By Elizabeth Ohneck, PhD
In the first post of our So You Want to Be a… series we talked to Elizabeth Ohneck about her career as a medical writer. This week Elizabeth interviewed Ginny Vachon who runs her own medical writing company, Principal Medvantage, to find out what it takes to go it alone and become a freelance medical writer.
What does a freelance medical/science writer do?
Medical writers can do many different types of writing, but in general, medical writing is centered on taking information and making it accessible and informative for the correct audience. For example, taking raw data and writing a manuscript for other physicians is really different than summarizing recent findings for the general public. Freelance medical writers are contractors, and can be called in by pharmaceutical companies, communications agencies, medical associations, or other groups to help with specific projects that can’t be handled ‘in house,’ for whatever reason. There’s a ton of variety and opportunity to learn about different diseases. Some freelancers specialize, and write mostly about certain medical areas, or for certain audiences.
How did you get where you are now?
I have a BA in Biology from Agnes Scott College and my PhD is from Emory University. As I was nearing the end of my PhD I realized I had no clue what I wanted to do next. I totally froze because I knew I had choices, but I didn’t know how to make the next step. I realized that before I could pick a direction, I needed to learn about all of the different things I could do and how the people who were doing those things spent their days. So, I joined Women in Bio Atlanta and started going to events held by Emory and by WIB. I went to a WIB event on women in business and I heard Emma Nichols, who owns Nascent Medical Communications (formerly Hitt Medical Writing), talk about her experiences as a freelance medical writer and entrepreneur. I spoke with her after the event, and ended up doing a number of projects for her. After getting some experience, I started my own company! She has a great podcast, medical writers speak, that is full of great information about both medical writing and the business side of freelancing. The American Medical Writer’s Association also has a great website, training course, and chapter meetings where you can meet other medical writers and take short courses.
What are the key skills needed to be successful at this job, and did you develop any of them during grad school?
I think that the most important thing is a willingness to tackle any subject and learn about it. I think that as a Ph.D. student, I learned that discomfort and anxiety are totally normal when learning something new, and usually happen right before you understand something! I also had my daughter during my third year of graduate school, and developing the level of organization that I needed to ‘do it all’ has been awesome.
Medical writing is really great in that you can get a little bit of experience as a contractor before you graduate. Even if you end up not being wild about medical writing, you have a new skill to set you apart. Who on earth doesn’t want to hire someone who is skilled in communicating complex ideas?
What would be your advice to a PhD wanting a similar job as yours?
I would say to listen to the Medical Writers Speak podcast, go to the AMWA website, and start developing samples, writing for a blog or university paper are great starts (the manuscript you wrote with your PI isn’t the best sample) I think a lot of people who are trying to break into medical writing have a hard time with the transition from being a scientist or physician who can write to being a writer who understands science. I think that it’s important to recognize that while obtaining an MD or PhD is really hard, it is only a piece of the puzzle. The thought of sharpening your writing skills should be an exciting one! I know I heard this said at a lot of ‘alternate career events,’ but what you do next should not be a ‘back-up plan,’ it should be an exciting new set of goals! Also, after doing a ton of lab work, I really had a hard time sitting all day. Now I have to be a lot more deliberate about exercise and working with my hands in other ways.
What are the top three things on your To Do list right now?
A typical day usually starts with assessing deadlines. I usually have a few projects going on at once, so organization is really important. Today I have to check in with a client who owes me a transcript of an interview, look over a manuscript I finished two days ago with ‘fresh eyes’ before sending it off, and do some bookkeeping (scanning receipts from a recent work trip out of town).
What are your favorite parts of the job? What are your least favorite or most challenging parts?
My favorite part is that I get to solve problems for clients. Usually I get called in when people are stretched thin. It’s nice to be able to help companies when they are growing. My least favorite thing is the sitting. I have a standing desk now, which helps, but I miss the constant motion of lab work.
Is there anything you miss about academia? What was the biggest adjustment in moving from the bench to your current position?
Yes, of course! I miss being an ‘expert’ in a scientific area. As a writer, I learn just enough about a subject to write well about it. I have totally lost money on jobs before because I get sucked into a topic and next thing I know I am well-versed in how a specific trial recorded adverse events, but it doesn’t matter because that wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing. Especially as a freelancer, it’s all about doing what needs to be done to complete a project. I miss the freedom of diving into a single sentence in a paper to figure out the nature of a problem. The hardest part about making the mental switch was understanding that my role is to produce clear and meaningful content, not to assist in guiding the direction of research or marketing, or whatever the problem is I am writing about. Again, the switch from being a scientist to a writer.
How do you see your field developing over the next ten years?
I think that the ways in which medical writers develop content over the next few years will change to include more interactive platforms. I expect that soon doctors and patients will be unsatisfied with brochures, which will not only seem old-fashioned, but be insufficient for the increasingly complex decision-making that accompanies personalized medicine. Probably medical writing will soon include more content for apps. I don’t know that the clinicians of tomorrow will put up with PowerPoint-based CME, or posters will remain paper-based and non-interactive. It is hard to predict how communication will change in ten years time, but I think the most flexible and willing to learn medical writers will be the most successful.
What kind of positions to people in your position move on to?
One of the coolest things about freelance medical writing is that it can serve as a grand tour of many different types of biomedical businesses. You get to work with many types of companies (big, small, growing, pharma, CROs, communications firms, medical associations – you name it). You also get to work with the people in a company and see what they are like and see many different styles of working (fast, slow, organized, totally insane – you name it!). You can really observe and learn about what suits you. Many companies who need freelancers also need an on-staff medical writer, or someone smart in medical affairs, or marketing, or communications. Showing up and being organized and pleasant can prompt a job offer.
And finally: In the event of a zombie apocalypse, what skills would a freelance medical writer bring to the table?
I could be sure that every conceivable population of clinicians is well aware of how to identify, appropriately treat, and report zombie-related medical events. In addition, all potential patient populations will be well aware of how to seek out specialists, should they experience symptoms. Because I’m a freelancer, I am available to handle any writing needs that crop up as various new anti-zombie therapies emerge.