Academia was a dream for me for a really long time. I still love academia. Maybe one day I will go back, but in this season, I am a science writer and I’m loving it.
I get a lot of questions in my inbox, especially on LinkedIn, about how to become a science and medical writer and my path to science writing, so I wanted to share my story as well as some lessons that I learned along the way.
How I Became A Science/Medical Writer
In 2015, I graduated from my PhD and moved from Philadelphia, PA to San Diego, CA. If you’ve lived in these cities, then you know that the standard of living is completely different. It is much more expensive here in San Diego, CA. When we moved here, I realized very quickly that I needed to make some extra money on the side of my job.
A year or so before I finished my PhD, I had started a blog. The blog was beginning to do quite well. I was beginning to get affiliate commissions and Google AdSense. It generated a little bit of income. I ended up leveraging that blog to handle social media for a group of businesses here in San Diego. My responsibilities mainly included creating and posting to their social media to market the businesses.
Then I learned about freelance writing in 2017. I got super excited because I’d always enjoyed writing. Besides, I was always writing these social media posts and blog posts for clients. So I started thinking, “I would love to move away from doing social media to actually writing content… just writing content for other people and getting paid.”
Right around that time, I found a course by a phenomenal writer called Holly Porter Johnson. She had been a freelance writer for about four or five years, so I trusted her. I took the course and I learned so much.
About a month after the course, I landed my first long-term paying client as a freelance writer. Eventually my clientele included a business in personal finance, a medical practice and a health technology company, amongst others. I wrote everything from product descriptions, blog posts, social media content and email marketing content. For about a year, I was writing for all these types of clients and I was making good money on the side of my job as a postdoc.
In 2018, I did lose my job as a postdoc, but by this time, I was an established freelance writer. I quickly shifted to ramp up my writing to support my family and continued to write even when I got a job as an adjunct faculty at a community college in the beginning of 2020.
In late 2020 I found a posting on LinkedIn for an open role as a writer with a life and health science marketing agency. In January 2021, I started as a content specialist (fancy name for science writer at our company) with CG Life.
Who Can Become A Science (or Medical) Writer?
I told the story above because I wanted to provide some context on how I landed in this role.
It was a windy way but as you can see, I built up to it. If you are in a PhD or post-doc right now, that is what I want you to be doing.
Build up to the career you’d like to have.
That being said, here are the characteristics most science and medical writing jobs look for.
- A background in the sciences. This doesn’t always have to mean you have an advanced degree like a PhD or PharmD, although having those can help.
- Knowledge of different types of written documents. As a science or medical writer, you could be producing a range of documents depending on where you work. You might be creating blog content, technical documents, case studies or white papers amongst others. It’s important you understand how each of these are written.
- Great communication skills. Science and medical writing is an important branch of medical communications. Therefore it makes sense to have great communication skills.
- Knowledge of digital marketing. This will not apply to every science or medical writer role but having knowledge of things like SEO and how various social media networks work is helpful if you’re going to be creating content for these media.
Going from PhD to science/medical writer? Here’s what to remember.
Learn and practice.
As a PhD student, it is likely you will build some writing skills. You use your writing skills in endless ways everyday!
Beyond this, if your goal is to get into medical writing, look for opportunities to learn and write. Like I said earlier, you could be writing a range of document types in your role. Research how to write these and start practicing. This way you’ll be able to speak authoritatively when you go for an interview.
Having a freelance writing business allowed me to really speak confidently during my interviews about my skills. I knew these things, so I wasn’t going to be trained from scratch – this was an asset.
One tip I like to give people is to make a habit of reading job descriptions even if they don’t mean to apply for a particular role. Why? Because science and medical writer roles regularly include what skills they are looking for.
That’s your opportunity to note the required skills so you can practice them.
Also, if you’re a PhD student right now or postdoc or in academia, I know there are science writing and communications programs at certain schools. Find out what is available to you for free or at a reduced cost at your university. Take them alongside what you are doing currently so that you can have those skills.
Don’t be afraid to apply.
I applied for many scientific and medical writing positions before I landed this one. In all of them I learned something about what was required to become a scientific writer. Eventually, I landed this role.
If you’ve been applying for writer roles and it seems things are not working out for you, don’t give up! Continue to hone in on your skills. Continue to build up your skill and the doors will open up for you.
Take the time to invest in yourself by reading and building up those skills.
Moving out of academia into a role that is well compensated and which you really enjoy has everything to do with identifying the skills you have and lining that up with the market demand. This is not something I was not taught in graduate school and I can assure you, I am glad I learned it. Build up the skills, build your network and don’t stop applying until you get there.