Diving all in: Steps I’ve taken to prepare for a career as a medical communicator

The PhD/Postdoc blog series features scientists at different stages of career development as they explore and plan for their next steps.

Current position: Ph.D. Candidate, Immunity, Infection, & Inflammation (I3) Research Track; Freelance medical writer & blogger
Program start date:  September 2011
Institution: Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences

 When I began my graduate journey I wasn’t sure what my career objectives were or how I would accomplish them. I quickly realized that it was ‘trendy’ to make assertions of how I was going to transition into industry, but that was really the extent of my plan at this point. Furthermore, I thought the only possible route into industry for a Ph.D. was to be a post-doc or bench scientist for a small startup or large pharmaceutical company. Little did I know that this was just one option of many! At this point, I decided that it was time to make myself competitive if I wanted to land one of these coveted positions, but it wasn’t until exciting new event and career development invitations started appearing in my inbox from iJOBS, the new NIH Best site of Rutgers University, late in my graduate training, that I realized it was time to take action. I quickly signed up for the SciPhd course offered by the program, and I tell you, my mind was completely blown away by the amount of information I received and the course of my life plan altered forever! Below I detail my story from that point on and also give a series of steps that I believe will make the transition much smoother for other graduate students and postdocs, who wish to leave (or stay in) academia.

Step 1: Choose a focus as early as possible

This is key. As an early graduate student (even to this day), I was always interested in learning from the more senior students and recent graduates of my program. Over and over again, it seemed that I could put them into two categories. Category A individuals were decisive and knew exactly what they wanted career wise, whether it was to become an academic post-doc, transition into industry, or leave science all together, they firmly set a goal and worked towards it. Category B individuals, on the other hand, were indecisive and had a jack of all trades approach to the job market, never taking the time to develop expertise in one area in order to set themselves apart from the competition. Honestly, the majority of students I ran into fell into this latter group. Don’t get me wrong, they were brilliant, hard working, and published multiple papers, but because of their lack of specific preparation for life after graduate school, conversations months after they defended often left me afraid. In some instances, they informed me of hundreds of industry jobs they applied to just to end up taking a post-doc at the lab down the hall from their dissertation lab because that was all they could find. I quickly figured out that their dilemma wasn’t because they weren’t qualified for these industry positions or dream post-doc, but simply because they did not present themselves as an early career professional that had taken the preparation needed to enter a specific field at entry level.   On the other hand when I talked to category A individuals, many of them had a post-doc or industry position lined up before they graduated. In some cases they were even able to get picky as they had multiple offers. We all want to be in category A, right? I knew I sure did, so I figured out what set the two groups apart (usually just an extra course, internship experience, or laboratory skill) and started down the road that eventually led me here, writing a blog post for you! After completing the SciPhD course, early in my fourth year, I knew a career as a medical writer, was perfect for me. From that point forward, I thought of myself as a medical writer and did everything in my power to get others to see me as one also.

Step 2: Develop a plan of action and stick to it

We all have different end goals and personal pressures outside of lab. For me, I want to 1) eventually dictate my schedule and work for myself, 2) have the freedom to continue learning new scientific and medical information, and 3) be able to work from the US, but also from the Caribbean. Medical writing checked all of my requirements. I knew that if I wanted to eventually have my own medical communications company, I needed to start from the bottom and work my way up. I decided that while I finished my Ph.D., I needed to get medical writing/communication experience in order to be hired by a medical communications agency after graduation. My current plan is to work for the agency for 3-5 years and then transition into freelance medical writing full time. Having a detailed plan for my future and the eventual promise of being able to spend more time with my children (and the opportunity to homeschool them) is my great motivator.

Step 3: Submerge yourself in professional development and real world experiences

I have turned into what you could call a medical writing fanatic! Whenever I have a second away from lab or my dissertation responsibilities, I’m learning whatever I can about medical writing and successful freelance medical writers. I quickly learned about the student run blog of the iJOBS program, and became a writer and editor for this publication. I also joined medical writing professional organizations, signed up for courses on the topic, attended local freelance medical writing conferences, and began freelance writing, which is allowing me to develop a portfolio.

I have started drafting cover letters and applying for jobs, while I continue to look for more opportunities that will help develop my writing skills, like applying to write for the NIH Best blog! This is very tiring (not helped by having a one-year-old) and I now think of every night as an ‘all-nighter,’ but my hard work is paying off and I am extremely grateful for every opportunity that comes my way.

The moral of the story, category B individuals are just as qualified as their category A counterparts. The difference between the groups is in their preparation. When we all applied for graduate school, we knew we had to present ourselves as the complete biomedical focused package. The same is true for the job market. While I’m no expert (ask me in 10 years), I believe employers appreciate the effort required of an individual to invest in their future career while still in school. In addition, experience gained through interning and/or freelancing can help you get past that dreaded 1+ year(s) experience requirement that so many job postings boldly state.

What are your thoughts? How are you preparing while finishing you’re graduate or post-doc training for you’re career transition? Comment below with any success stories. Good luck to everyone. Now let’s go accomplish our goals!

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