Lydia Morris: Passion for science writing

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: Networking: LinkedIn, Live Events, Contact Referrals

I walked into my office today (Tuesday, March 1) and looked at the series of squares I had drawn on the whiteboard next to my desk. Seven check marks, nine blank boxes. There are only 8 weeks until my postdoc fellowship funding runs out. I check off another box and sit down at my desk to start the work day. I’m using this low-tech countdown timer to keep me both accountable and motivated as I pursue a career in scientific writing.

When I fell in love with research as a first-year undergraduate, I also fell in love with teaching others about science. I truly enjoy giving talks and writing about my results and their meaning. However, it was only recently that I realized science communication is a great fit for me career-wise. As I blog here over the next six months, I’ll share how I got to this point in my professional life and the many things I’m learning along the scientific writing career path.

For a long time, I thought I could best use my passion for science communication by teaching at a primarily undergraduate institution. I had done a lot of teaching and pedagogy training during graduate school and at UNC to prepare for a teaching career. At the beginning of last summer, I was getting ready to teach a full course (Human Genetics) on my own for the first time. Around the same time, I had a career counseling meeting at the UNC Office of Postdoctoral Affairs (OPA) to make a solid plan for my teaching career.

During the summer session, I learned just as much, if not more, than my students. Most importantly, I realized I am a better teacher as an editor and writer than I am standing at the front of a classroom. By the end of the summer, I returned to the OPA to make a new career plan–this time for becoming a scientific writer. The first step was deciding what type of science writing I wanted to pursue.

I wrote science feature articles for a couple of online publications as a graduate student. But, the last time I did any feature writing was in 2010. Soon after my career epiphany, I joined the UNC Science Writing and Communication club (SWAC). In 2014, UNC was awarded a BEST grant, and SWAC is one of four career cohorts to come out of the UNC-BEST initiative.

Writing my first feature article for the SWAC blog The Pippettepen was a fun yet challenging experience. I contacted a graduate student in another lab who had just published two articles on his research and set up an interview. Biophysics was a completely new field for me, and I did a ton of research and asked many questions just to get a basic understanding of the work. With additional help from the editors, I learned a lot about how to convey a complex topic in language non-scientists can understand.

I really enjoy the human interest side of feature writing. I’m also deeply interested in how the information generated by basic scientists is translated to the human health side of research. Although I like the creative freedom involved in feature writing, I decided to also explore the medical writing field, which is much more technical. I knew I had a strong interest in medically related topics, but I also wanted to see if I had any talent for medical writing.

I joined the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) and enrolled in an online medical writing course developed by Nascent Medical, LLC. This course is geared toward writers who want to start a freelance company (not my goal at this time), but there was also a ton of advice on the scope of medical writing, the style of medical writing, and the resources used by successful medical writers. I’m now at the point where I’m pursuing medical writing jobs and anticipating responses from the various companies I’ve applied to.

After several months of gaining more writing experience and researching the different types of scientific writing careers, I have read and heard the same three pieces of advice over and over again: network, get experience, market your transferable skills. I’ll discuss my experiences and share advice I’ve found especially helpful.

Networking
I’ve had a bit of luck by doing what I call networking by osmosis. I learned about the opportunity to write for the BEST blog through the SWAC listserv, and I recently made it to the second round of the application process for a medical writing internship I learned about through the OPA listserv. Although nothing beats in-person networking, my connection with different organizations has helped me get a few opportunities so far.

Because I’m excited about this new path, I tell pretty much everyone I talk to about my career plans. This has resulted in job leads, potential internship opportunities, and new connections in the medical writing field. Two pieces of advice that have stuck with me through attending AMWA networking events are the importance of getting experience before you start applying for jobs and strategically marketing a transferrable skill set specific to medical writing.

Experience
In addition to writing for The Pipettepen, several of my scientist friends have asked me to work on small writing/editing projects for them, and I am currently helping a non-native English speaker write her master’s thesis (all through networking). While I’m working on getting my foot into the medical writing door, these experiences are helping me improve my writing and obtain more clips to demonstrate my writing ability. I’m also learning quickly the very important skill of juggling many projects at once.

Marketing Transferrable Skills
I think the most important lesson I’ve learned thus far is how to market myself as a medical writer. As scientists, there is a pretty well-defined protocol in terms of advancing through each stage of a research career. The rejections and non-responses from the writing jobs I applied for at the end of the summer made me rethink my career development strategy a little (I’ll talk about how in my next blog post). Thus far, the tips I’ve picked up have taken me from zero responses to a second round application (mentioned above) and a phone interview at a national medical writing company.

Come back next month where I’ll update you on my networking, writing experience, and job application progress. I’ll also provide tips for marketing yourself as a medical writer, even if you have very little experience.

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