Lydia Morris: If at first you don’t succeed, revise, revise your plan

The PhD/Postdoc blog series features two scientists at different stages of career development as they explore and plan for their next steps.  Over the course of six months, Lydia Morris and Divya Shiroor will give monthly updates on their progress. Check back every 2nd and 4th Wednesday of the month for new posts.

Current position: Postdoctoral research trainee with a Ph.D. in Genetics and Molecular Biology
Postdoc start date: January 2013
Institution: University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (affectionately referred to as UNC)
Goals for this month: Apply for clinical research jobs and keep writing

March was a busy month job search wise! I interviewed for medical writing positions at two regulatory writing companies, which I had mentioned in last month’s post. In the end, neither company offered me a position. But, I learned a lot about what to expect on regulatory writing interviews, and I’m moving forward with a renewed plan for pursuing my medical writing career.

Out of four total interviews—including one phone interview and one in-person interview at each company—the same questions kept coming up. For anyone in a similar position, I thought it would be helpful to share my most frequently asked interview questions.

1. Tell me about yourself.
This is a standard question regardless of the field or industry. The interviewers are not looking to hear about your hobbies or your heart’s deepest desires. They want to know about your educational/career background and how that led to your applying for the position you’re interviewing for. I considered careers in both research and teaching before finding my sweet spot in scientific writing. I phrased my answer as a story going from undergraduate to my current postdoc position.

2. Describe your working knowledge of formatting documents in Microsoft Word.
The interviewers wanted me to go into detail. I talked about how and why to use styles, page and section breaks, table of contents with bookmarks, and making cross-references. There are a few other Word functions I use pretty often, but I think those are the basics for medical writing (see more Word tips here).

3. Why do you wish to be a medical writer?
I had already written about this in my cover letter. So, I elaborated a bit and talked about why I’d like to work for the specific company I was interviewing for. Before applying, I spent time on the company websites to see if their mission and approaches fit with my values and goals. By the time I got to the interview stage, I was confident in my answers.

4. Where do you see yourself in five years?
I had an easy time answering this question. I could see myself happy working at either of the two companies long-term. I got to interview with current employees. At both companies, the employees were both passionate about the work and loved their work environment. I also mentioned mentorship, which is the aspect of being a lab scientist that I’ll miss the most. Working with others and helping them learn is much of what keeps me motivated at work each day.

5. How would you deal with an unresponsive client when you’re up against a looming deadline?
This is what’s known as a behavioral question, and the interviewers asked me a lot of them. Before interviewing, I spent some time practicing these questions using the  S.T.A.R. model, a technique that involves describing a situation in which you had a task related to the interview question, what action you took, and the results you achieved. Randall S. Hansen gives more detail about using the S.T.A.R. technique on the Quint Careers website.

Based on the collection of interview questions asked, I now have a better idea of what companies are looking for. For example, at one of the companies, two interviewers asked me questions about clinical research experience, of which I have very little. That company eventually told me that they were not hiring entry-level positions. At that point, advice I’d heard a few months ago came to mind: getting your foot in the door is the hardest part of becoming a medical writer.

Thinking back to a networking event of the local American Medical Writers Association chapter, many writers I met are regulatory writers. You can read more about the field at the link above, but in brief, regulatory writing involves creating documents that are required by regulatory agencies (e.g. the Food and Drug Administration) to approve therapeutic products (drugs, medical devices, etc.) for treating people in a clinical setting. The writers I spoke to really enjoy the work and spoke highly of their careers. They advised me to continue writing but to also get clinical research experience. First, I wanted to learn a bit more about how information gleaned from basic research translates to the clinical research field.

I’ve become even more intrigued by clinical research after attending seminars hosted by The North Carolina Translational and Clinical Sciences Institute at UNC. As an initial foray into clinical trials research, I completed the Orientation for New Clinical Research Personnel and attended the Clinical Trial Investigator Series. It has been fascinating to learn about the world of clinical research and clinical trials and I’m now also open to exploring clinical research beyond the medical writing side of things.

As I move forward, I’d like to explore other types of medical writing and seek out clinical research opportunities. While my ultimate goal is still to become a regulatory writer, I know there are many paths toward that goal, and I know I still have a lot to learn from exploring these other paths. Next month, I’ll update you on my progress in exploring regulatory writing, other medical writing, and clinical research. I’ll also fulfill my promise of further discussing networking, writing, and marketing yourself as a medical writer. See you in May!

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