By Melissa A. Deri, PhD
This panel was organized by NYC Science Communication, with the support from The Office of Career Planning and Professional Development at The Graduate Center, The City University of New York, in order to provide an overview of medical communications, a look at what the job entails, and how to approach the current career landscape. The moderator—Preshita Gadkari, a doctoral candidate at Rutgers—led the discussion to focus on how young scientists could break into the industry and what they could expect in the medical writing profession.
Photographer: Xinjun Zhang
Christina Hughes, PhD Senior Director, Medical and Scientific Affairs, Medical Exchange International, New York
Qing Zhou, PhD, ELS Scientific Communications Scientist, Cook Research Incorporated, West Lafayette
Lashon Pringle, PhD Medical Director, Healthcare Consultancy Group, New York
Leighland Feinman, PhD Scientific Affairs Associate & Medical Writer, AXON Communications, New York
Typical Career Path
As with most career panels, when you ask a group of people about the typical path of how they got where they are today, you find that there is, in fact, no such thing as a typical path. Some panelists pursued a medical writing career straight from graduate school, another panelist after years as a postdoc. Some chose it as a way to apply science, others to satisfy a love of writing. Nonetheless, the common link between the four individuals was an enthusiasm for science paired with a dissatisfaction with the current reality of “doing science” as a career researcher. These were people who wanted to talk and write and think about science, but did not feel the pull of being the one holding the pipette, much less the one applying for grants to justify the expense of the pipette. They enjoyed the challenge of problem solving, but wanted more satisfying work where hard work led to tangible outcomes. Secondly, no one’s path was entirely solitary, as each panelist highlighted leveraging networks and connections to get into the field. The overwhelming recommendation for someone who wants to enter into the field is to make connections with current medical writers to find medical writing opportunities.
Practical Job Overview
Just as there are varied paths to get into medical writing, there are many versions of what medical writing can entail. Three of the panels work for medical communication agencies that work with outside clients, largely private pharmaceutical companies, but Qing Zhou works internally for a medical device company. Writers can work on publications, promotional materials, educational materials, and even strategy, helping clients to figure out what they want and need. Most medical writers work within teams and juggle a number of clients and projects all at once. The job is inherently social in that you will need to work with clients, doctors, statisticians, scientists, and business people. Thus, effective communication skills for various technical and lay audiences are key. Additionally, the critical thinking, problem solving, and analytical skills learned while completing PhD are constantly needed. Leighland Feinman described medical writing as a way “get paid to think … and come up with intriguing answers to problems.”
Career Outlook & Potential
The panel emphasized that the field of medical communications is an active and thriving area for PhDs to consider as an alternative to academia. Specifically, there are a number of medical communication companies with offices in New York (those discussed are listed in Table 1) nearly all of which are actively hiring PhDs straight from graduate school. The consensus was that while experience is always helpful, a postdoc does not hold any direct advantage to being hired as a medical writer. The greatest advantage for an applicant is to have a network connection within the field. One way Qing Zhou suggested to make these connections was by getting involved with the American Medical Writers Association.
Table 1. Selected Medical Communications Companies in New York
|AXON Communications||BGB||Flywheel Partners|
|Grey Healthcare Group||Healthcare Consultancy Group||Imprint Publications|
|Medical Exchange International|
Suggested starting salaries ranged from $60-85k and the panelists emphasized that there is ample room for upward mobility even within the first few years. Within the industry, there is significant fluidity and recruiters are always looking to bring experienced writers into other companies. Thus, within a company, promotions are common in order to stay competitive. In addition to career advancement, this fluidity offers the opportunity to shape your career and focus on the aspects of medical writing you enjoy. For example, Lashon Pringle found she especially liked strategizing and opted to take a position where she could equally write and strategize.
The panel was overwhelmingly positive, emphasizing that medical communications is an enjoyable field offering engaging work and a respectable salary. Most importantly, it is a field where there are actually job openings where PhDs are valued and sought after. A final note of encouragement for young scientists near or at the end of their PhD work was given by Christina Hughes: “You are absolutely employable and don’t think you’re not.”
Melissa Deri is a PhD radiochemist and science educator in New York City.
Editor: Monika Buczek