From Lab Bench to Medical Writing Desk: Step by step

The lab bench is often considered to be the holy grail of science. The place where discoveries are made, hypotheses are tested, and breakthroughs occur. But what happens when a scientist decides to step away from the lab bench and trade in their pipettes for a keyboard? In this blog post, I will share my journey moving from a post-doctoral academic role to working as a freelance medical writer. There are pros and cons, but it has definitely been a positive transition for me. 

Embracing Change

Transitioning from a career deeply rooted in experimental laboratory work to one focused solely on writing may seem like an unexpected turn. Still, it’s a transition that many scientists have successfully made. What motivates this change, and how can a scientist’s unique skills and perspective be an asset in the world of writing?

For me, this change was driven by a passion for the written word. I was one of the few students in my University who actually enjoyed the process of writing my Doctoral thesis. The same was true for my undergraduate dissertation and the many scientific manuscripts I have authored. At this point, I realised I had a real passion for scientific communication and education, greater than my love of practical science work. I knew I wanted to pursue a career whereby I could use my love of writing to bridge the gap between scientific information and a broader audience.

Leaving Academia

I was working in a prestigious University within a very successful research group when I decided to make the move into medical writing. Firstly, I began working on small freelance medical writing projects to get a taste of the work out there. I was not disappointed. This work fuelled my passion for the field of medical communication, and I have never looked back! That’s not to say that the transition from academia to medical writing hasn’t been without its difficulties. 

Academia to Medical Writing: Navigating the Challenges 

Making the leap from academia to medical writing, especially in the realm of freelance work, can be an exhilarating yet challenging journey. In my own experience, I’ve encountered several significant hurdles that aspiring medical writers should be prepared to face. Here are some of the key difficulties I faced:

1. Lack of Job Stability and Guaranteed Income

One of the most noticeable differences between academia and freelance medical writing is the absence of job stability and a guaranteed income. In academia, researchers generally have the security of a salary or stipend. In contrast, freelance writers must adapt to the ebb and flow of project-based work. 

Navigating a world where income isn’t consistent can be intimidating. However, with time and experience, you can build a steady stream of clients and projects. This provides financial stability and unparalleled flexibility in your working life. 

2. Transitioning into Medical Writing with No Agency Experience

Another challenge to consider is how to break into the writing field without any prior agency experience. Some employers or clients may prefer candidates with a background in established medical writing agencies. However, it’s essential to remember that your unique academic expertise and research skills are valuable assets in the medical writing arena. While it may take time to establish yourself, your ability to communicate complex scientific concepts effectively sets you apart from others in the field. 

3. Building a New Network of Connections

Your network of connections in academia typically consists of fellow researchers, professors, and mentors within your field of study. Transitioning to medical writing means building an entirely new network of connections within the writing and healthcare industries. This can be daunting, but it’s crucial for securing medical writing opportunities. Attending industry events, joining professional associations, and actively networking can help you to establish meaningful connections and open doors to potential freelance projects.

4. Learning New Writing Skills

While your academic background equips you with a solid research and data analysis foundation, medical writing demands a distinct set of writing skills. You’ll need to adapt to writing in a more concise, reader-friendly manner, translating complex scientific jargon into accessible language. In addition, learning to craft engaging narratives and adhere to specific style guidelines is essential. Fortunately, numerous resources, courses, and mentorship opportunities are available to help you sharpen these skills.

The Transition Period

For me, the move from the lab bench to the writing desk involved a transition period of learning, adapting, and networking. I knew that to be successful, I needed to build a strong writing portfolio. I did this by actively taking on numerous projects, participating in medical writing webinars, and dedicating myself to extensive reading and research. This hands-on approach has been invaluable in enhancing my medical writing skills. It was a step-by-step process, but I was determined to see it through.

What Makes a Scientist a Great Medical Writer?

So, what attributes and skills make a scientist a really good medical writer? A scientist has unique skills in experimentation, data analysis, and research. These skills allow them to design experiments that answer complex questions. 

But how do these skills transfer to a medical writing role? Well, a scientist’s unique perspective is one of the most valuable assets they bring to the writing desk. Scientists are trained to think critically, approach problems methodically, and seek evidence to support their claims. These skills are not only transferable but highly sought after in the field of medical and scientific writing. Scientists also have an exceptional talent for explaining complex concepts clearly and concisely while maintaining scientific accuracy. 

Of course, scientific storytelling is an art in which scientists excel. Imagine taking years of research and condensing it into a narrative that captivates and educates. It’s about weaving the cold, complex data into a compelling story that resonates with experts and the general audience. That’s precisely what a Ph.D. student has to do when constructing their Doctoral thesis.

Finding The Right Niche

Transitioning to the writing desk can seem daunting, but it is definitely manageable. Scientists have a wealth of options at their disposal. They can venture into freelance medical writing, regulatory writing, scientific journalism, technical writing, or even authoring books and articles. The key is to explore these different avenues and find what aligns best with your interests and expertise.

For example, starting as a freelance medical writer offers flexibility and the opportunity to work on a variety of projects. It allows scientists to use their knowledge to create educational and informative content. Technical writing, on the other hand, might appeal to those who enjoy translating complex scientific jargon into user-friendly manuals and guides. It all comes down to finding the right niche for you as a writer.

Final Thoughts

If you’re considering a similar transition, know that it’s possible. It demands determination, a genuine eagerness to learn, and the passion to make a difference through your writing. The field of medical writing is extensive, and there’s certainly a place for individuals who can effectively communicate science to the public.

Author Bio

Dr. Rachael Bailey has a Ph.D. in Cell Biology and completed a Postdoctoral Fellowship in Cancer Research. Upon leaving academia, she transitioned into freelance medical writing. She now runs a successful freelance medical communications business serving clients worldwide at bluRB.digital.

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