Science students are often not familiar with career options outside of academia or laboratory research. This blog series covers other wonderful career options for science graduates: patent law, science policy, science communication & science writing, scientific consulting, and clinical research.
Part 3: Science Communication & Science Writing
What is Science Communication?
Science communication is the field concerned with disseminating scientific information to different populations. For example, a science communicator could be an educator at a children’s science museum, or they could be a science journalist for a newspaper. Both jobs require an understanding of scientific topics and the ability to effectively communicate information to their audience.
What is Medical Writing?
Medical writing is a diverse field that can refer to science communication and outreach activities, educational materials, marketing, clinical trial documentation, and much more. The type of writing a medical writer does depends on their position, projects they are assigned to, and employer (communications company vs. clinical research organization, vs. pharmaceutical company).
For this blog post, I interviewed three individuals to learn more about the different positions and roles within science communication and medical writing.
Dr. Tiffany Doherty: Science Outreach
Dr. Doherty has always enjoyed writing, even before she majored in science. As a graduate student in behavioral neuroscience, she often pursued opportunities to develop this skill, working on an outreach piece for a science blog and science-related op-eds for local news outlets, as well as press releases about research projects conducted in her PI’s lab. In addition to these writing projects, she also taught neuroscience courses during her time as a graduate student. Experiences like these helped her realize how passionate she is about teaching science and making it accessible to people of all educational backgrounds. She found it extremely rewarding when she could help someone achieve a “lightbulb” moment, when they finally understood a difficult scientific concept.
Dr. Doherty decided to forgo a career in academia during the last year of her Ph.D. training. After months of researching other science career fields, she serendipitously came across a post-doctoral opportunity that was posted on Twitter. Dr. Aaron Carroll, the co-founder of the YouTube series Healthcare Triage, was looking for a post-doc that could help research and write scripts for their YouTube videos. Just narrowly missing the application deadline, she decided to give it a shot anyway and submitted her application materials. After several phone interviews, Dr. Doherty was offered the position!
Healthcare Triage is a YouTube series and podcast that focuses on healthcare and healthcare policy, medical research and current medical topics, and research design. They are also currently working on a new podcast about the relationship between science culture and the replication crisis that should be released later this year – check out their Twitter page for updates!
Dr. Doherty is involved in many aspects of the Healthcare Triage team. Of course, one of her roles is to research the background and write scripts for videos posted to their YouTube page. However, she also finds and invites guests to be interviewed on the Healthcare Triage podcast and helps prepare questions and other materials for the interviews. In addition to these roles, Dr. Doherty writes occasional science opinion pieces, like this one for NBC News , and helps Dr. Carroll edit his articles for the New York Times. Check out her Twitter page to see what she’s currently up to!
Dr. Doherty’s career path is unique and highlights the importance of leveraging social media to expand your professional network. Using platforms like LinkedIn and Twitter to connect with organizations and individuals in your career field of interest could potentially lead to the job of your dreams. If you are interested in science outreach or writing, here are some resources to help you get started:
- National Center for Science Education (NCSE) Science Outreach Fellowship: for graduate students, post-docs, and non-ladder faculty.
- List of Science Outreach and Communication Fellowships: provides a list of a variety of fellowships for individuals in STEM.
- National Association of Science Writers: an association for individuals who communicate science, technology, health, and engineering to the public, or want to get involved in the field.
- Article: How I switched from academia to science communication
- There are often opportunities at your local universities and science museums!
Dr. Samantha Keller: Medical Writing
Dr. Keller knew for a while that she wanted to pursue a career in industry, and while doing her post-doc in cancer epigenetics, she attended networking events and career fairs hosted by the university. She actually discovered her current employer, a medical communications company, at one of these career fairs.
Medical communications companies are often hired by pharmaceutical companies to assist with manuscripts, medical education projects, posters, abstracts, oral presentations, and other deliverables that help increase awareness of their product. At her current job as a medical writer, Dr. Keller is typically assigned to one or more of these types of research projects at any given time. She is also responsible for preparing PowerPoint slide decks for meetings with clients, doctors, and for additional oral presentations. Importantly, Dr. Keller carefully fact-checks all materials prior to handing off to clients, especially posters that will be presented at conferences.
In addition to medical communications agencies, medical writing positions can also be found at clinical research organizations (CROs) and pharmaceutical companies. In fact, many types of science writing jobs can be categorized as medical writing; here are a few common examples:
- Regulatory writing, related to clinical trials and FDA approval of new drugs
- Medical education for healthcare professionals, such as doctors or nurses
- Medical / healthcare communications, which is highlighted in Dr. Keller’s interview
- Marketing content, which often involves generating some combination of general promotional and educational materials for the public and well as for doctors
- Manuscript and grant writing, which is covered in more detail below!
Being a medical writer requires great attention to detail. As a medical writer, you are responsible for communicating a research project’s goals and results accurately and effectively. If anything is misrepresented in PowerPoint slides, posters or papers, it will reflect poorly on you, but more importantly, on your employer and client. However, unlike in academia, it is very difficult for an inaccurate document to be released because there are many layers of quality control.
A career in medical writing is a wonderful option for science graduates who enjoy communicating about research and writing. Many medical writing positions require a Ph.D., but some companies may allow applicants with a bachelor’s or master’s degree with some years of experience in clinical or pharmaceutical research. Additionally, most companies will eventually let you work from home, which can be a great benefit depending on your lifestyle and schedule. To learn more about medical writing opportunities, Dr. Keller recommends going to networking events, using LinkedIn, joining local societies and attending career fairs. The American Medical Writers Association website is a great place to get started.
Dr. Ellen Weinzapfel: Grant Writing & Marketing
You may recognize Dr. Weinzapfel’s name if you follow our blog and social media accounts! Dr. Weinzapfel has always enjoyed writing and editing, and like many science writers, was a go-to science writing editor in her PhD lab. As a post-doc, she researched career opportunities outside of academia and became involved in science writing for the Jackson Laboratory Blog. While writing for the blog, she worked on a series of articles about diverse women scientists, and also authored a set of posts about science career development. Dr. Weinzapfel also had the opportunity to write a NRSA F32 grant during her post-doc, which gave her valuable first-hand experience in the grant writing field. Through networking, Dr. Weinzapfel discovered the scientific writing opportunity at EpiCypher.
Dr. Weinzapfel has many roles at EpiCypher. Her main role is grant writing, where she works with scientists to develop Small Business Innovation and Research (SBIR) grant applications to fund the development of new epigenetic-focused technologies at EpiCypher. The SBIR grant program is a cornerstone of federally-funded Research and Development (R&D) in the U.S., and supports the type of high risk / high reward ideas that drive product innovation. SBIR grants are funded by multiple federal institutes, including the NIH, NIEHS, and DOD, and thus are useful for all types of small businesses and R&D projects.
Dr. Weinzapfel is also part of the marketing team. In fact, she writes a variety of content for the company: from blog articles, to social media posts (see Twitter and LinkedIn), press releases, manuscripts, and even providing voiceover for CUT&RUN videos on YouTube! Additionally, she travels to various conferences with the marketing team to learn about new advances in epigenetics research and talk to scientists about EpiCypher’s latest technologies.
There are many perks to being a grant writer. For example, grant writers have the opportunity to work for a company, like Dr. Weinzapfel, or be freelance. As a freelance grant writer, you can work for anyone and (generally) from anywhere you want. Going freelance is a great option for experienced grant writers who want to set their own schedule, workload and/or who may have a mobile lifestyle. And if you are efficient, there is the opportunity to take on more assignments; in fact, some freelance grant writers work on grants for several different clients at a time. Thus, self-sufficiency is an essential skill to have in this profession. In addition to being self-motivated, Dr. Weinzapfel highlighted two skills that are key for grant writing: critically analyzing and understanding scientific papers and organizing time efficiently.
Grant writing positions typically require a Ph.D. However, one could do marketing writing with a Master’s degree. To learn more about grant writing, check out these articles:
Science communicators and medical writers are crucial because they inform individuals of the latest scientific and/or clinical research, help dispel misconceptions and misinformation about science, and play an essential part in securing funding for future research. We hope this post was an informative read for those interested in these career paths!
Stay tuned for my next article about scientific consulting!