Shital shares her inspiring story of how she left academia, took online courses, got into LinkedIn to start freelancing and found success as a medical writer, all while having a child too!
Virginia Chachati – Editor at Write Clinic
When I secured an early career fellowship after PhD, I knew I was sealed for academic research. But life intervened and derailed my plans. But not for long. I diverted towards my passion—writing. I am Shital Sarah Ahaley, and this is my story from academia to medical writing.
The lovely mountains and valleys of academia
I was always a curious individual. My curiosity led me to the doorstep of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, through the corridors of the Microbiology department of the University of Pune. The lush green IISc nurtured my curiosity and awakened my passion for communication. I was always appreciated for my writing (assignments and work reports) though I did not give much thought to it. And I loved communicating my work through presentations and reports.
After my PhD, I was sure I wanted a break because of physical and mental exhaustion. In the industry, we call it burnout; in academia, we refuse to acknowledge it or are oblivious to its existence.
The plateau of academic research
After a couple of weeks at home, I craved the smell of a fly lab. This craving took me to the Indian Institute for Science Education and Research (IISER), Pune, back to my favourite Drosophila.
Here I got it all:
- scientific independence;
- opportunity to work in a lab at Harvard Medical School, and present at national and international conferences/institutes;
- experience at training and teaching students, guiding Master’s theses, presenting to a lay audience;
- exposure to the best science and scientists;
- the satisfaction of holding fine scissors and forceps for dissecting Drosophila larvae to bare open their developmental secrets;
- a well-paid position.
While this healthy and steady diet nourished my brain, my body was under-nourished due to neglect.
This time I acknowledged my burnout and when my fellowship terminated, I took a break, a career break. My journey came to a halt!
A halt at the station “me”
It was not a halt because life progressed. As I paused to breathe, a new breath came to life, my son was born. My son is now three and a half years old, and I now believe that postpartum recovery is a myth. I still experience the pains and aches; my back—right from the first cervical bone to the coccyx—will never be the same. And let’s not talk about the blues. I am not sure if I am alone or if there are others like me. (Do reach out to me if you empathize or want to share. I could do with a kindred mom.)
Emotions aside, this gave me time to reflect and weigh my career options.
Starting slowly in the first gear
I started building my LinkedIn profile. But I could not barge into the industry sphere in full gear. I needed a strategy.
I joined an Association and the Medical Writing Organization, completed the modules, and gained a medical writing certificate. I also finished a few online courses to equip myself for the medical writing field—a wide new arena for me. That was my test drive in the first gear.
Transitioning to the second gear
Soon, in second gear, I started applying for a few select positions. I cleared the writing tests and landed interviews. But no one wanted to hire a one-year-old first-time mom with no “medical writing” experience for a full-time role. So, freelancing it was!
Somewhere during the first and second gears, the pandemic hit, and my family and I contracted the disease and suffered for months.
C’est la vie!
Gaining pace in the third gear
It is easy to freelance if you have an idea about the medical writing industry, the type of deliverables, the time needed for an assignment, and the economics involved. For a newbie like me, it was a challenge. An interview with Hashtag medical writing solutions not only came to my rescue but also helped me transition to the third gear.
LinkedIn’s algorithm helped too. My profile appeared in more searches, and I had lots of freelancing work to select from.
In the third gear, I was maneuvering between Hashtag and News medical. This work was constant and regular, and I had frequent escapades with other clients too.
Medcomms agencies wanted to hire me full-time, and this time it was my turn to reject.
Speeding in the fourth gear
Fast forward a couple of months. I was part of a multi-national, multi-dimensional project for a giant pharma client for creating 2D animation videos. I was storyboarding and had to work closely with the clients; and the copywriting, creative, and animation teams. After initial teething problems, I was heading the medical aspect of the project that ran for almost one and a half years. I have also trained other medical writers on storyboarding.
I was in the fourth gear, and there was no looking back.
The fifth gear: breaking new ground
Along the entire ride, I slowed at a few places to give a lift to hitchhikers. Looking back, I am glad to see them embark on their journeys and establish as medical writers.
A shift from freelancing to a full-time position is on the table; however, I am deliberately delaying taking the plunge because of my challenging and super-active kid.
The journey continues. I am looking forward to moving to the fifth gear, taking the highway. This will happen when I do something impactful in the field of medical writing.
My journey has had its ups and downs, but the view was always beautiful.
A few tips from my journey
And now a few tips for newbies:
- Enter this field if you love writing, or else, refrain. Hitchhiking will not take you far.
- Equip yourself. Get a flavour of medical writing before you start. You cannot start on an empty gas tank.
- Experiment. Try all types of writing. The less-trodden paths may take you to new vistas.
- Edit, edit, edit. Multiple rounds of feedback are the norm. If red lines of correction discourage you, you are in the wrong field. Road signs and signals exist for a reason.
- Embark. You can take a bus, train, flight, or ride solo; medical writing provides all opportunities.
Medical writing is a versatile venture. Academia taught me skills from research expertise to scientific writing to publication planning and execution to project, people, and budget management—all I need to be a good medical writer. I would not trade this journey for another one.
My journey continues!