A career in medical writing: An alternative way to use your life sciences degree

Delighted to include a guest blog post from one of our alumni Gillian Hancey, Senior Medical Writer at Porterhouse Medical. To hear more stories like Gillian’s book your place at “Careers in Life Sciences” on 1st February. bookings open on MyCareerHub and going fast!

So, you decided to go to university to study life sciences, and now you are set to become a qualified scientist. You have enjoyed the content of your degree and want science to be part of your future career, but you can’t see yourself working in a laboratory for the rest of your life. Does this sound familiar?
This was the position I was in when I was at university, so when I found out about medical writing as a career, I knew straight away it was something that I would like to pursue.
Medical writers work in the medical communications industry, which helps to provide medical, scientific and healthcare-related information to a range of audiences and in a variety of different ways. For example, as a medical writer, your audience might be doctors, nurses, patients or employees of a pharmaceutical company, and you might be providing them with information via printed materials, such as leaflets; digitally, via iPad apps or online programmes; or through slide presentations at educational meetings.
The healthcare industry is continually changing, and medical writing is a career that allows you to remain at the forefront of scientific advancements because it often involves working with data that are not yet in the public domain. Rather than being restricted to a particular area of research, medical writers have to juggle several different types of project at one time and work across many different disease areas; this means that the work is always interesting and varied, but also that you have to be very organised and able to effectively manage your time.
A science background is essential for medical writing because you must be able to quickly understand different diseases or therapy areas and complex scientific data. However, you also need excellent writing skills. Needless to say, make sure you thoroughly proofread your CV and cover letter if you apply for a medical writing position because your potential employer will be looking at how well your application documents are written as well as your qualifications and experience.
I can honestly say that I really enjoy my job, and I look forward to going into the office every day and tackling different projects. However, it is not always plain sailing. For me to employ a trainee writer, I need to know that they will be dedicated to the role because it can be stressful: deadlines are often tight and long hours of work may be required to meet them. Medical writers tend to work with many clients from many different pharmaceutical companies and have to effectively meet all their needs. Our clients are often under a great deal of pressure and rely on us to support them in their role.
Another point to add is that, if you are desperate to stay in Edinburgh, medical writing is probably not for you. Medical writers often work at medical communications agencies, which are concentrated around the South East and North West of England, where pharmaceutical companies are predominantly based. The industry is not yet widespread in Scotland, but it is growing, and new agencies and branches are appearing all the time. If you are looking to start out as a medical writer, I would recommend that you don’t try to choose where you want to live; trainee positions are hard to come by, so you need to be willing to move to where they are. As you become more experienced, you will become a more appealing candidate and will be able to be picky about where you live.
On that note, a little experience goes a long way in medical communications, so take advantage of any relevant opportunities when you first graduate, even if it is not the exact role (or salary) you are ultimately looking for. After finishing university, I initially took a post as an editor for a scientific publishing company in London to try and gain more experience that would be useful for a career in medical writing. This role gave me good experience of proofreading scientific text and preparing manuscripts for publication, but it wasn’t an easy time. I was living in London on a very low salary, so I had to live in a crowded house share around the corner from the office to minimise rent payments and avoid commuting costs. I spent my evenings and weekends doing volunteer writing work for charitable agencies to gain more experience that I could put on my CV. After nearly a year, this paid off; I was offered a trainee medical writer position and was able to move to an area where I wanted to live. Since then, I have progressed up the career ladder of medical writing.
So, my last piece of advice (which doesn’t just apply to medical communications) is to be enthusiastic and willing to learn when you first start out. The work you are given when you first start a new role may not be the most interesting task of your career, but embrace the opportunity to learn about industry processes from whatever work you are given and be enthusiastic about helping other members of your team. The more you take on board, the faster you will progress, and your colleagues will be more willing to steer opportunities your way if you demonstrate that you are a motivated individual who is dedicated to any task you are given.
Good luck!


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