So You Want to Be a… Technical Copywriter

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!


So You Want to Be a… Medical Writer

By Sally Burn, PhD

What can you be with a PhD? So many things! In our new series on post-PhD careers we explore the options out there, providing tips on how to break into different industries and helping you identify jobs your skill set is ideally matched to. Check back every two weeks for the lowdown on becoming, to name but a few, a Publisher, Tech Startup Founder, Medical Science Liaison, Editor, Industry Scientist, Consultant, and Space Pirate (OK, so perhaps not the last one).

Today, in our first post, we chat with Elizabeth Ohneck about her career as a Medical Writer and find out how you can become one too. Elizabeth works for Health Interactions, a medical education and communications agency; she’s also one of our regular Scizzle blog contributors.


Hi Elizabeth! So, what exactly does a Medical Writer do?

Medical writers work with research teams in pharmaceutical, nonprofit, and other institutions to develop manuscripts, abstracts, posters, and presentations. In general, our clients send us reports outlining the methods, results, and analysis parameters of their studies, which we use to develop the desired publications or presentations. We also attend conferences and prepare conference summary reports, as well as write literature reviews over current publications in a particular disease or therapeutic area. In addition, we provide support for administrative tasks such as manuscript and abstract submission and the preparation of biosketches for physicians and researchers.


How did you get to where you are now?

I have a BS in Biology from the University of Dayton, where I first experienced working in a lab for my honors thesis in microbiology. I enjoyed research at the time, so I decided to go to grad school. I got my PhD from Emory University in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics. I knew I didn’t want to stay in academia, but wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, so I took a postdoc position at NYU while I looked into other career options. I’ve always liked writing and am often frustrated by how poor the communication of science is among researchers and between researchers and the public, so I started looking for opportunities in science communication. My husband is a postdoc at Princeton, and a former postdoc from his department emailed the department saying his company was hiring medical writers and any interested candidates should contact him. My husband sent me his information and I emailed him to set up an informational interview. After our conversation, he sent my CV to the HR department at his company and from there I went through the standard hiring process – phone interview, writing test, in person interview, job offer.


What are the key skills needed for this job? Did you develop any of them during your PhD/postdoc?

You really have to love learning and be an effective self-educator. I work in rheumatology and veterinary medicine right now, not areas at all related to my background in microbiology. So I had to learn a lot about new subjects very quickly, and it’s really important to stay up-to-date with the research and developments in the field. And you obviously need to enjoy writing and have strong communication skills. Time management and the ability to meet deadlines and prioritize work are also critical. A PhD and postdoc should help you develop all of these skills through planning your research, preparing publications and presenting your work. The ability to professionally and effectively communicate with clients has probably been the skill I needed to work on the most, since it requires much more formal communication than we usually use in academia.


What would be your advice to a PhD wanting a job similar to yours?

Take every opportunity you can to write and present. In addition to your own manuscripts, take advantage of any offers to contribute to book chapters, reviews, commentaries, etc. Write for a research blog (like Scizzle!) or a department or program newsletter. Attend conferences or participate in symposiums or presentation opportunities at your institution to become comfortable and efficient with poster and oral presentations. For entry-level medical writing positions, effective scientific communication skills will really be the key to demonstrate that you are a strongly qualified candidate. And network. I know everyone says that for every position, but it’s true. Create a professional social media presence and look for opportunities to meet people in the field.


What are the top three things on your To Do list right now?

Right now, I need to finish editing the monthly rheumatology literature review we prepare for our rheumatology clients, submit a manuscript, and prepare an outline for a new manuscript that we will be kicking off next week.


What are your favorite – and least favorite – parts of the job?

My favorite part of the job is writing manuscripts. It’s the most writing-intensive task, and writing is really my passion. I love the feeling of accomplishment that comes with turning a collection of data into an intelligible story. My least favorite part is making slide presentations, but that’s only because I’ve never been particularly fond of the software used to make said presentations. The most challenging part for me is conference coverage. Travel to and from the conference, long days of taking detailed notes during conference sessions and meeting with clients, and tight deadlines for creating conference summary documents afterward can be exhausting. But getting to travel to new places is fun.


Is there anything you miss about academia? What was the biggest adjustment or most challenging aspect of moving from academia to your current job?

I don’t miss anything about being at the bench or the academic environment. The experience helped get me where I am today, but it just wasn’t the right fit for me long term. The biggest adjustment was getting used to not being on my feet all day – I have to remember to get up to walk around and stretch every once in awhile! The biggest challenges were learning the writing style preferred by our clients and adapting to the more formal style of communication required for interaction with clients.


How do you see your field developing over the next ten years?

From what I understand, there is a huge demand for people in the medical communications industry, so it seems that it’s a growing field. I imagine this growth will continue, since there is increasing demand for more transparency in scientific research, and medical communications companies can help increase the clarity of publications and the efficiency of the publication process.


What kind of positions does someone in your position move on to?

The next step after entry-level Medical Writer is Senior Medical Writer, which involves more projects, more independence and leadership in your projects, and opportunities to mentor newer medical writers. In my company, the next step would then be Associate Scientific Director, which involves more management responsibilities.


Finally, the all-important question: In the event of a zombie apocalypse, what skills would a Medical Writer bring to the table?

I imagine we’d be responsible for informing the public about the virus or genetic mutation (it’s always one of those) that’s causing the zombie condition and communicating information about the cure. Although, as far as how we would distribute that information – that might be outside of our job description. If you figure out what career that would be, let me know. It’s never too early to start networking…

Life of a scientist as an entrepreneur

By Padideh Kamali-Zare, PhD

It has been almost a year since I started my journey as an entrepreneur, after being a scientist for almost a decade. Such a change in my career path felt a bit unusual in the beginning, but soon I found a lot of similarities between the two paths. I quickly noticed that I am actually still continuing the same path, only exploring different aspects of it. A path I initially feared to step in soon became a joyful journey I now cherish every day. Through interacting with a lot of scientists and entrepreneurs, I came to realize that the entrepreneurial spirit adds an enriching dimension to a scientist’s world.

As a scientist, one has a passion for uncovering the mysteries of nature and discovering the truth (mechanisms underlying events) through scientific methodology. This methodology famously relies on testing hypotheses, and developing new tools to do it accurately. Over the centuries, this methodology has become a steadfast tradition. As such, everyday work as a scientist becomes a routine job very quickly. This limits the freedom, flexibility and independent thinking of a scientist. However, I always thought of science not as a job, but as a lifestyle. Science, through critical thinking, changes how one views the world, questions everyday life events, and addresses them by gathering evidence and applying them towards gaining a higher wisdom. These skills are invaluable assets in the entrepreneurial world.

The entrepreneurial mind, very much like the scientific mind, functions by questioning, hypothesizing and testing. The coordinate system of the two is identical and the valuation of ideas is reflected through vigorous testing of the initial hypotheses. What is different is the human component, which is much more prominent in the entrepreneurial world. In the end, people are the users of our products. They should see the value of our work and be willing to use it in their everyday life. If you are a scientist with good interpersonal and communication skills who also likes to promote scientific innovation through people and for people, you are already an entrepreneur.

Exploring the world as a passionate, dedicated scientist is like driving around in nature while listening to music and having brainy conversations with friends riding in the car with you. Entrepreneurship, on the other hand, is like stopping by the roadside, getting out of the car, getting some fresh air, hearing the ocean waves, walking to the woods, and exploring, first-hand, all that life has to offer. Life as an entrepreneur is much more flexible and creative than that of a scientist in the modern world. The entrepreneurial journey modifies itself every step of the way and never becomes routine. As an entrepreneur, you learn things from everyone, not just people around you or in your particular field of research. As a scientist, you find yourself constantly zooming in on a highly specialized and narrowed down subject, while as an entrepreneur you zoom out and see things from above, you see the big picture, and you focus on the impact your work can have on the world. No matter how long or how short, entrepreneurship is a fulfilling, growing experience of a lifetime.

5 Ways to Jump Start your Non-Academic Job Search


By Elaine To

So you’re nearing the end of your PhD. It’s a time for celebration, right? Unfortunately, the shining dream of becoming a professor in academia that you started with has faded. It’s no longer your career path, and all those seminars on how to land the perfect postdoctoral position no longer apply to you. Searching for a job in the real world sounds scary at first, especially in the current economy. Here are some tips for getting started:

1)     Build and update your LinkedIn profile

You should be able to copy/paste the statements from your resume into the “Experience” section. You can be more detailed and include more accomplishments than in your resume, but remember to use action statements and communicate things clearly. This is also the area to include the details of any volunteer work or leadership positions. Make sure to write a concise summary of your background and goals for the “Summary” section. This is what most people will read when deciding whether to delve deeper into your profile. Your current job title is just as important. Lastly, ensure the photograph is a professional well lit depiction of your smile.

2)     Build your network

Once your LinkedIn profile is setup, join groups in your field or that are associated with your university. Add individuals who you know in a professional or friendly capacity, but be wary of adding anyone you don’t know. In this way, you’ll increase the number of people you are connected with. Networking is crucial, as much of the non-academic PhD market is unadvertised. Leave no stone unturned, check your undergraduate and graduate alumni, friends, and colleagues. Talk to the career offices and use your PI’s network.

3)     Do informational interviews

Other people love talking about their experiences. You’d be surprised how many people are willing to help out somebody who was previously in their shoes! Within your network, alumni groups, or 2nd and 3rd tier connections, look for somebody currently working in a position or company you’d be interested in. Ask for a 10-15 minute phone chat to learn more about their experiences. Often the person you chat with will also ask about your background and career goals. During this chat, DO NOT ASK IF THEY KNOW OF AN OPENING. Ask about their day to day life, what skills are necessary to succeed in their position, how they got there, what it’s like to work for this company, etc. At the end, thank them for their time and ask if you can do anything for them, and also if they know of anyone else who might be a useful contact for you. The fact that you are asking about their current position lets them know that you are looking for a job, and they will keep an eye out. If you can, try to meet the individual over coffee; it will be a more personal connection.

4)     Search for job postings

If you match more than 70% of what a job posting asks for, it is worth applying to the job. Make sure to tailor your resume and cover letter for that specific announcement. If you do not match, job posting searches still let you know which companies are hiring. If it’s a company that interests you, return to LinkedIn and see if any of the employees in the company are a 2nd tier connection. Ask your shared connection for an introduction, and then follow up with an informational interview. Don’t be afraid to check smaller startup companies, who may be more willing to take someone without the specific skills on their specific instrument with this specific model system. Looking at the portfolios of venture capital firms will give you an idea of which startups are well funded and likely to be hiring.

5)     Keep an open mind

Through my informational interviews, I learned about many more career options for scientists. Before I began, I wasn’t aware that venture capital firms hired scientists to be analysts, some law firms hire scientists without patent bar registration to be technical advisors, that technology transfer existed as a field, and that there are many routes into science policy in addition to the AAAS fellowships. Learn as much as you can about any potentially interesting field before deciding not to pursue an opportunity within it.

There will be many cycles through these 5 tips, just like the many cycles that your resume and LinkedIn profile will undergo. As you continue, you will gain a greater understanding of which of your skills are desirable and how to market yourself, and use this knowledge to refine your approach. The informational interviews, whether over the phone or in person, are also excellent low pressure practice for real job interviews. Good luck! It won’t be easy, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel! Trust me.

Every Postdoc Should Take Control of Their Career: Here’s How

Tara Burke

[highlight]Stay informed on changes to NIH training policies and career opportunities[/highlight]


This week is National Postdoctoral Appreciation Week! Congratulations to those who have made it through graduate school and are continuing their research training.  The postdoctoral fellowship is a time to further develop your bench skills and fine-tune your investigative prowess.  It’s also a time to seriously consider the next step in your career. However, this task may seem daunting since postdoctoral scientists often feel tied to the bench with little time and support to pursue career options. To add to this, federal budget cuts are severely affecting academic research funding (with the possibility of more cuts looming) and the prospect of an academic career is becoming unattainable for more and more postdoctoral fellows. While federal budget cuts are not the only reason for the precarious job situation, it certainly has exacerbated the problem, bringing it to the forefront. The decline of tenure-track and other academic positions is trickling down to trainees, pumping out large numbers of postdoctoral fellows who are fighting for fewer and fewer jobs.


Most recently, the NIH has created a new website to update researchers and the public on new policies implemented to address the problems trainees are facing. Some of the new initiatives taken by the NIH include establishing a grant program to nurture innovative training proposals, tracking all trainees that receive federal funding, from undergraduates to postdocs, and improve graduate and postdoctoral researcher training. These changes are a step in the right direction towards updating an antiquated system. However, some argue, that the NIH has glossed over the big problems facing the biomedical training infrastructure. Additionally, a recent survey from an organization in the U.K. urges postdoctoral fellows to take more responsibility for their career development. Most likely a combination of increased support and guidance by the institution and a more proactive role by the postdocs themselves will result in fellows that are more prepared for the ever-changing job climate.


How do postdoctoral trainees avoid becoming victim to the uncertain job market? In addition to taking full advantage of the career services at your institution as early as possible, a highly recommended first step is to join your associated scientific society, the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) and/or other associations. I especially recommend joining The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). (AAAS has a special deal right now where if you join AAAS or are already a member you can join the NPA for only $20). It’s an excellent way to stay abreast of the funding situations, changes in career trends/opportunities, and participate in funding advocacy. All scientific societies have a membership fee, however the fees are often lower for graduate students and postdocs. Also, some of the membership fees, such as NPA fees, are tax deductable. Furthermore, staying connected to their services is key. Therefore, I further recommend joining their LinkedIn group or following them on Twitter to maximize your exposure to their services and information. Joining these societies is a great starting point for those interested in the scientific community outside of their lab or institution and, better yet, their content can easily be explored at your computer while you are spinning your samples or treating your cells!

Follow the Yellow Brick Road

Neeley Remmers

Have you ever been asked the question, “Oh, you’re getting your PhD, what do you plan on doing with that?” I get asked that question on average 5 times week or more when I’m trying to explain to someone outside of scientific research what it is I do. Explaining the career-path of a scientist is no easy task because quite frankly, there is no defined career-path like for our profession like there is for other professions. For example,  if you’re ambition was to become an M.D. the path is has been cleared for you – you go to medical school, take your boards, do a residency, complete a fellowship, and finally get a position as an attending physician. However, for those of us who either have or are obtaining our PhD’s in science, there is no yellow-brick road for us to follow. Ask any professor or senior scientist how they got to their current position and you’ll find that no two career paths are the same.

One reason for the lack of a clearly defined path may be because there are so Continue reading “Follow the Yellow Brick Road”

Through The Looking Glass

Neeley Remmers

Let me begin this blog entry by first apologizing to those of you who had hoped to maybe learn another snippet of cancer biology or read a summary of a couple interesting scientific papers. Instead, this week’s entry is going to be more a reflection of my graduate career. Forewarning, I think my brain is still recovering from the intense past few weeks so I can only hope that my thoughts seem somewhat connected.

I have to confess, this decision is totally influenced by the fact that I just defended my thesis two days ago and I had the opportunity to interact with students still in their first couple of years of graduate school while attending a conference last weekend. The conversation I had with these students got me thinking about the roller-coaster ride that is graduate school. We all agreed that Continue reading “Through The Looking Glass”