DIARY INSTALLMENT #7

So I was all dressed up with my fancy new CV and nowhere to go. The obvious step at the time was to apply for literally hundreds of medical writer positions: These seemed to be the only appropriate and available positions open to me. Also, I believed that a position such as this would be a good stepping stone from the laboratory to a career in scientific writing. Unfortunately the whole process was draining, to say the least.

I scoured the broadsheets and scientific magazines on job days, but had not really appreciated how "fierce" the competition out there appeared to be. Apparently there are plenty of candidates with strong scientific backgrounds (including Ph.D.s), immaculate written and oral communications skills, AND several years of experience in the medical communications field. Obviously godlike figures. But what happens to the many lesser mortals, like myself, who are desperate to make the transition from the lab?

The process of applying for medical writer positions soon became very routine. After the carefully drafted CV and tailor-made cover letter was zipped off, a quick chat to the personnel officer was often followed by a huge pack of writing and editing tests pounding through my letterbox. Daunting. The tests could easily take 4 or 5 hours of work and consisted of anything from compiling a news-type article for the launch of a new wonder drug to editing a nasty translation of some clinical data reports. Although I enjoyed the variety of the material I was presented with, I often wondered if the style of the writing that was expected was inflexible and if this lack of creativity could become slightly stifling.

From a total of over 20 applications, I succeeded to the interview stage on only a few occasions. Sadly none of these positions came to fruition. Although I felt I was more than capable of performing the role of medical writer in many environments, the lack of experience outside the laboratory seemed to obstruct me at every opportunity. In one particularly memorable disaster, an interview was canceled by the company with less than a few hours notice. Apparently the entire writing department of this company had just completely collapsed. And we thought the academic research environment was insecure!

Following this depressing episode, I realized I was getting nowhere fast. The trip to New York now just seems like a cruel temptation in my dim and distant past. But although I am comfortable job-seeking, with a view towards changing careers, it is not going to be easy. From now on, time and energy has to be spent as productively as possible. The pressure is on. It is time to network seriously. It is time to stop hiding behind a faceless CV and get out there.

In an attempt to get myself known, I arranged to meet some would-be contacts at what was to be a very important meeting. As it turned out, the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BA) Annual Festival was "networking heaven." Students and postdocs, myself included, generally only attend meetings which they can justify as being "directly relevant" to their subject area. This narrow approach unfortunately excludes them from opportunities within other disciplines of science and the world of communications. In contrast, one of the sessions I attended at the BA meeting was swarming with scientists and media-types. This was exactly the combination of people I needed to meet. This event opened up a whole new world for me.

The contacts I made during those few days have been incredibly valuable. There are a lot of people out there with fantastically friendly and useful advice; they simply need to be targeted. The opportunity to write this column materialized from an important meeting there; in addition I learned about a communications course which seems to be designed to bridge the gap between basic science and communications. Oddly enough, it is entitled "Science Communication" and is offered as a part-time diploma at Birkbeck College, London.

Finally, approximately 6 months since my initial thoughts on a change of career, it looks like things are beginning to take shape. I now am desperate to give this communications course a go...