How do you know if medical writing is the right career for you? There are as many ways to be a medical writer as there are ways to be a scientist. You can work in academia, industry (medical devices, pharmaceuticals, etc.), news organizations, government, or for yourself. You can write manuscripts, reports on clinical trials, news articles, regulatory submissions, meeting abstracts, patient education materials, and even slide decks. The choices are myriad, the pay (generally) good, and the jobs plentiful--if you are willing to be flexible and you have some related experience.
As with most careers, the hardest part is getting started. My path was via an industrial postdoc in medical publications, writing clinical trial manuscripts for a large pharmaceutical company. The postdoc, a 1-year residency program through the School of Pharmacy at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, is the only one in the nation, as far as I know (and there is only one resident per year). My qualifications for this admittedly hard-to-find position? A Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, an interest in and an aptitude for writing, and a few publications in graduate school--no formal training in writing whatsoever. But before you yell "Eureka!," drop everything, and rush out to find yourself a great job as a medical writer, here are 10 questions to ask yourself--and please be honest with your answers.
#10: Are you good at meeting deadlines, especially ones set by others?
If you answered anything but a resounding "yes," stop reading right now! You and medical writing were probably not meant to be. Medical writers almost always have deadlines, and they are often rather short.
#9: Are you computer-savvy?
While you need not be a computer guru, at minimum you will need to know your way around a word processing program (for text and tables), a graphing program (for figures), a literature search tool, and the Internet.
#8: Are you a people-person?
Medical writing is a career that requires a mix of people skills. You need to understand your customers' expectations, endure numerous, often contradictory, rewrites, graciously accept criticism of your writing, and persuade others to meet your deadlines so you can meet theirs. On the other hand, you will also spend a fair amount of time alone, as most people find writing to be a solitary activity that requires quiet and concentration. The amount of daily interaction with people varies by the position, the type of writing, and the environment. It is important to decide how much daily contact you enjoy, and ask about it when looking for a job. I thought manuscript writing would be ideal, since no one would ever bother me and I could work in peace. That was true--my phone rang about once a week--but I was surprised to discover that kind of solitude bores me. Other writers thrive on it.
#7: Are you detail-oriented?
Are you willing to dig through stacks of data to find the one number missing from the summary you received? Are you patient enough to examine complex tables to ensure that all the numbers add up? Are you willing to check the references that others give you (and then find the correct references when they are wrong)? If not, then medical writing may not be for you.
#6: Are you an expert linguist and grammarian?
Don't panic--it's a trick question! To be a medical writer, you must be fluent in the language you are using, and you must be able to construct logical, grammatically correct sentences. Knowing the difference between a dangling participle, a split infinitive, and a gerund is not important, so long as you use them correctly. Frankly, I wouldn't know a dangling participle if I tripped over one.
#5: Are you willing to learn a new field?
Most Ph.D.s are highly specialized, but they have the skills and knowledge base to learn almost anything. Are you willing to branch out from neurology to dermatology? From basic to clinical science (where most jobs are)? Jobs will be easier to find--and keep--if you are willing and able to be flexible.
#4: How important is it to you to be part of the data creation process?
If you love experiments and creating new data, then you probably need to stay in research. As a medical writer, you will usually see data only after it has been collected by researchers and analyzed by statisticians. Your job will be to extract the important concepts, create a few seminal tables or figures, and form a cohesive story to convince the reader of the veracity and relevancy of the data. Ask yourself if you enjoy this process. After all, the hardest (and often the most rewarding) part of writing is deciding what to say.
#3: Are you ready to "leave science"?
To me, the answer is a matter of semantics. True, I no longer create knowledge itself. Instead, I create ways to share that knowledge in an audience-appropriate manner. Do I think I've "left science"? No, I just choose to use my talents in a different part of the scientific process. Does my graduate school advisor think I've "left science"? Probably.
#2: How do you feel about ghostwriting?
Here's the truth: Most medical writers ghostwrite. With manuscripts, abstracts, slide decks, regulatory submissions, and the like, you will rarely, if ever, see your name in the author list. Sure, policies differ (and journalism is a notable exception), but usually your contributions will end up in the acknowledgements, if anywhere. Think long and hard about whether this situation bothers you--the majority of successful medical writers don't mind a bit.
#1: Do you like to write?
With all the career choices you have, why do something you don't enjoy? I quickly discovered that writing manuscripts was not for me, but the contacts I made during that postdoc paid off. One of the authors for whom I wrote a clinical manuscript took a new job in another part of the same pharmaceutical company, and she offered me a different type of medical writing position. I've moved away from manuscripts and into marketing, writing and managing the slide decks we use for scientific presentations at conferences, investigators' meetings, and product advisory boards. There is science, writing, organization (my true love, probably!), daily interpersonal contact, and travel. I've found a job that's right for me--I certainly hope that you find one that's right for you, too.