Last month I moderated a panel discussion on Communications Careers for PhD Scientists. The panel discussion was part of the NIH-supported BEST program (Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training), a collaboration between Emory University and Georgia Tech. Below, I have summarized the discussions from that panel with the hope that it may be a valuable resource for those considering a career in science communication or journalism.

General Career Insights

  • What is the difference between medical writer, science writer and journalist?
    • The panelists agreed that the terms differ, primarily based on who the target audience is
      • Medical writer: typically writes for a medical audience
      • Science writer: typically writes about scientific advances
      • Journalist: writes feature articles
  • The term “medical communicator” is becoming a popular option amongst some writers due to it’s more general nature
  • The terms may also differ based on who the client is or who commissioned the work

Getting the Job

  • Are there any opportunities for internships in medical writing?
    • Medical communication companies may offer internships but rarely advertise them publicly. Be prepared to cold call or email companies of interest to ask about internship opportunities
  • What advice do you have for securing an internship?
    • It is important to be aggressive when seeking out an internship. If you are in school, try and do an internship every semester. During your internship, start thinking about the next internship you want to do and make inquiries about it
  • Are there any certificate programs that would set someone apart from other job candidates?
    • Most panelists agreed that special certificates are rarely needed to set someone apart from other job candidates in the communications field. However, a few options to consider are:
      • Participate in a science communications program where available. E.g., there is one at UC Santa Cruz (http://scicom.ucsc.edu/)
      • Adobe InDesign may be helpful for feature writers so consider highlighting your expertise with this software if you are applying for a feature writer position
      • Regulatory writers may benefit from getting a certificate from the Regulatory Affairs Professionals Society (RAPS)
  • What types of writing samples do I need to submit with my job application?
    • Tailor your writing samples based on your target audience. E.g., if you are interviewing for a job as a feature article writer, showcase writing samples that are related to that genre, as opposed to showcasing academic manuscripts
    • Some employers may specifically request multiple writing samples to assess your ability to communicate to different audiences (e.g. physician audience vs. patient audience)
    • With jobs aimed at writing for the general public, it is important to showcase your ability to communicate at an appropriate level for the public (6th grade)

Working in the Industry

  • What does a day-in-the-life look like?
    • For writers in the medical communications industry, a typical day is divided into 3 chunks: 1) creating content, 2) revising content based on client feedback, and 3) getting client feedback
      • Challenges may arise when there are multiple stakeholders providing feedback on the deliverable
    • For journalists, a typical day is also segmented into 3 chunks: 1) writing, 2) following up on new leads/setting up interviews for new projects, 3) sending emails and making phone calls to get new work
      • However, not every day is the same. Often times, interviews and other activities are scheduled based on the source’s availability
  • What does the career ladder look like? Is it a well-established, step-wise process like in academia?
    • The typical process of career advancement within a medical communication agency is as follows (note: the terminology used to describe each position may differ from company to company):
      • Title: (junior) medical/scientific writer (role: developing content under supervision)
      • Title: senior medical/scientific writer; content manager (role: developing content more independently)
      • Title: associate medical/scientific director (role: overseeing a team of writers)
      • Title: medical/scientific director; VP scientific services (role: being involved in strategy and providing recommendations to clients)
    • Freelance writers or journalists often have unique career goals, such as writing a book
  • What are the salary expectations?
    • Journalists can expect to earn $0.70 – $2.00 per word ($1.10 per word is a common standard)
    • Based on the American Medical Writers Association salary survey (Bairnsfather S. AMWA Journal, Vol. 27, No. 2, 2012), seasoned medical writers in the southeastern United States can expect to earn ~$83,000/year (however, panelists commented that a more typical starting salary for a junior medical writer may be ~ $50,000/year)
    • Freelance medical writers are typically paid per project or at an hourly rate
    • Do not be afraid to negotiate on pay. If possible, leverage your past years of writing experience during graduate school to negotiate a higher pay grade

Networking

  • What are effective ways to network?
    • Focus on forming personal relationships, rather than asking for a job
    • Follow up aggressively (e.g., even if there is no official interview available, request an informational conversation with the hiring manager)
    • After a job interview or informational session, get everyone’s business card and send follow up/thank you emails within 24-48 hours (in the email, reference a topic that you talked about during the interview to reinforce that you were actively listening and engaged during the conversation)
    • Leverage the people in your current network. E.g., someone in your network may know the person you are trying to connect with. It always helps to identify some common ground when connecting with a new person
    • Utilize LinkedIn as a networking tool, especially if you are nervous about approaching someone face to face
  • How has your network helped you get to where you are?
    • Networking is very important, whether for securing new clients, seeking advise about your current job, or when looking to transition into a new job
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Information about the Panelists:

Karen Ventii, PhD (moderator): Dr Karen Ventii, is a medical communication specialist who is passionate about empowering the next generation of medical writers. Her efforts focus on training and supporting the development of medical writers around the world.

Sonya Collins: Sonya Collins (@SonyaCollins) is an independent journalist covering health care, medicine, and biomedical research. She is a regular contributor to WebMD Magazine, WebMD.com, CURE, Genome, Pharmacy Today, and Yale Medicine. Her stories have also appeared in Scientific American, Georgia Health News, and publications served by the Georgia Public Health News Bureau.

Natalie Duggan: Natalie Duggan (@TalieTalks) joined the CDC Foundation as a communications specialist in June 2014. She provides a wide variety of communications services for the Foundation and CDC including blogs, speechwriting, press releases, project management, graphic design and photography support.

JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM: JoAnna Pendergrass is a veterinarian and medical writer. JoAnna has worked as a medical writer in hematology/oncology, and has recently expanded her writing experience by writing veterinary-focused articles for wikiHow.com.

Sheila Tefft: Sheila Tefft (@TefftSheila), a senior lecturer in the Emory Writing Program, was a reporter, editor and foreign correspondent for almost 25 years. She served as journalism director from 2000-2009. Prior to joining Emory, she taught journalism and writing courses at Louisiana State University. She spent 12 years in Asia where she was a correspondent and bureau chief for The Christian Science Monitor.