Getting Contract Medical Writing Jobs

A friend of mine who has been developing a career as a freelance medical writer recently asked me some questions that I thought might interest readers of this blog.  I’ve paraphrased:

I recently saw a medical writing contract role offered by a pharmaceutical company and wanted to try to get more info about what the opportunity might mean for me. It looks like another agency (recruiter? headhunter?) is listing the position, rather than the pharmaceutical company advertising the role directly. If I go through this agency, will they get a part of my hourly rate? Will their goal be to make me take a lower hourly rate than I’m used to charging?

Would an agency that presents me to the pharmaceutical company request that I always work through them for future engagements?

Is there a way to estimate the hourly rate for a contract medical writing position if it involves onsite work with a pharmaceutical client?

Finally, do you think that I can figure out where the position is being offered at the pharmaceutical company, and can I go to them directly?  Would HR have this info? Or are there other places within a pharma company that I could find this out?

Here is what I told my friend:
Normally, when you are placed in a contract position through an agency. what happens is that the agency ‘marks up’ the contractor’s daily/hourly rate.  That is, they bill the pharma company $X, and pay you $X-Y, where Y can be anywhere from 10-25% (or more).  They’ll only try to push the contractor’s rate down if they think the client will balk at it once it’s marked up. Sometimes they will have negotiated a ‘ceiling’ rate with the client that defines the maximum they can charge.

It is pretty standard for contracts like this to include a clause that says the contractor won’t try to work directly with the client (cutting the agency out of the loop) for some period of time following the engagement (often 1 year).  The pharmaceutical company will usually have a similar agreement with the agency. These non-compete clauses may or may not be enforceable depending on where you live — I’m not a lawyer and have no opinion on the matter.

In terms of figuring out the optimal rate to charge, I think that contractors really just have to do the math and weigh the options and risks.  There is definitely some security that comes with a longer engagement — you can charge a lower rate because you don’t have to worry about what will happen if a dry spell comes along.  The bottom line is that you should figure out what you need/want to make in a year, and use that as a starting point.

All of the above assumes that this is a true contracting situation. On the other hand, if the opportunity is more like contract employment (like a year-long contract) then you’re probably going to be working on the basis of an annual salary rather than an hourly rate.  In that case the agency’s fee is calculated as a percentage of that salary (typically 20-30%) – this doesn’t come out of the salary, and it’s in the agency’s best interest to get you as much as possible.

In terms of cutting out the middleman and going directly to the company… it depends. These days a lot of pharmaceutical companies have outsourced roles like medical writing, clinical research etc. to contract agencies, so they may no longer hire or contract people
directly (they don’t want the hassle of managing payroll, etc. for an army of contractors).  In this case, they would probably just send you back to the agency.

On the other hand, if they are willing to hire or contract directly, then they may be happy to avoid the markup/fee associated with a recruiting agency.  In this case I would expect them to have the job listed on their careers page.  Arguably, though, there is a value-add from
working with the recruiter, who can ensure that your CV is reviewed by the hiring manager, and can make a sales pitch for you that you’d never get by submitting your CV to HR.

You could always ‘snoop’ the same way you do business development, by calling the director of clinical research or medical affairs and asking if they contract medical writers directly or do they work through an agency, etc.

Good luck in your search!


Posted: March 21st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »


Leave a Reply