Written by Dr.Nilanjan Das
Ever thought about medical writing as a career? If you want to get away from scientificresearch, but still use your scientific knowledge and skills, it might be worth considering.
This leaflet will tell you a bit more about this varied career and where to find furtherinformation.
What is medical writing?
In general, medical writing is about communicating clinical and scientific data and information to a range of audiences in a wide variety of different formats. Medical writers combine their knowledge of science and their research skills with an understanding of how to present information and pitch it at the right level for the intended audience.
What qualifications and skills do I need?
Companies may expect you to have a first degree in a life science (e.g. biology, biochemistry, physiology, or chemistry) and some may require a PhD. However, there are many medical writers who have entered the profession with backgrounds in language rather than science.
You don’t necessarily need a medical qualification, although a good understanding of basic human anatomy and physiology is important. Knowledge of diseases and their treatment is an advantage, but in most jobs you can learn about specific disease areas as you get involved with different projects.
You’ll need very good writing and word processing skills. Most employers will ask you to do a writing test before, or as part of, your interview so that they can judge your writing skills. The format of this test will vary depending on the type of medical writing the company is involved with.
You’ll also need to have good inter-personal skills. Medical writers work as part of inter-disciplinary teams and, in some cases, with people outside of their company. You need to be comfortable communicating with people from a range of backgrounds.
Most advertisements that you’ll see will also ask for good attention to detail. This is important for reviewing and editing documents, and also for spotting the important points in pages of clinical data.
Where do medical writers work and what do they do?
You’ll find medical writers in pharmaceutical companies, contract research organisations (CROs), and communications agencies.
CROs conduct clinical studies and help pharmaceutical companies to get their products registered with international regulatory authorities. In general, medical writers in CROs are involved with preparing a range of documents for these regulatory submissions, including protocols and final reports for clinical trials, and clinical expert reports. They may also be involved in the preparation of manuscripts for publication in medical journals.
The situation is generally similar in a pharmaceutical company with medical writers preparing documents for submission to the regulatory authorities and manuscripts for publication. However, depending on the company, they may also be involved in other writing projects such as training manuals, promotional material for marketing purposes, and websites.
Writers in communications agencies generally prepare manuscripts for publication, items for conferences (e.g. posters, abstracts, and slide presentations),promotional items for pharmaceutical marketing, training material, and multimedia (e.g. websites). The work in this environment is likely to be more creative.
Many writers also work on a freelance basis, which is an attractive option for some people. If you’re new to medical writing, it’s better to start off as an employee working for a company. This will allow you to develop the skills that you need, and gain some contacts and experience.
Which type of company will suit me?
Each type of company has advantages and disadvantages. Working for a pharmaceutical company usually means that you get experience in a small number of therapeutic areas, which may suit you if you like to get to understand a topic thoroughly. Alternatively, if you like more variety, you might prefer to work for a CRO or a communications agency where you are likely to get to work on projects that cover a wider range of diseases and treatments. However, the pressure to work to deadlines is often greater at communications agencies and CROs and this might not appeal to you. It’s a question of personal taste and, as with all careers, you can always change jobs if your current position doesn’t suit you.
How much can I expect to get paid?
The salary for medical writers depends on your experience. As a recent graduate with no medical writing experience, you might expect a starting salary of 29 000 to 33 000 (in 2002), which compares favourably with research positions at the same level. Postgraduates might get a little more than this. However, there are no figures available for an ‘industry average’ and the levels of pay can vary between companies.
Can I work abroad?
Yes. Medical writing isn’t restricted to any one particular country. There are job opportunities throughoutEurope and beyond. It is often an advantage to have English as your first language; companies often advertise for native English speakers because many of the documents must be written in English. However, there are many medical writers from other European countries who have very successful careers.
What are the career prospects for medical writers?
Many medical writers eventually move into management, taking care of teams of medical writers and managing projects at local and international level. However, if the thought of managing other people doesn’t appeal, this is by no means the only option. Working in medical writing gives you an overview of the entire clinical development process, so it’s an ideal starting point for other careers in the pharmaceutical industry, such as regulatory affairs, clinical research, document management, and even marketing. Some medical writers set up their own companies, others move into editorial roles at publishing companies.
You can find out more about career development by reading the final section of this leaflet in which people who really do the job write about their own experiences.
How do I find a suitable job?
As well as the popular scientific journals, there are websites that specialise in advertising jobs in the pharmaceutical industry. These sites usually allow you to search specifically for medical writing jobs and some allow you to submit your curriculum vitae (CV).