Katie White

Medical writer.

Former research staff in biomedical sciences, A Coruña Biomedical Research Institute, Spain, and University of Glasgow, UK.

This story comes from our What do research staff do next? project, investigating the careers of research staff who moved from research posts to other occupations and employment sectors. You can use these stories to better understand how these researchers transition, what careers they have and their reflections on the transition process and current career paths.

Katie White

Research staff experience

I had three postdoctoral contracts, with a career break between the first two. 

Following my PhD in cardiovascular gene therapy at the University of Glasgow, I had a short-term, six-month postdoctoral contract in the same lab to finish off some of the project I had been working on. During this time I decided to take a break from research and took the opportunity to make a round-the-world trip. Whilst away I was able to get a very flexible online job, editing and proofreading manuscripts that had been translated into English so that they could be submitted to journals for publication. Not only did this help fund my travels, it also enabled me to maintain my interest in medical research. 

After about 18 months I decided I did want to continue with a career in research and managed to find a postdoctoral position working in a respiratory medicine lab in northern Spain. Although it was a completely different therapeutic area and a much more clinically based research position than I had previously, I found it relatively easy to get back into the routine of lab research and everything that I had learnt during my doctorate was invaluable. However, after nearly a year I decided that although I was enjoying being back in an academic lab, the position itself wasn’t really for me. Luckily I had stayed in touch with people in my previous lab and heard about a new postdoctoral position that had become available. 

So, after nearly three years away I returned to a new stem cell research project based in the lab where I did my PhD. In the time I had been away the lab had substantially changed, the research group was now much larger and the research was a lot more diverse. I enjoyed the new challenges that I was given and soon settled back in to the lab, gradually taking on more responsibilities and a more senior role. While working as a postdoctoral researcher I also got involved in setting up and running a public engagement project. This gave me a new perspective on my research and through this I gained a lot of skills and experience that complemented my everyday job. 

Although I was enjoying academic research, after a few years back in the job I began to get more and more concerned about the lack of opportunities to further my career, and the lack of long-term contracts with job stability was a worry. With many of my very successful colleagues struggling to get funding for fellowships and the lack of availability of more senior postdoctoral positions I couldn’t really see any long-term options for me staying in academic research and began to look at other career ideas. 

Transition to new career

I thought about many possible career options, ranging from moving to an industrial lab to retraining in something completely different, but in the end I decided that I really did want to stay working in medical science in some way, and that’s when I came up with the idea of medical writing. To be honest, initially it wasn’t really a job that I knew much about. But the more I found out about medical writing, the more the job appealed to me. So I decided not to wait until my postdoctoral contract expired and I began seriously looking for and applying for jobs. 

I think the most useful resources I found were the MedComms Networking website and the European Medical Writers Association website. Both of these provided guides and information about careers in medical communications. The MedComms Networking website section on getting started in medical communications was particularly helpful. The website was also a good place to search for the latest job vacancies. 

I also took advantage of the university careers service. After I’d re-written my CV to make it more appropriate for a career outside of academia, they provided some useful feedback and tips to improve it. I also had a mock interview, which helped me to prepare for the real thing. 

Part of the process of applying for medical writing jobs involves completing writing and/or editing tests prior to being invited to interview. I successfully completed three tests and went on to attend interviews. The interviews consisted of another test and a standard panel interview. I didn’t find the tests too difficult, as they were generally based on skills that I had to use routinely in my work; reading and interpreting journal articles. My third interview was a success and I was offered a position as a medical writer. 

Current job – and how it compares

I’ve been a medical writer at a medical communications agency for about a year. One of the main things that attracted me to the job was the variety in the everyday work. Instead of research in a very specific area I now get the opportunity to work on a wide range of therapeutic areas - everything from cancer to baby massage. 

The job title is a bit misleading, as there is a lot more to my role than just writing. In addition to writing manuscripts for journal publication, other projects I’ve worked on include: preparing posters and oral presentations for congresses; preparing resources for medical education such as apps, websites and videos; and preparing and attending symposiums and advisory board meetings. Although most of the day-to-day work is office based there are also plenty of opportunities to travel all over the world to attend congresses and meetings. 

Competencies old and new

When I started as a medical writer I didn’t really get any formal training for the job. It was a bit daunting at first as straight away I was given projects to work on and just learned through doing the job. My experience as a researcher definitely helped. The scientific knowledge and ability to understand and interpret medical research is critical to my new job. Although in comparison the field of my research was quite narrow, I’ve found it relatively easy to start working on other disease areas that I knew very little about. Having written publications and attended conferences previously has also really helped in my new role. 

Other more general skills such as IT, communication and time management have also been useful. As a medical writer I often find I can be working on several very different projects at the same time, some with tight deadlines to meet, so organising and prioritising tasks is essential. 

Some parts of the job have been completely new to me, for example, understanding the regulations which pharmaceutical companies (and therefore medical writers) are required to adhere to. Although budgeting and financial constraints were things I had to be aware of in academia, working for a company where profits are obviously a major concern has taken a bit of getting used to. All the accounting aspects of the job and having to balance client expectations with company requirements have been completely new to me. 

In research, almost all my colleagues had a background in medical science. As a medical writer I now regularly work closely with a design/creative team, IT and an events management team. It has been interesting to learn more about how they work and what’s required to present the medical information in all the different formats that we work with. 

One of the difficult things in changing career was moving from a relatively senior position to a much more junior position in a job where I had no direct experience. However, the experiences I had from academia have helped me to make quick progress and become established in my new role. 

Reflecting on my career path

I never really had long-term career plans. When I decided to do a PhD, I assumed I would have a long-term career in academic research. I didn’t really consider the impact of having short-term contracts and needing to regularly move labs to have the best chance of progress in a career. When I started out in research I wasn’t really aware of how few opportunities there would be to develop a good, stable career in academic research. 

I still don’t really plan for the long term. I have a lot to learn in medical writing and I’m enjoying the variety of the day-to-day work I’m doing. With this and the longer-term job prospects and stability that I currently have, I don’t think I’ll be changing careers again anytime soon. 

Suggestions and advice

Take any opportunities to get involved in different aspects of science other than research,  such as teaching, public engagement, etc. Although they might not directly lead to your next job, they will help you gain experience and skills that might help in other jobs. They will give you a different perspective on your research that might help inspire a new direction for your career. And when it comes to applying for jobs, any additional experience you have will help make your CV stand out from the others. 

Don’t be afraid to take a career break. If you decided to go back to research afterwards, opportunities will still be there. Gaining wider experience in other things may help you in the longer term. I learnt Spanish while travelling, and by chance that helped me get back into a job in academic research.