic Former Advisor post that he convinced me to stick around and not apply for jobs in the fall and winter because “the job market slows down” during that time, and that I could consider applying for jobs in the spring.
So, I defended my Ph.D. in September 2021, and stopped applying for jobs until late December 2021.
I spent 3 months as a postdoc in my Ph.D. lab absolutely miserable, and not really thinking about jobs for much of it, because I thought my PI knew more than I did about the current job market.
But when I got on Indeed and LinkedIn Jobs (the 2 main places I applied for jobs!) in late December to ramp up my job search again, I saw dozens of jobs that I could have researched and applied for, and from what I could see, there was no real slowdown of job availability just because it was the wintertime.
When I told my PI in our first January meeting that I was restarting my job search, he looked annoyed.
So, who did I talk to about getting a job outside of academia? People who’d been through it within the past few years:
Like I mentioned in Section 1, I had connected with a woman who got her Ph.D. from the same school I did, through a mentorship program at my Ph.D. institution, and I had 2-3 Zoom calls with her to talk about her job and her transition from being a Ph.D. student, to doing a postdoc in the same lab, to getting her medical writing job.
Even though her work wasn’t directly related to the type of work I wanted to do, it was incredible how much insight those few meetings with just 1 person provided.
The main takeaway from my meetings with her was that it was totally okay to stick around in your Ph.D. lab as a postdoc, if your PI allows it, to finish up work while looking for an appropriate job. She reassured me that she also knew a lot of people who did that and it’s a reasonable way to keep all parties relatively happy while maintaining a stable income.
Former Ph.D. Program Colleague
I’ve never been a very social person IRL, so I don’t have a ton of friends or people in my network, but I did know one person I rotated with during my first year rotations who ended up working for the state government. I texted her as well, asking about her job and what she did to get it. Although I didn’t want to work in the state government (not that there’s anything wrong about it, I think it’s great – I just didn’t want to move), I found her insights to be way more valuable than anything my PI or anyone within academia could tell me.
The main takeaways from my conversations with her were more generic, about resume and cover letter prep and general job application timing. She also gave me some insight on how people she knew left their labs and it helped me set boundaries when I eventually left.
Faculty Member Who Recently Left Industry
I actually met this one faculty member at a departmental lunch just before COVID started who shared that she had worked at a global policy think tank and had just become a professor in a neighboring department to ours.
I thought that was really interesting and exchanged emails with her. We ended up having a 30-minute meeting to talk about her career!
Talking with her was so helpful because it was one of the first real conversations that made me realize that I didn’t need to get a job doing labwork after my Ph.D. She had an engineering background and did a lot of hands-on work during her Ph.D. and postdoc, and then went and did policy research at the think tank.
Conversations like that helped me feel more confident in the utility of my skills outside labwork-related jobs.
If you’re interested, I have 2 posts where I talk about 12 cool non-labwork jobs:
When I was in grad school, I didn’t know any of these jobs existed. I pretty much had no idea where to even start looking when I was considering jobs outside the university. I knew I didn’t want to stick around to become a professor or run a lab, and that I always wanted to…
It’s been about a month since my last post where I introduced 7 non-labwork industry jobs I wish I knew about during grad school. In that one, I talked about medical writer, field application scientist, medical science liaison, sales scientist, museum scientist, and others! I did want to mention a few more fields, or realms,…
Another great resource was social media. I didn’t have a Twitter account back then, and didn’t use social media aside from Reddit.
So off to Reddit I went.
If you’re feeling iffy about getting information from anonymous people, like on Reddit, because you wonder how legitimate and reliable their words could be, I get it. Obviously, you’re not going to do exactly what they say based on blind faith.
Well, just know that I’m anonymous, too, I try my best to be helpful, and there are others like me out there.
I ended up having really useful and insightful conversations with 3 users who had gotten industry jobs after their Ph.D.s within the past year or so! Here’s the exact list of questions I asked one of them:
- How was the transition from Ph.D. to the postdoc and was it in the same lab or a different one you applied to?
- How long were you in the postdoc position until you got the job offer?
- What were the skills most useful to present or speak about during the job application process?
- What did you see yourself doing after your Ph.D. (immediately getting an industry job vs. doing a postdoc) and how does the way things played out meet those expectations? I’m struggling because I saw myself getting an industry position immediately out of graduate school and having to stick around as a postdoc in my current lab was not something I wanted or thought would happen.
I got useful answers and honestly a lot of reassurance from these types of messages! One useful thing that someone who got a medical writer job after a year of postdoc-ing in their Ph.D. lab said was:
My advice would be to use this time to get into any extra writing work you can, because I really feel that my freelance writing experience working with clients already helped my applications.
And I got my interviews (and eventual job offers) completely on cold-applying, no networking or anything, so it is totally possible.
Another person that I had interacted with on my city’s subreddit had mentioned that their wife is a medical writer, so I messaged them and they responded saying that their wife actually did some part-time academic journal manuscript editing through AJE while sticking around as a postdoc in their Ph.D. lab, which helped her get her actual medical writing job down the line: https://www.aje.com/
That was something I’d never heard of before, but it made total sense! Just that insight helped me realize that I could do part-time work to supplement my resumes depending on the types of jobs I wanted to get. Although I didn’t end up doing the academic journal manuscript editing service, I thought it was worth sharing for those who want to go that route.
As you can see, there are ways you can get helpful information here and there from folks outside of your current academic work environment. True, helpful, interesting insights from people who are actually in the industry and can share insights that can guide you to getting your first job.
Did I follow all their advice? Of course not, I don’t think doing everything they told me would have been physically possible, but those insights were still very valuable for me to figure out what path I wanted to take and the work I wanted to do.
And I hope my blog and Tweets are part of that experience for you!
There are plenty of people out there who are willing to share their experiences. You just have to reach out. Here’s a longer list for inspiration:
- Alumni from your program that got industry jobs – doesn’t matter if it’s not the exact position you want
- More senior people in your program – they may know people
- Your school’s career or graduate resource center may connect you to alumni through mentorship programs or alumni databases
- Faculty that recently (within ~3 years) came from industry
- Departmental and program events/seminars
- Social Media
- LinkedIn – go for people who went to your school if you want something in common!
Remember, this is just one person’s perspective, and you should always try to get multiple opinions on things like this. As you can see above, I gathered information from as many sources as possible about medical writing and writing careers for Ph.D.s.!
I genuinely feel like academics have this pretty narrow mindset, to no fault of their own, where they really can’t believe that their experiences are way more valid and useful in non-ac companies than they think. I almost fell into that thought process as well, even though I started grad school already being interested in possibly working on patents, tech transfer, or in the state government communicating science to companies and other divisions within the government.
The point of this post was to show you that improving your understanding of the types of medical writing jobs (and writing jobs in general) that are out there will only help your job search, because it’ll get you to look inwards and realize how your skills and passions can possibly align with them. In addition, it’s important to talk to people through informational chats because their insights are most likely going to be useful, even if they aren’t in the EXACT job you want to have.
I’m not saying the stuff I discussed in this post is the best, or only way to find appropriate jobs to apply for. I’m not an expert on everything related to medical writing and don’t know a lot about medical writing.
But the above are 3 things I really do recommend from my personal experience.
The skills I mentioned in the first section (communicating science to folks of various backgrounds, interacting with clients, and doing literature search in a discerning and efficient manner) have been much more useful than my knowledge on like 1 cell type in 1 disease.
Be confident, you have skills, you just have to identify them.
Until next time!