By Sally Burn, PhD
In this week’s edition of Scizzle’s post-PhD career series we talk to Colm O’Regan about being a freelance Technical Copywriter. Colm trained in the physical sciences – which makes a welcome change from our usual biology-centric focus – and came to our attention when he commented on one of our previous interviews on LinkedIn. We were so intrigued by his job title that we just had to get the lowdown on his career! If you also happen to have an interesting post-PhD job, please reach out to us – we’d love to hear from you. Just connect with Sally Burn via her LinkedIn. Colm can also be contacted via his LinkedIn or by email.
Hi Colm, so what does a Technical Copywriter do?
I write marketing communications and content for scientific companies. This means any material a science company uses to promote its products. These range from white papers, technical/scientific articles, landing pages, advertisements, application notes and case studies. Many science companies put out a wide range of marketing collateral and this stuff needs to be written. They’ll do a lot of it internally, but often they’ll outsource it to a writer like me to take some of the pressure off. Specific responsibilities include: marketing my services, making contact with potential buyers (typically marketing managers), talking to these buyers on the phone to ascertain their needs, making an offer, writing proposals, doing the actual writing, following up constantly, bookkeeping etc.
How did you get to where you are now?
I enjoyed science in school, particularly chemistry and physics. Chemistry was always my favorite subject so I continued studying that in university in Ireland. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. After my degree, I didn’t want to get a job in a chemical plant or a pharmaceutical company, which seemed to be the typical route most of my classmates were following. By the time I finished my third year, I had developed a strong interest in nanotechnology and materials science. So when I was offered a PhD in materials science at the same university, I jumped at the chance. After that, I went on to do a postdoc at the National University of Singapore. The research was focused on using electron microscopy to study dendrite growth in battery systems. However, by the end of this, I realized that working for someone else was not something I wanted to spend my life doing. Even if it was in academia which, admittedly, can be quite cushy. I had always enjoyed writing so after spending many months trying to figure out what I wanted to do, I found that marketing writing for science companies seemed to be the best choice.
What are the key skills or experience needed for this job?
You don’t need much in the way of experience from a skills point of view, as most of it you can learn on the job. That said, any relevant background you have will be helpful. For example, if you’re targeting a specific industry such as biotechnology, a degree, masters or PhD in biotech will be a huge advantage. It will set you apart from other writers targeting biotech companies. You know the technology, the field, and the industry, and will probably have hands on experience with many of the scientific instruments you’ll be writing about. Companies value this and you’ll be able to command higher fees. The main skill I got from my PhD and postdoc was the ability to research effectively (I mean look up papers, documents, articles etc. pertaining to my field) and keep persevering when things get tough. Anybody doing a PhD project knows that it’s three and a half years of crap followed by six months of good things happening. When you’re in your second year, your 150th experiment in a row has failed and you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, it can be disheartening. That perseverance and ability to tough it out is critical when going out on your own.
What would be your advice to a PhD wanting a job similar to yours?
Anybody wanting to do this job (or start a freelancing business in general) should know that it’ll probably take twice as long, cost twice as much and be twice as difficult as you initially anticipated. I know this isn’t exactly encouraging, but if you come into this knowing what to expect, then you’re already ahead of the game. I definitely thought it was going to be easier than it is. So the first thing someone needs to do is market themselves and their services like crazy. Estimate how much marketing you need to do, double it… and then go do that. I didn’t do enough marketing in my first year (and the marketing I did was the wrong kind). Ultimately, the people who are successful think of themselves as marketers of the services they provide (in my case, marketing communications writing for scientific companies), rather than doers of that particular service.
What are the top three things on your To Do list right now?
Usually, my to-do-list involves marketing. Right now, the list includes launching a direct mail effort (sending letters through the mail to promote my services), finishing writing a proposal for a project, and following up on a previous project that I finished recently (I do this a lot)
What are your favorite – and least favorite – parts of the job?
Least favorite part right now is the inconsistent paycheck. Some months you have work, others you don’t. Invariably, this comes down to consistent marketing. When you let up on the marketing, your income takes a hit. My favorite part is working to my own schedule, and not a schedule set by someone else.
Is there anything you miss about academia? What was the most challenging aspect of moving from academia to your current job?”
One of the things I enjoyed most about academia is the relaxed working atmosphere. Specifically, it’s not a typical nine to five job, so there’s nobody checking up on work hours. As long as you do the work, it’s fine. So that was a big plus. I was also lucky to work in a fun lab with a lot of great people. Now, I work on my own so I sometimes miss the interactions of working in a research group. The most challenging aspect of moving into freelance work is being your own boss. You’re responsible for every single aspect of the business. From marketing, selling, doing the work, bookkeeping, to running the business. If you slip up on anything (marketing in particular), the business as a whole takes a hit. It takes some getting used to. You definitely need to develop good habits (getting up early, not wasting an hour scanning your Facebook feed), improve your productivity and have the discipline to work and market the business when you need to. Which is most of the time.
How do you see your field developing over the next ten years?
In terms of marketing writing for scientific firms, I guess It really is a buyer’s market due to the sheer number of people going out on their own and starting businesses. Over the last decade, copywriting has been actively promoted as a business opportunity by several organizations. This has prompted more and more people to start freelance copywriting. Though admittedly, you don’t see many science graduates and researchers doing this, but that could change over the next decade. Copywriting in general is sure to become more and more popular, so narrowing down your specialty and focusing on a particular industry will be even more important than it is today.
And finally: In the event of a zombie apocalypse, what skills would a technical copywriter bring to the table?
Well, if the remaining living scientists ever discovered a cure for people turning into zombies, a technical copywriter would be the one helping to promote it!