Science communication—making science understandable for the general public—has become a household phrase in the COVID-19 era. Public health officials and science journalists must be able to quickly explain complex scientific principles in simple terms. However, there is another type of scientific communicator, the scientific writer, who specifically communicates with scientific or medical professionals. Scientific writers might communicate findings to scientists outside their field or translate bench research to clinical care.
This is the story of how I accidentally became a professional scientific writer.
Because I was a postdoc during the 2007–2008 financial crisis, I am familiar with the overwhelming unpredictability that comes with external disruption of one’s career plans. I completed my Ph.D. in Bioengineering in 2005 with an exciting postdoctoral fellowship in Biochemistry and Biophysics ahead of me. However, in 2007, the financial crisis affected NIH grant funding levels. Despite a high priority score, my promising research was deemed unfundable, halting my academic career. In addition to the shrinking academic market, many pharmaceutical and other large companies were laying off employees. Thus, neither an academic nor an industry career was easily accessible to me. Meanwhile, the gig economy seemed to be on the rise. As a new mom, I found the flexibility of a gig job somewhat appealing.
In response to what felt like doors closing around me, I reconsidered my academic career from the perspective of its core job functions: teaching, mentoring, research, and writing.
In response to what felt like doors closing around me, I reconsidered my academic career from the perspective of its core job functions: teaching, mentoring, research, and writing. Considering my specific skill set together with available jobs in the new economic landscape, I focused on teaching and writing as the job functions most amenable to my lifestyle, education, and interests. While still in my postdoc, I took jobs tutoring college students and editing manuscripts for peers. I joined the Postdoc Editor’s Club at my university and interned with the Journal of Clinical Investigation (JCI). Through these activities, I gained training, experience, and leadership opportunities in scientific writing.
In December of 2007, I took my first “official” order from a client as a freelance scientific editor. What started as a job to make ends meet would ultimately become a very rewarding, full-time business that I would continue through 2019. During this time, I contributed to more than a thousand different scientific documents, including abstracts for scientific conferences and journals, grant proposals, websites, white pages, brochures, and poster presentations, in many different scientific fields.
In 2017, wanting more financial stability, I took an in-house scientific writer position at a biotech company. Wanting to make a greater contribution to research development, I left that job in 2019. Currently, I am the Senior Scientific Writer in the Center for Computational and Genomic Medicine at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. My current position allows me to fill all of the job functions of teaching, mentoring, research, and writing that I initially envisioned.
What Is Scientific Writing?
Scientific writing is a phrase used to describe writing for other scientific professionals in the same or different fields. Depending on the context, scientific writing may be performed in a freelance or remote office environment or in an in-house academic or industry setting. Writing projects may be related to lab research (e.g., scientific manuscripts, grant proposals), medicine (e.g., clinical trial results, patient information), or education (e.g., Continuing Medical Education, or CME). The writing may allow for creativity or may be very structured (e.g., regulatory medical writing).
Mechanics of Scientific Writing Positions—The education and training required to enter a scientific writing career depends on the specific job. I prioritized using my Ph.D. and remaining closely engaged with scientific research. These motivations made me well-suited for jobs in academic writing and research development, many of which require Ph.D.-level training. On the other hand, medical writing and some grant-writing positions are open to motivated individuals with a bachelor’s degree. In terms of training and certification, a few medical writing agencies require the Board of Editors in the Life Sciences (BELS) certification.
Freelance versus In-House—In-house scientific writing jobs are found at medical writing agencies, scientific journals, research institutes, and pharma and biotech companies. Different employers hire different flavors of writers. Pharma and biotech companies are highly interested in marketing and regulatory writing. Medical writing agencies want writers interested in clinical trial publications or regulatory documents for the FDA. Universities often hire grant writers in their research development cores or scientific writers within labs or research centers. It is important to know the general job expectations before you apply.
Taking a different direction, I started with freelance work. My scientific writing career began while I was finishing my postdoc. I worked part-time when my son was an infant, finally building a full-time career that spanned more than a decade of self-employment. In my experience, there are benefits and downsides to freelancing. Anyone you talk to will highlight the flexibility of working from home and the theoretical ability to make your own hours. Not having a boss or a commute and benefitting from reduced childcare costs were all substantial positives.
On the opposite side, freelance scientific writing has all of the downsides of gig employment. Because the work is contracted, being a freelancer can have a very “feast or famine” feel—there were months where I had more projects than I felt like I could manage and other months where I wondered if I would ever have work again. Being at the whims of contract work also meant I rarely took a vacation—if a project was available, I always felt I needed to take it. Freelancing means no job benefits, no 401(k), and no co-workers. Finally, it requires a very high level of self-motivation to find clients and complete projects. In general, freelancing can be very high-risk.
By contrast, in-house jobs offer a steady paycheck, job benefits, and co-workers. Many medical writing agency jobs pay very well, even at entry levels. However, in-house academic writing jobs requiring a Ph.D. can be hard to find. If that is the career path you want to take, I strongly recommend networking with PIs to let them know you’re interested. In-house jobs do not offer the same freedom that freelance employment does. For example, you cannot opt out of projects based on disinterest (e.g., advertising vs. grant writing).
The Chemistry of the Scientific Writer—While writing this article, I surveyed a group of professional scientific writers on two questions: “What are common personality traits of scientific writers?” and “What drives you in your career as a scientific writer?” Among the 14 respondents from this diverse group, some common personality themes appeared. Scientific writers all stressed high attention to detail as being a critical personality trait for a successful scientific writer. Other frequently reported traits were intellectual curiosity, autonomy, resourcefulness, and diplomacy as well as organizational and problem-solving capabilities.
Regarding motivations, nearly all scientific writers cited a desire to promote science and help others. Their responses included, “improving the human condition,” “making the world a better place,” “contributing to excellence and equity in clinical care,” “helping [scientists] communicate their ideas eloquently,” and “supporting those in need.” Another key motivator mentioned by several scientific writers was the variety of projects. Unlike an academic career, where you are restrained to a single topic, a scientific writing career allows you to learn about different research topics nearly every day.
In my experience, being a freelance scientific writer means I am a project manager over many different writing projects on varied scientific topics. This variety keeps my job refreshing, but the number of projects means I must simultaneously manage many projects from multiple scientists with differing requirements and competing deadlines. The skills and motivations of a scientific project manager are very similar to the skill set and motivations of a successful scientific writer in an academic research environment.
If you find that your career doors are closing and you are interested in a scientific writing career, what should be your next steps? I would like to close with some resources for aspiring scientific writers. For myself, the first place I looked was within my university. Search graduate student and postdoc websites for scientific editing and writing opportunities—both paid and volunteer—to build experience while you are still a student or trainee. Pay attention to e-mails from your graduate group or postdoctoral student association; these e-mails are where I learned about the JCI editorial internship. Twitter is another great resource for scientific writers to find and share opportunities.
I found my first contracted freelance scientific writing position through the job board on the Council of Scientific Editors (CSE) website. Although primarily geared toward journal editors, the job board also frequently posts positions for freelance scientific editors. In addition to CSE, other important national and international organizations for scientific writing include the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) and its international counterparts (European Medical Writers Association [EMWA] and Australasian Medical Writers Association [AMWA]). AMWA is a very active community for medical writers, with a large annual conference, extensive online coursework, and regional chapters. Finally, the National Organization for Research Development Professionals (NORDP) is “the only professional association dedicated solely to Research Development.” Similar to AMWA and CSE, NORDP holds an annual conference that is widely attended by grant writers, scientific writers, and other research development professionals.
American Medical Writers Association (AMWA)
Australasian Medical Writers Association (AMWA)
European Medical Writers Association (EMWA)
Council of Scientific Editors (CSE)
National Organization for Research Development Professionals (NORDP)