What Does It Take To Launch a Medical Writing Career?

Credit: adamr at  FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Credit: adamr at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

This topic comes up so frequently from would-be writers I thought I would blog about it again. I can only identify the things I did that, in retrospect, I believe helped me launch a successful writing career. Based on my experience, what would I suggest to those trying to launch a medical writing career?

1.    Show some chutzpah. When I began a   post-doc at NIH I took over the position of another post-doc who was leaving for a job in industry. Her mail still came to my mailbox. One day a postcard arrived addressed to her, it said: “Congratulations Dr. Baker, you have been selected to be one of 15 participants from hundreds of NIH post-doctoral fellows who applied to attend our medical writing workshop.” It would be taught by Ruth Levy Guyer of Science magazine, who also was teaching at Johns Hopkins. Naturally I went. It was a wonderful course and helped me understand that medical writing might be a good fit for me.

2.    Do it for free. Because I enjoyed science writing and editing and wanted to know more about it, I volunteered to edit articles for a journal called Women In Science. One day an article arrived for me to edit, and the author was none other than Ruth Guyer. It is a bit nerve wracking to edit the work of your writing teacher. I must not have screwed up too badly, because when we were done, Ruth informed me that NHGRI was looking for a staff writer in their office of Press, Policy, and Communications, and was I interested? (Turned out Ruth was married to the head of NHGRI extramural division.) I was only two years into my post-doc and wasn’t on the job market, but I figured I’d better not pass up the opportunity at least to learn more.

3.    Take a risk. I went on the interview at NHGRI. I was asked for a type of writing sample I did not have, given that I was a bench scientist. Happily, the head of communications asked if I had seen a movie recently—I had, the great documentary about Mohammad Ali entitled “When We Were Kings.” She asked me to write a movie review, and she liked it. But she was still hesitant to take a chance on a bench scientist with no real writing experience. Finally I offered to take the job for 6 months with no obligation to renew at the end of the six-month period, and I offered to do it at my post-doc salary, which was half a staff writer’s salary. She accepted my offer. Anyone in bench science knows what a risk this was; Bench science moves so quickly that it is widely believed that if you are out of the field for six months, you are finished.

4.    Work your carcass off. Naturally, once I took the job I worked my fanny off. I was accustomed to the 12-18 hour days of a post-doctoral fellow, so you can imagine how that helped me stand out in the timeclock-punching environment of government administration. After six months I was signed on as a full-fledged staff writer.

5.    Persevere. I worked a number of years as a staff writer at NIH, then relocated to the northeast and stayed home with my young kids for a few years. I found myself ready to work again and wanted to launch a freelance career. I was extremely lucky because a wonderful administrator named Marla Michel, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, offered me a sizable project helping to develop content for a searchable database of life science faculty on campus. That “luck” was preceded by hundreds of networking functions at which I shook thousands of hands.

6.    Try something new. Shortly thereafter I was doing a little bit of press work for a client, who talked me into helping with an NIH grant application. I warned him that I had precious little experience with grant applications, but he assured me he understood and thought I could help. That first grant client landed his R01, and I found a line of work that has proved satisfying and at which I seem to have a knack.

Hopefully some newbies out there will find something in my experiences helpful. Of course, I love what I do for a living, and that makes all the difference in the world.

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