Careers in Scientific Writing Blog Post
Written by: Shanzeh Mumtaz Ahmed, MSc | Freelance Medical Writer & Editor
If you’re not completely sure you want to stay in academia after graduating, but also aren’t sure what else is out there for you, then read on to hear from our panelists, Sanna Abbasi, Ph.D. and Jenna Kitz, Ph.D.
On April 13th, 2023, S2BN hosted a webinar titled, ‘Leveraging Your Academic Skills: Careers in Scientific Writing.” During this webinar, we heard from Sanna, a Scientific Writer with DNA Genotek, and Jenna, a Medical Writer with The Curry Rockefeller Group. We learnt about their transition from academia into writing, what skills from graduate school help them in their current roles, and their perspective on the overall landscape of medical communications.
Sanna Abbasi has a Ph.D. in Biochemistry from Western University and is now a full-time scientific writer with just under 2 years of experience.
Jenna Kitz, also a Western graduate, has a Ph.D. in Anatomy and Cell Biology. She’s now a full-time medical writer with 2+ years of experience and an aspiration to eventually become a Scientific Director.
There were a range of questions addressed to the panelists from the moderator and the audience. For convenience, we’ll tackle them in 3 categories.
· Questions about the transition out of academia and resources for graduate students
· Questions about the roles themselves
· Questions about the medical communications field at large
Transitioning Into Industry & Resources for Students
From academia to industry
Sanna’s transition from academia to industry started during the final year of her Ph.D. With the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down laboratories across the world, Sanna found herself unable to conduct experimental research; she, along with many other graduate students, were now required to work remotely. To remain productive, Sanna switched up her priorities and began focusing on her writing. She published her first review paper and second research paper during this time. From this unique experience, she learned two key things about herself:
· First, that she enjoyed working from home and was more productive
· Second, that she really enjoyed the entire process of writing and publishing manuscripts
This was the awakening that kickstarted Sanna’s transition into the world of scientific writing!
Jenna’s story started off a little differently. She began looking for opportunities while she was still completing her Ph.D. (a multi-tasking mastermind). She saw that a graduate of her program was working for a medical communications agency. She reached out to them and started out as a Contract Writer; then, a part-time employee, and finally, a full-time member after submitting her Ph.D.
Ways to translate scientific skills for industry
Sanna applied to several writing jobs on LinkedIn and Indeed. Roughly two months after defending her Ph.D. thesis, she was offered the job of Science and Technical Writer at Canada’s Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre by B.C. Cancer. After she’d been on the job for some time, her manager revealed that about 20 other people had interviewed for that position. Her manager stated that Sanna had included a YouTube link to her 3-Minute Thesis talk in her cover letter which caught their attention as it was unorthodox and creative. Sanna’s takeaway here is, be concise but also creative in your cover letters! Think about how to stand out and highlight your experiences that are most relevant to the job. Also, wherever possible, try to provide examples to back up your claims.
Sanna also shared that she would initially only apply to jobs if she aligned with 100% of the job requirements. She emphasizes that you shouldn’t do this! Apply and highlight your transferable skills. You have more than you think and should be confident about your capabilities.
Jenna believes that, as graduate students, you are well positioned to stand out. You must learn to market yourself. For example, as a Ph.D., you have successfully planned, executed, and published work on a given project within a specified timeline and within budget. Begin thinking of your achievements from this type of lens.
For Jenna, her strength was her creativity. Like in making figures from scratch. Think about your strengths and how they can benefit the company.
Resources that helped them get their current role
As mentioned before, Sanna applied to posted jobs on LinkedIn and Indeed. She mentioned that getting your first job is the absolute hardest. Experience is extremely valuable to recruiters as it shows that you can actually successfully perform the job. Bonus, after you acquire some experience, recruiters will eventually begin to reach out to you with jobs! Make a LinkedIn account if you don’t have one already; it’s a valuable resource for not only job postings but also to network.
Jenna recalls that for her first position, she made sure to email the Hiring Manager. When she didn’t hear back, she emailed again to express interest in the role should anything open up at a later time, and they reached out to her about 6 months later. The process doesn’t always have to be conventional so don’t be afraid to make follow-up calls.
In terms of formal training (as in, taking science writing courses), neither had done so and didn’t think it is necessary for their current roles. It can help with some of the more technical parts of writing but is certainly not a requirement. Jenna mentioned that her company has a Postdoctoral Fellowship available for medical writing, so there are some avenues available.
Scientific and Medical Writers
What’s the difference between the two?
As a Medical Writer, Jenna gets to enjoy the science! She puts together presentations, communication guides, FAQ documents for pharmaceutical employees. Her company does also work on manuscripts, but she doesn’t very often. She also hasn’t done any regulatory writing, yet. She notes that needs and priorities can change as they are dependent on the client.
Based on Sanna’s two roles as a Scientific Writer, she feels the role varies with each position. Her first role as a Science & Technical Writer saw her spend half her time working on manuscripts while the other half of her time was spent writing news articles on recently published manuscripts, creating one-pagers, and crafting social media posts to promote the work she had written. In her current role, Sanna is part of the downstream marketing department, bringing her scientific expertise to the table. Here, she works on blog posts, case studies, flyers, slide decks, and white papers. According to Sanna’s experiences, this type of role is more difficult to gauge from just the title and it would be best to review the responsibilities from the job posting.
Skills from graduate school that can be applied to their current roles
Jenna explained that while knowledge on manuscripts, abstracts, posters, and presentations will all be helpful, there are also a variety of other skills you will have honed in graduate school that are helpful in her role. For example, the ability to use referencing software, to identify a good quality reference, to learn new things, to critically assess research papers, and articulate scientific concepts are all key skills.
For Sanna, she highlighted that graduate school gave her a sense of responsibility and ownership that has stayed with her. She takes pride in seeing a task through to completion, even as priorities change. She also refined her presentation, communication, and teaching skills from graduate school, and has been able to apply each of these skills in her current role.
Most challenging vs rewarding aspects of the job
Jenna feels most rewarded when her innovative work is recognized by the client and/or the company. For example, as a contract writer, she was tasked with creating a poster and when she was unable to find a suitable figure for what she wanted to describe, created her own. The client loved it so much, they continued to use it for other deliverables. This was part of the reason why the company later hired her as a full-time employee.
She finds the technical grammar aspects of the writing itself to be more challenging as that’s not something she has formal training in. However, it’s not a deterrent and you certainly get better with practice.
Sanna’s favourite part is that she gets opportunities to continually learn. She’s able to attend national and international conferences just to learn about the new data in the industry.
One of her biggest challenges was the transition to a very collaborative environment. A Ph.D. thesis is typically an independent project, but industry roles can require a lot of close contact across the many teams working on one project/campaign. You need to rely on other people and must learn to be cordial but also firm when trying to adhere to project timelines.
On a related note, Jenna clarified that her role is usually less collaborative. She is given her priorities for the week and can arrange her schedule accordingly. She emphasized that should she need assistance, she can always access it, but also prefers this way of working.
Do you need to have writing samples?
Sanna did need to provide some writing samples for her roles. For the first role, she relied on her graduate work. For her second, it was a mix of her graduate work and writing from her first role.
Jenna did not need to provide writing samples but did need to complete a writing test. These can range from creating one-page summaries about articles that were provided to you to making a presentation or writing an abstract for a paper.
The Medical Communications Industry
How is the field evolving?
Sanna believes there is a clear connection between scientific advances and the need to communicate them.
Jenna agrees that the field of medical communications is only getting bigger as the pharmaceutical industry continues to grow. New technologies, like ChatGPT, can factor into the writing field, but as of now, it’s an additional tool that can be used for writing.
How are writers different from Medical Science Liaisons (MSLs)?
Jenna shared that there are people who go from being medical writers to MSLs. An MSL takes information about a new product to physicians. They act as a source of information for them, especially about on and off-label uses of the new product. The writers are the ones creating the materials that MSLs then take to physicians.
Sanna doesn’t really work with MSLs but shared that she knows one major component of their job is frequent traveling.
Career trajectory for writers
For medical writers it typically goes (but can vary based on the company):
Medical Writer Senior Medical Writer Associate Scientific Director Scientific Director
Moving into management allows for more input in the overall conceptualization of the product and closer collaboration with the clients.
However, there is a lot of flexibility! You could go from a writer to an MSL or even move into pharmaceutical companies directly. You could pivot to sales, become a product representative, move into Research & Development, and even become Directors of Scientific Communications. There is a lot of potential and opportunity.
Some pros and cons of industry jobs:
They can provide less stability than a government job, for example, in terms of not providing a pension. There can also be a lot of job-hopping as companies get bought out.
However, the pay is generally better. They also do provide good health and dental benefits, as well as performance-based annual bonuses. They don’t usually provide pensions, but can match your RRSP contributions, up to a certain threshold (this may change depending on the company).
Regulatory writing: what is it?
Neither Jenna nor Sanna do a lot of regulatory writing in their roles. Some related things they do work on can include FDA and Grant submissions. They shared that this writing is more technical and can be a bit “dry”. However, if that’s something you enjoy, it can be a well-paying job.
How to get your foot in the door without formal writing experience
Jenna started off as a contract writer. You would get paid less, but you can gain some experience that way, which you can then highlight when applying for other positions.
Sanna used her Ph.D. writing experience when applying for her first job. She also suggested looking for extracurricular writing opportunities, if part-time or contract work isn’t something you can accommodate while in school. You could also look for specifically freelance positions that tend to be more short-term.
How to approach looking for roles in international companies
Jenna is based in Canada but works for a US company. However, this company already had a system for hiring Canadians and her pay, taxes, and holidays are all Canadian.
Both Sanna and Jenna suggest looking for companies that are subsidiaries or have offices in your location of interest so that they already have a system in place for hiring. It can be challenging otherwise.
Is a Ph.D. necessary?
The short answer from both panelists was no, it is not necessary. There may be some concern about hitting a ceiling in terms of upward mobility if you have a Masters but it can depend on the company and individual. Don’t give up! Any advanced degree should be enough to get your foot in the door.
On behalf of S2BN, we hope you found the webinar helpful. Feel free to check out the website for more information on upcoming events!