11 traits to transition from a bench scientist to a medical writer

by Ingrid Hansen, MS

Many Ph.D. graduate students are led to believe that there are only two routes to take after graduation: Research projects in academia or industry.  On the contrary, one thing that many do not see is that they have obtained a set of unique, invaluable skills that can apply to a broad array of career paths, such as a medical writer.

Medical writing involves preparing critical documents to extend the understanding of pharmaceuticals during drug development to successfully treat or cure a medical condition.  Pharmaceutical companies often rely on medical writers to prepare documents needed for health authority approval to use a particular substance in a pre-determined population and many other documents at various stages including the post approval stage with marketed compounds. While the scope of documents written is quite large, quality medical writing is critical in communicating the efficacy and safety of drugs to a variety of audiences, including internal teams, regulatory authorities, and the general public.

With that, an internal poll was taken at MMS to understand what types of skills obtained during graduate school or postdoc positions have contributed to success in medical writing. Here is what the experts at MMS say:

Balancing multiple tasks
Medical writers are faced with the challenge of efficiently authoring many different data‑heavy documents with various deadlines simultaneously. Coupled with frequent client meetings and ongoing emails, this means that a medical writer needs to have a good grasp on time management and possess a knack for multitasking. Thankfully, time spent juggling experiments, writing grants, reading papers, and maintaining the lab was good practice, and has silently instilled bench scientists with an expert set of time management and multitasking skills.

Being “Miss” or “Mister” Independent
Medical writers are often expected to work both efficiently and autonomously, often without constant oversight or direction from management. This means that medical writers need to be able to quickly find and use the resources available. Other times, resources for a certain project may be limited, and they may need to take a more innovative approach to the task at hand. These skills are not unknown to the bench scientist who has learned to thrive in a place where efficiency, autonomy, and innovation are not only encouraged, but required.

Interpreting data
Data interpretation is a fundamental skill for a research scientist. Medical writers are often asked to analyze data descriptively, recognize trends, and consolidate vast amounts of data – often from various sources – into one message. Additionally, a pre-established familiarity with study design and statistics is a great asset for transitioning into medical writing as a profession.

Keen observation skills
Bench scientists are, unfortunately, familiar with things not exactly going as expected – particularly regarding experiments that return unanticipated results. To that end, observational skills and a strong attention to detail are needed in developing new hypotheses to explain unexpected results, as well as repeating experiments consistently for verification. These abilities are in constant use in medical writing, running the gamut from small style checks to ensuring that different documents being prepared concurrently are consistent with one another and conform to set guidelines.  They also help data mining efforts to explain the odd adverse event or other results as the case may be.

Clear communication skills
Bench scientists, while technically skilled, must also possess excellent verbal and written communication skills to discuss and brainstorm different hypotheses, persuade others with thoughtful ideas and experimental plans, give presentations, lead meetings, and to prepare posters, dissertations, and journal articles. These abilities readily translate into the communication required for interacting within an organization, with clients, and with team members, not to mention regulatory authorities.

Dealing with various personalities
According to Myers-Briggs, there are 16 different personality types. While some personalities are more common than others in medical writing, scientists-in-training will likely run into people with different or difficult personalities. This may include a skeptical committee member or a rough-around-the-edges mentor, for instance. The good news is that a career in science provides one with years of experience in confronting diverse personality types and ultimately learning to accommodate differing communication styles accordingly.

Learning from criticism
No well-trained scientist remains unscathed in terms of receiving and responding to criticism. In medical writing, individuals may sometimes disapprove of the approach a medical writer has taken in preparing a particular document. However, a background in strong science creates resilience and flexibility to use the scientific edits and critiques as a learning opportunity and a tool for improvement, rather than a personal comment.

Dedication
It’s impossible to describe a successful scientist without using the word “determined.”  What other kind of individual would be able to withstand years of hard work and delayed gratification in the pursuit of a single goal?  This level of drive and persistence is undoubtedly a great asset to a medical writer.

Teamwork
It is often necessary for graduate students and postdocs to work with others to learn experimental techniques, brainstorm, share information, and distribute the workload on a large project based on technical expertise.  In medical writing, regulatory documents have a variety of moving parts, and the ability to function as part of a multi-disciplinary cohesive team is essential in compiling all the pieces of a large project into a complete package.

Desire to help others
Many bench scientists have goals of helping others by translating basic information into something that is useful. Medical writers actively participate in this process by reporting and analyzing data that directly impact the use of a new drug on the human population, with the potential to improve the lives of individuals suffering from a wide range of therapeutic areas, including neuroscience, oncology, cardiovascular disorders, and the like.

Search for knowledge
Few people began studying science without anticipating the excitement of discovering something new.  Medical writers help convey new knowledge concerning the efficacy and safety of drugs and add in the global understanding of the human body and medicine. There is always more to learn for the medical writer through the process of working with different document types, client and internal teams, therapeutic areas, and pharmaceutical substances.

The culmination of the years of experience acquired by a bench scientist is excellent preparation for a career in medical writing. It’s little wonder that an advanced degree in science is a well-worn path to success in this exciting, dynamic occupation.

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