As a medical and scientific writer, I often receive questions about how I came to where I am. “How did you become a science writer?” I empathize with these questions – I asked them myself when I stepped onto the writing stage back in the day. However, the answers are almost always the same, and frankly speaking, I often don’t have time to give these queries the attention they deserve. But I thought: What if I write a blog post about it? Then I could simply send the link as a response. So, without further ado, this is how I became a scientific and medical writer and some steps you can take to become one. (For simplicity, let’s call it science writer from now on).
Remember, this post describes my personal experience and journey into science writing, and my choices might seem unconventional to some. Talking to other science writers, you’ll discover different ways to break into the branch.
“Academia is not for you.”
Like most PhD students, I used to have a clear academic path in mind: sweat through a PhD, do one or two postdocs at different labs, and become a PI. Most of you academics or ex-academics recognize this rather simplistic blueprint. It’s a pleasant and linear path many feel comfortable taking on because it offers few distractions from your current love: research.
However, for several reasons, which I might delve into later, I slowly realized academic research and its prospect brought me less pleasure than I’d imagined. I eventually learned the waning feeling included lab work in general. I enjoyed problem-solving, networking, and occasionally pipetting, but I couldn’t project myself working in this environment my whole life.
Before I finished my PhD, I took the necessary steps to succeed in science communication.
Step 1: A desire to communicate
I started a blog with a colleague, which we named Ivory Embassy, a name playing the ivory tower, a metaphorical place where the elites seclude themselves from the real world. As you can see, we wanted to mediate between the scientific world and the general public to simplify science and unravel scientific misconceptions.
Although the idea existed, we never considered Ivory Embassy a professional website. It was a hobby that taught us to communicate different topics while focusing on fulfilling people’s needs – rather than highlighting astonishing results with a laser pointer. Life brings surprises, and I ran the blog by myself, writing whenever I found time and learning from my many mistakes.
How to start blogging
You can start blogging by buying a domain, setting up a free or paid website, or publishing on your preferred social media platforms. For example, many LinkedIn users use the platform to publish long-form content.
The advantages of blogging (for free) are several:
- You learn to write captivating content.
- You learn to focus on your audience.
- You expose yourself to critique and criticism.
- You build your portfolio.
- You familiarize yourself with marketing and SEO.
I didn’t know it by then, but Ivory Embassy would later help me land my first freelance writing job and other jobs. But hold that thought for a moment.
Step 2: Realizing my ambitions
As mentioned, I eventually realized I wanted – or needed – to step out of academic research and lab work. Of course, this realization didn’t suddenly strike me while pipetting drugs into my 96-well plate with cells. These decisions change lives and require long-term processing.
My decision was confirmed at the BCF career event, a yearly event in Utrecht. Scientific institutes and companies from around Europe gather here to showcase their projects. These career events also help you with practicalities, such as reviewing your CV, and offer workshops on relevant topics.
Look for career events around your area; it can be worth your time. Sometimes, the most valuable information reveals what you don’t want to work with rather than your dream job. Embrace this knowledge; it helps you avoid the jobs you don’t want!
The career event confirmed I didn’t want to work at a lab bench. I also realized I’d spent most of my time at the event enjoying discussions about editing science content with representatives of Springer Nature. The signs couldn’t have been much more evident. Writing and editing it was.
(Apart from that, I stepped outside the massive event location with a better-looking CV and ideas on improving my LinkedIn profile, which is not bad either.)
Step 3: Studying the terrain
Once I had a clear picture of what I wanted to do – science writing and editing – I needed to approach it methodologically. Sure, I had a blog where I practiced writing, but I also wanted to offer my services to others. I needed structured knowledge.
I’ve always said that your academic education, such as an MSc or PhD, gives you cross-disciplinary or transferrable skills. In other words, by the end of a PhD, a biologist, for example, has acquired knowledge beyond mere biology. The biologist knows how to manage experiments, solve problems, structure and prioritize projects, promote them, and supervise others, among many other things. Most importantly, the biologist has learned metacognition, that is, an appreciation of how to think and learn.
So, once my desire to become a writer and communicator was solidified, I started eating books and courses about writing and communication like my life depended on them. Academic writing, copywriting, editing, proofreading, presentation, search engine optimization, WordPress, and marketing. I consumed information on anything that could benefit my future endeavors.
Study the landscape you’re about to enter and identify the existing knowledge, regardless of whether it is science writing or any other profession. Researching the field will highlight the requirements and the unfulfilled needs, that is, the missing pieces of knowledge you can bring.
Books and courses I ate
At this point, most people ask me about the books I’ve read and the courses I studied. The resources will vary depending on the person you ask, and you’ll have to choose according to your taste. However, to avoid tomatoes flying my direction, which “it depends” answers usually elicit, I’ll list some of my preferred literature resources and courses in no particular order.
Courses, conferences, and workshops
- Writing in the Sciences (Coursera). This excellent course trains you in academic writing, science journalism, and business science writing.
- Writing With Confidence: Writing Beginner to Writing Pro (Udemy). It had a different name when I enrolled but contains the same content.
- The complete copywriting course: Write to sell like a pro. I know it’s more about marketing, but it’s a cute course that structured some concepts for me. Not crucial for my writing, though.
- SEO 2020: Complete SEO Training + SEO for WordPress Websites. You must know the basics of search engine optimization (SEO) to blog and create online content.
- EMBL Science and Society Conference: Science as Storytelling: From Facts to Fictions (EMBL conference). Taught me the power of storytelling to battle pseudoscience and BS.
I also attended workshops, presentations, and Q&A of all types, especially those organized by the Scientific and Medical Writers Network (SMWN) in Benelux. Full disclosure: I am one of the co-organizers of this network. Still, it’s a free-to-join network connecting rookies and experienced writers by sharing scientific and medical writing information.
Books and articles
- Writing Science in Plain English by Anne E. Greene
- The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr
- Everything You Need to Know to Start Your Freelance Medical Writing Business by Emma Hitt Nichols
- Why Academics Stink at Writing by Steven Pinker
Apart from these and other books, I focused on online articles.
Step 4: Reaching out to the network and landing the first job
Now that I was moving in the right direction, I needed to ensure people knew about my ambitions. I informed friends and colleagues about my intentions to start writing. If you spread your ambitions to enough people, someone will give you suggestions. Better yet, someone might help you land your first science writing project. I landed my first freelance project thanks to an ex-colleague who knew I was an aspiring science writer. She shared a link to a company’s call for freelance writers, to which I responded.
Be loud about your ambitions. The more you can specify your intentions, the better. But don’t annoy people too much. Of course, it’s an essential part of your life, but don’t expect people to share that same enthusiasm.
By the way, do you remember the Ivory Embassy blog I mentioned a couple of sections earlier? That blog helped me land my first projects (and maybe still does). What was a hobby became an investment, a public portfolio. I had already published several articles on my website and had material to showcase. On top of that, the blog offered me practical writing experience — for free! (Or whatever a domain and WordPress account cost.) This is why I always emphasize blogging when talking with aspiring writers.
Step 5: Learning from others
After my academic research, I thought freelance writing would be perfect. For reasons I might describe later, I wanted to be my own boss. I love freelancing. But shortly after starting my freelance writing career, I realized I needed wisdom from others. So, after a brief period as a freelance medical writer, I started working as an in-house scientific writer at a fast-growing biotech company. I worked as an in-house writer here and at a European agency for about three years before I eventually returned to a freelance life. And I haven’t looked back since (yet).
Your tactics and mine will differ on this point. You might be happy working as a freelance writer and never set foot in an office. By contrast, you might prefer an office job and the stability and colleagues a company or organization can offer and never try the freelance life. There’s no right or wrong here.
But we all need to learn from others. Especially as freelancers, job life can become lonely, and you’ll miss input or knowledge from others. Surround yourself with the right people to keep learning and developing your skills.
Today, you can find several associations, networks, and online communities to connect with others. For example, as mentioned before, I’m a co-organizer of SMWN in Benelux, which organizes monthly online Meetups and yearly live events. Regardless of the community you join, which may be more or less formal, other writers will help you achieve future goals and give you new ideas.
Step 6: Apply, apply, apply…
Lastly, it’s time to take your science writing to the next level. It’s time to get those projects or jobs you want and need. Contact companies, offer your services, and apply to vacancies – even those you think you don’t have enough experience for. The imposter syndrome is strong in many writers. For example, I thought the first job assignment I completed for a company would trigger laughs. However, it turns out they loved my writing. You don’t know if you don’t try.
By this step, even if you don’t believe it, you’re already a science writer (and might have been one for a while). I hope these tips help you realize your professional purpose, whether it is writing or something else. Good luck!
Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn, Twitter, or SciEmbassy.com.
The featured image is modified from an image by Micha from Pixabay.