From academic to medical writing mentor – Sarah Nelson

Virginia Chachati chats with Sarah Nelson about her journey from academic to medical writing.

Full transcript for this episode from the Write Clinic “Medical Writing Uncut” podcast below:

Virginia (00:01.038)
Hi, I’m Virginia from Write Clinic and here with me today is Sarah Nelson. Sarah is a mentor for medical writers all over the world. She’s been a medical writer for over 17 years and has worked with over 20 Medcomms agencies as a writer, team leader, mentor and trainer. Thank you so much for joining me today, Sarah.

Sarah Nelson (00:20.643)
Hello, thank you for inviting me, it’s a pleasure.

Virginia (00:24.766)
It’s really a pleasure. Thank you so much. So what do you do for our audience?

Sarah Nelson (00:30.159)
Yeah, so as you’ve just said, I’m a medical writer primarily. I still do some writing projects for clients, but nowadays I spend a lot of my time training and mentoring other writers as well, so to help them in their career.

Virginia (00:50.326)
That’s amazing. So how did you get into writing? And then how did you transition to becoming a mentor for medical writers?

Sarah Nelson (00:59.235)
Yeah, yeah. I think like many medical writers, I kind of stumbled across the career as an option. I was doing a postdoc over in Boston in the USA. And I realised, you know, after several years, it wasn’t going to be a long term career option for me. And I had a friend who had a similar career path up to that point who got into medical writing. So I thought, well, that sounds interesting.

So I applied for a few jobs and eventually got somewhere back in the UK. So I moved back to the UK, which was great at that time. And I was very fortunate at that time, actually, because the agency provided quite a long training program, which was unusual at that time, back in the sort of around the year 2000, 2006, I think it was.

And myself and some other writers that joined at the same time did like a four-week training program. So it was really useful grounding before we actually went onto live client projects. And from then on, I, you know, trained, worked my way up the career ladder. I worked for a small agency for over nine years and there was literally only two of us when I started. And we grew the team up. There’s, I think, 13 in my team when I left about 10 years later.

So that was really fun, you know, sort of establishing all of the processes, building the relationships with clients, wearing many different hats as you do with a small agency. And I think towards the end of my career, I really, you know, again, I was doing lots of things, which was great, but I really enjoyed most like focusing on the team and helping other people.

Virginia (02:41.549)

Sarah Nelson (02:56.751)
sharing what I knew and helping them develop. So I decided to take the leap and branch out on my own and try to put more of my time into that. So yeah, that’s what I’m doing now.

Virginia (03:11.318)
That’s amazing. I think, you know, it’s so interesting how you get into one thing and then you find your path doing something else and, you know, teaching. I definitely kind of share that ambition to help medical writers too. And it’s nice to know that you, you know, are part of team building and that you’ve kind of set them off on their career and now you can take those skills and also share that with other people, which is so inspiring.

So what do you know now that you wish you knew at the start of your career?

Sarah Nelson (03:44.035)
I would say I don’t have any regrets. As I say, I was very fortunate in how I started off. I had a really, really good start to my career. And I was thinking just before I came on the podcast, actually, that wasn’t the very start of my career right back when I first graduated.

With my first degree, I did actually go for an interview, which turned out to be a medical writing position, although it wasn’t called that at the time. And I went for this interview and the lady brought me in and basically like talked for 30 minutes straight, telling me all of the in-depth details about these reports that they wrote and, you know, all the different sections and things like that.

And it wasn’t until right at the end of the interview where she said, “Do you have any questions?” And I was so overwhelmed at that, but I said no. And that was the end of the interview. So I was just thinking, you know, back to that experience, I think I came out of that interview feeling terrible really, and I think looking back on it was nothing to do with me, that was just not a great interview from the interviewer’s point. So I thinkā€¦

I talked to a lot of people who were feeling sort of despondent because they’re not getting anywhere. And I would say to people, it’s not always your fault as the candidate that you’re not getting anywhere. It could be that the interviewer doesn’t quite know what they’re looking for yet. It depends on other candidates that are going for the job. It depends on so many other factors.

So as long as you’ve got it clear in your head, you know, what your strengths are as a writer. That’s a big theme in my coaching and mentoring programmes is to look for your strength as a writer, whether it’s a medical background or a scientific background. Make sure that you’re presenting that in the best light and then the rest is up to fate really.

Virginia (05:55.606)
Yeah, I would definitely agree with all your points. I think it’s so important to focus on your strengths and just because someone is acting a certain way, that’s no reflection on who you are. So that’s a really good takeaway. I think it would be really helpful for our audience if you could share some top tips on maybe interviewing or trying to find roles.

Sarah Nelson (06:21.775)
Yeah, I guess my top tip really is, you know, to understand how your expertise fits in to the medical writing role. Because a lot of, again, a lot of the people that I come across as a mentor have had really, really successful careers already, you know, often as a medic, as you know, or as a PhD scientist, maybe a pharmacist.

So there’s lots of different things. It’s very easy to focus on the parts of the role that you haven’t got experience in. But, you know, there’s no clear path into medical writing. So I think if you think about all of the strengths that you have, that you’re bringing to the role and focus on those and forget about the ones that you don’t because you can train, basically.

Virginia (07:19.21)
Yeah, that’s so true. Often you’ll, you know, even if you don’t meet maybe 50% of the job requirements, 50% will be kind of learning on the job anyway. So it’s really good to kind of keep that in mind. And in your experience, what would be the number one thing that people struggle with? And how would you advise them to handle that?

Sarah Nelson (07:48.011)
I think the number one thing that people struggle with is the writing test. I think that comes from the fact that it’s a bit of an unknown. You don’t really know what, it’s not widely known what an entry level writing test is. So you kind of go into it a little bit blind. So that’s again, something that I’ve tried to help educate people on.

I’ve got a short course that is designed to address just this challenge. And the writing test essentially is designed to make sure you have sort of a baseline that will allow you to then go into a medical writing role. So, and that baseline is, do you have good attention to detail? Can you take scientific material and understand it and communicate it back clearly? Can you present information in a way that’s friendly to your reader.

It’s quite common for academic people, so somebody like myself who’s come from quite an academic background, to write, you know, like a big essay, which is a big block of text, Times New Roman, and it’s really difficult to read. So I try and say to people, you know, there’s really simple things that you can do, add some subheadings, use white space, make it more friendly to your audience.

Virginia (09:18.958)
Those are really great tips. I really like that. And it is so important what you said that, you know, the writing test is more of a baseline. It’s not about you creating a award-winning test piece. It’s more about making sure that you’ve got enough skills for them to be interested in taking you on and developing you further, which is so important. And really optimistic view, which is great. I love that rather than, you know, kind of worrying too much.

So get it done, see how it goes, get feedback, and then try again. So what’s next on the horizon? Yeah, yeah, exactly. So what’s next on the horizon for you?

Sarah Nelson (09:52.345)
That’s it.

Sarah Nelson (09:59.767)
Yeah, so I’ve been working hard this year to create like a, what I call my agency ready program. So I’m just launching various aspects of that as the year goes on. And I’m trying to essentially provide something for everybody. So whatever stage of the medical writing career you’re at, there’s something in this agency ready program to help.

So I’ve got, as I mentioned, a short course for people who are at entry level who are taking the medical writing test as part of the recruitment process. So that’s a short course to help you understand what a medical writing test is. And then I’ve got a 12-week coaching program which runs at the moment four times a year. And that’s to help people really think about how to present themselves. So going back to the idea of like focusing on your strengths as a writer.

And thinking about how that can come across in your CV or your portfolio or you know the messages that you’re putting out to potential clients if you’re a freelancer. And then I’m very excited I’ve just added my training program to the Agency Ready sort of offering as well and this training program is designed to help medical writers again just sharing my sort of knowledge and my expertise that I’ve built up over the years.

Showing you how I do lots of different aspects of a medical writing project. So whether it’s like how I’d go about doing some background research, how I’d go about marking up references, how I’d go about estimating hours. So all those sort of core competencies within that training course. So yes, very exciting time for me launching all of that.

Virginia (11:53.354)
Amazing. So lots and lots to learn from Sarah. And I’ll leave links in the description below. And I’ll also leave a link so that you can connect with Sarah on LinkedIn. And yeah, check out her courses and her agency ready program. And it’s been really nice chatting with you, Sarah. Thank you for sharing your top tips. And I wish you all the best and hopefully we’ll invite you again to learn more and see what’s different in future.

Sarah Nelson (11:56.56)

Sarah Nelson (12:20.879)
Thank you so much. Bye bye.

Virginia (12:24.31)
Thank you. Bye.

Want to start your career as a medical writer? Get feedback from Virginia and Hass on every step of your journey with our medical writing courses. For one-to-one guidance, check out our coaching plans.

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