How to get started in science writing and communications

There was another interesting discussion over at ask.metafilter this week.  This time, the conversation was about scientific communications.

As I enter the (hopefully) final year of my PhD, I am thinking hard about what’s next for me. My soul searching has recently led to the realization that my passion isn’t necessarily in my particular niche of science as much as it is for science in general. Great discoveries, elegant methodologies, and the philosophy of scientific inquiry all tie my stomach in knots with excitement, and I dislike the idea of limiting myself to my sub-sub-specialty of science. The more I think about it, the more I realize that I would love a career communicating science to the public. Whether I actualize this goal by writing books, discussing with students, hosting a scientific tv show, writing a science column, or just talking about science to the person next to me in line at the supermarket counter, I think I could be an excellent liason between the scientific community and the general public.

So, how does one go about developing a career as a science popularizer? Whether you want to be the next Carl Sagan — or Bill Nye — the ask.metafilter discussion provides a lot of great ideas and links.  A user named ChuraChura posted a link to a blog called “Through the Looking Glass“, which features an excellent post on the realities of a job in science communications and some thoughts on getting started. The “Black Hole” blog, which is focused on issues affecting science training in Canada, also has a great post on the topic entitled “So, you want to be a Science Writer when you grow up…“.

Some of the links from these resources are great, so I’m going to pull them out and share them here, along with some others I’ve discovered:

Fellowships and Internships in Science Communications

Professional Programs, Courses and Workshops in Science Communications

Professional Associations for Science Writers

Even if you don’t want to make science writing your career, you should take a look at some of this advice if you hope to find a job as a medical science liaison, medical education specialist, or any other role where being able to clearly communicate scientific concepts to mixed audiences would be valuable.

Good luck in your search!


Posted: August 18th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments »

Great advice for getting started as a medical writer

I’ve been meaning to post a link to “Chain the Wolf“, a great blog about Medical Writing, for a while now.  I’ve emailed back and forth with the author a few times over the past few years, and I was thrilled when she started putting some of her thoughts about her career path in medical writing and medical education to screen.

In her own words,

I’m currently a full-time freelance medical writer and consultant (2.5 years and counting). Most of my clients are medical communication companies and the projects are usually in the area of oncology, although I also dabble in neuroscience from time to time.

But how did I get here and why do I have this blog? I really struggled at a few points before getting to where I am now. (. . .)

I eventually thought about medical writing, so once again I had to seek out information. How does one get a job in that industry? Would it or would it not be a good career for me? I did everything from post angst filled questions on a forum board (Hi Ask Metafilter!), conducted many informational interviews, and after taking a few more steps, I was hired at a medical communication company.I still wasn’t quite happy as my real goal was to eventually become a freelance medical writer. For some reason, making the leap from fulltime employee at a company to an independent freelancer was difficult. Sometimes it was facing a fear. I also had to learn new skills and few people have training in how to run a business, even if it is simple. I was able to successfully make the jump but again, I do wish there had been useful resources for me. I still look for “how to run a business” type resources, and there isn’t really high quality information out there.

So I am creating this blog as a resource for people who like me, had questions; in a way, I am trying to pay it forward and put up this information for other people like the old me.

‘Chain the Wolf” (a phrase which refers to managing your fear) is fairly new, but has already featured many useful posts on getting started in medical communications, freelancing, and alternate career paths for PhDs.  It’s a great resource and I am very happy to recommend it.


Posted: August 7th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

Starting at the bottom rung

This post was prompted by some conversations I’ve had recently with recent PhD graduates at industry networking events.  These kinds of events are great opportunities to meet people working in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors. You can learn about the day-to-day reality of the industry, get insight on recent developments, and sometimes get leads on new opportunities.

However, I’ve met a few people at these events who make a terrible impression. They pout and complain about the challenges of the job search, and generally appear shocked that biotechnology companies didn’t knock down their doors with fabulous offers after they graduated. It’s an attitude of entitlement that is very off-putting.

Look, I get it.  You’ve spent years of your life, and probably tens of thousands of dollars in real and opportunity costs to earn a specialized, rarefied degree that places you among the elite of the educational system. You’ve worked incredibly hard, spending long hours in the laboratory and developing advanced skills in technically challenging fields.  You’ve managed complex projects; you’ve published in prestigious journals; you’ve presented at conferences with leading experts.  You’re self-directed and motivated. And then, when you get that degree and walk out of the lab, looking to put your smarts to work away from the bench… employers aren’t interested.

It’s a shock to the system to realize that after spending years developing your skills, managers consider you unseasoned and inexperienced. If you’re lucky, they will offer you something with entry-level responsibilities — and a salary to match. It’s a blow to the ego — and frankly, feels insulting. It’s especially toxic when you compare yourself to successful new lawyers and MBAs, or to the lucky few PhDs who manage to step from the lab into high-paying roles, such as medical science liaisons. Believe me, I know — I’ve been there.

My advice is: Get over yourself.

There’s no shame in starting at the bottom rung — and employers are right: the business world is very different than academia. There are different stakeholders, different pressures, and different priorities. Getting your feet wet at the entry level gives you a chance to learn those differences and then prove yourself. All those skills and personal strengths you developed in grad school — project management, determination, perseverance and communications — will let you advance quickly once you’ve had a chance to adapt.  The thing about post-PhD careers in the pharmaceutical industry is this: getting in is the hardest part. Once you’ve opened that door, you will have the opportunity to follow a very satisfying trajectory.

Don’t settle for something terrible — but don’t let your ego stop you from taking a first step, either. You may have earned a PhD, but in the business world, you’ve still gotta pay your dues.

Good luck in your search.


Posted: July 15th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | 5 Comments »

Happy Pride! Being LGBTQ in the pharmaceutical industry

It’s LGBTQ Pride Week here in Toronto so I thought I would share a collection of interesting articles about being ‘out’ in the pharmaceutical and biotech industry.

You might also be interested in checking out the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals.


Posted: July 3rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

Top pharmaceutical and biotech salaries

‘Big Pharma’ has been dealing with a lot of challenges lately. You might be curious to know what the people at the top of the pharma career ladder are earning to manage those challenges.

FierceBiotech – which is a great resource for keeping on top of rumours, news and developments in the pharma / biotech sector — has published their annual list of the top ten 2010 pharma CEO salaries. Suffice it to say that the CEOs are doing all right! In position #10, John Martin of Gilead Sciences brought home $14M, whereas Bill Weldon of J&J earned twice that much to take the top spot.

Of course, very few of us will reach these stratified heights. Once you move a few steps down the ladder, salaries quickly drop from 8 figures down to six. For example, I recently came across salary information for a VP of Research for a small firm developing a new molecular diagnostic test. His salary? $225K, along with a very generous relocation package.

If clinical research is your focus, our previous post “How much does a CRA earn?” might interest you.

Why don’t research scientists get paid more?  We discussed biotech scientist salaries in a previous post.

Good luck in your job search!


Posted: June 19th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , | No Comments »

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?

Read the rest of this entry »


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

Why careers in biotechnology are #1 for job satisfaction

A recent survey has ranked careers in biotechnology #1 for job satisfaction.

Careers in biotechnology ranked as the No. 1 happiest job in America, according to CareerBliss. “In biotech, the people that they work with, and more specifically the person that they work for, tends to rank higher in terms of importance, and employees are overwhelmingly happy with those conditions,” says Golledge. Biotechnology employees were also among the most happy with their daily tasks and the level of control they feel they have over that work. She adds that biotechnology is a growth industry, which makes growth opportunities in the field another key ingredient to its workers overall happiness.

Read the full story at Forbes.com here.


Posted: March 6th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

How to escape the job hunt black hole

The Wall Street Journal explains the “job hunt black hole”, wherein you submit a resume to an online posting or corporate website and never hear about it again.

The article explains that when you send in your information,  automated “Applicant Tracking Systems” (ATS) swallow and dissect your resume.  It will only be seen by a live human being if it matches with specific keywords and skill categories determined by the software. If you’re lucky, you’ll get an automated email reply telling you that you’re in the system.
Read the rest of this entry »


Posted: March 8th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , | No Comments »

How to take transferable skills out of the lab and into a job

Science has a new article on their careers site about developing skills during your education that can transfer into a career outside of academia.  Communication, leadership, and management skills are highly valued in industry and public sector jobs but tend to get minimal attention during the average graduate or post-doctoral program.

“The quality that is hardest to find in the science policy world is the ability to write clearly and quickly,” says John Marburger, Washington, D.C.-based science adviser to President George W. Bush. “Communicating technical material in technical journals does not give you the skills to communicate to nontechnical audiences,” he says.

The article suggests some resources, such as the National Postdoctoral Association, that students and postdocs can turn to for help in understanding and developing these skillsets.  Some of the suggestions in the article will be familiar to readers of this blog — joining Toastmasters or relevant campus clubs, for example.  The suggestion to take charge of a lab responsibility, like radiation safety, as a way of demonstrating leadership is also a good one.

You may have noticed that there’s been a bit of a gap in posting lately.  I’ve actually just started a new job myself, so things might be a little uneven until I get settled.  Thanks for your patience!


Posted: March 1st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

Can scientists solve the financial crisis?

Given the current financial crisis, becoming a quantitative analyst probably isn’t at the top of many “careers in demand” lists these days. But if you’ve ever been curious about how you might be able to put your scientist’s mind to work solving problems on Wall Street, check out this Science Careers podcast with finance exec Lee Maclin, director of research at Pragma Financial Systems. Or read about algorithmic trading and quantitative analysis at the Advanced Trading Quant Center… but if this is the career you’re hoping for, you might want to ‘hedge’ your bets until things get back on track!


Posted: February 18th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »