medical writer

How to Become a Medical Writer

If there is one profession that benefited from globalization, it is the medical writer. While the university research groups shrink and global biomedical companies fire their research stuff, medical writing companies are expanding, providing stable jobs with good salaries. The American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) reported in 2011 that the median salary of an experienced (more than 2 years in the industry) medical writer is $88,000.

What a Medical Writer Does

The “writer” part of the “medical writer” requires no explanation, but the “medical” is misleading. According to the AMWA report, most of the current writers are not medical doctors, but graduates in a variety of disciplines, mostly in biomedical sciences from botany to neuroscience, with a sprinkling of English journalism and liberal arts. Thus, the “medical” does not describe the educational and training background of the writer, but bulk of the work, which is as varied as species in a thriving ecosystem.

The AMWA lists some of the content types produced by medical writers:

  • Patient education brochures, news articles, Web content, and books for the general public
  • Journal articles and continuing education monographs for healthcare professionals
  • Regulatory documents for government agencies
  • Grant proposals for research scientists and institutions
  • Sales training and marketing materials for the pharmaceutical industry

In general, the formal entry criteria into the profession of biomedical writer are quite broad. You need a degree in a biomedical science, but many years of postdoctoral experience is not a large handicap. Publications in scientific journals as a first author are desirable, but not obligatory at the initial stage. The two main routes into the profession are as a junior medical writer at a medical communication company or freelancing.

Applying for a Company Position

Medical communication companies advertise positions on their websites and, unless stated otherwise, they have an open recruitment process. Companies rarely work with agencies, preferring a direct approach. You will need to find a contact person in the HR department via the website and send her/him your CV and a cover letter.

Unlike most academic positions, where invitation for an interview is a significant step to getting the job, an interview in medical communications is like an audition for a role in a musical – easy to get one, but hard to get the role as a result of it. The first interview is usually over the phone with an HR specialist and the interviewer is mostly interested in your writing activities and practical familiarity with the nuts and bolts of pharmaceutical industry (such as knowledge of statistics beyond the t-test) and the mechanics of clinical trials.

If you receive a positive outcome with the interview, you will proceed to the second, most important part – a writing test, usually remote. The content of the test varies from company to company. Some of them do a formal assessment of your grammar and punctuation skills, checking your applied grammar (e.g., not to distinguish between an adverbial clause and adverbial phrase, but if you can find and correct all mistakes in a sample biomedical text).

Other companies provide a sample of writing to edit and require you to produce “an exercise.” For example, an abstract for a provided scientific paper and an example of non-scientific writing, such as a paper for a journal for clinicians. The deadlines are quite tight. This is the hardest part, which eliminates most of the candidates.

Some companies have a second, in-house, timed test to check your performance under pressure.

A successful candidate will get a title of Junior Writer with a starting salary of 7-10K less than a postdoc. Some will leave within a year, not happy with overlapping tight deadlines, long working hours, too much or too little contact with the fellow writers and clients, contradictory reviews and absence of their names on anonymous corporate material. However, as always in the corporate structure, a few of the new recruits will swiftly proceed up the ladder where “the salary ceiling is not determined.”

If you think that a career as a biomedical writer is for you, you might want to start your writing portfolio by contributing to BitesizeBio!

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