Discover your bliss outside the ivory tower

For most PhDs, there will never be an opportunity to become a professor. Numbers vary, but it is clear that there is a pile-up of PhDs  who will need to find employment outside of academia…but what else is there to do?

By: Jeanette McConnell, PhD – freelance science journalist

About a year and a half into my Ph.D. program, I remember that one of my colleagues asked me what I wanted to do when I finished. I’m pretty sure she asked to ease the pain of our long and arduous days in the lab. We were both daydreaming about an amazing post-graduate school life.

When I thought about her question, I had a sudden realization.

I honestly had no idea what I wanted to do. 

How could that be? This was my 7th year studying at a university and I was only now realizing that I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up.

But I played it cool. I answered, “You know, it would be great to be a professor.” My colleague nodded in agreement, and we moved on from the subject.

From that moment on, in the back of my mind, I kept asking myself that question. “What do I want to do when I finish my Ph.D.?” And I kept going over the same dialogue:

“Could I be a professor?”

“Probably not.”

“Do I even want to be a professor?”

“Not really.”

“What else is there for a Ph.D. to do?”


At my university there is a competition held every year where graduate students are given one minute and one slide to engagingly describe their research to an audience of non-scientists.

I loved this competition. My colleagues all seemed to hate it.

I drew cartoons and made T-Rex, Ninja, and Breaking Bad references. I had fun. Probably the most fun I had while in graduate school was during this competition. I didn’t ever win the competition, but people enjoyed my presentations and I looked forward to them each year.

A few weeks after one of the competitions, I was getting a cup of a coffee when a stranger came up to me. He told me how much he loved my one-minute competition presentation, about the ninja chemotherapy drug.

That was a turning point for me.

Could I give fun presentations about science to non-scientists for a living? I would have the best job ever.

But I couldn’t escape the career guilt.

I felt that if I left the lab, I would no longer be a ‘real’ scientist.

Considering a career as something besides a professor or a postdoc filled me with an overwhelming sense of failure and regret.

So I went back to my lab bench and continued working, nose to the grindstone, to push out those publications.

In my final year, the prospect of finding a job became a reality. The thought of continuing on into a postdoc and working in the lab was depressing. I didn’t want that. . . I also did not want to fail.

Then I had an aha moment.

I stumbled upon The Cheeky Scientist Association and found other scientists, like myself, who had grown tired of academia. Unlike myself, they were equipt with a plan for finding their way out.

Upon joining the association, I heard stories from so many people: smart and successful scientists who wanted something besides working at the lab bench. I learned that this didn’t make them a failure; this made them interesting and employable in industry.

Discovering that it’s ok to leave academia has opened up a world of possibilities that I didn’t even know existed. By accepting, no, by celebrating my exit from academia I found new energy to move forward.

I now have the tools I need to forge my own path, a new road and a new destination.

Instead of focusing on succeeding or failing, I am now focusing on finding my passion, doing things I enjoy, and meeting other people who can support me on my journey.

I love to talk and write about science; and I thrive in a social environment.

When I allowed myself to see my strengths as something that could be translated outside of graduate school and outside of the lab, I figured out what I wanted to do next: science communications.

This is possible in so many different forms and I am still searching for the what feels right for me.

I know that I made the right choice to leave academia…and I don’t feel like a failure.


If you have questions about how to make a career transition from academia to industry, contact JLJ consultancy and join the Cheeky Scientist Association. 



Become a Medical Writer and Break Up with Academia

So. . . after a long hard think, you have decided what you want to be when you grow up.

A medical writer!

You probably chose medical writer for several reasons.

Just for funzies, let me guess.

 You have a PhD, you find that you are tired of doing bench work, you still enjoy reading and writing about science, and you enjoy daydreaming about earning a six figure salary while working from home.

Does this sound like you?

Hold up just for a second.

What is a medical writer? Who do they work for? What key requirements, skills, and general knowledge do you need to break into the field?

Is it a writer who writes scientific manuscripts and review articles?

That means that every scientist is a medical writer, right?


With a little extra training and a lot of hard work, medical writing can be a rewarding career with limitless opportunities for growth.

Medical writing involves writing scientific documents of different types, which includes regulatory and research-related documents, disease or drug-related educational and promotional literature, publication articles like journal manuscripts and abstracts, content for healthcare websites, health-related magazines, or news articles.

Although these documents may sound like one in the same to a scientist, you will need specific skill sets and a knack for getting to the message’s common denominator to execute each of these writing tasks at a professional level.

What is the specific skill set needed to break into the field?

What do medical writers do?

A medical writer needs to be able to take a highly technical scientific document and highlight the key message.

You can think about it two ways, actually.

1) Take a highly technical document (like a scientific manuscript) and make a readable summary (like a news release about the article).


2) Take a simplified document (a conference poster or a powerpoint presentation) and create a highly technical document (a research manuscript or a review article).

 In both examples, you need to know where to look to find the key information. This is the common theme for all writing assignments.

What is the difference here?

To complete the first assignment, the news article, the take home message should always be placed in the first paragraph. It should then be followed up with the five W’s: Who, What, Where, Why, When.

Unlike a scientific article, a news article will have all the important information in the first paragraph, and then it will work like an inverted pyramid.

Using the inverted pyramid as a guide, the reader should be able to start from the end of the article, delete information, and still not lose the premise of the story:important information at the top. . .details at the end.

On the sentence level, this is called a cumulative writing style. When writing in a cumulative writing style, the author helps the reader by giving them the most substantial, important information in the beginning.

Think of the last story you read in the newspaper. Did they use this same method to present information?

Most likely Yes.

In the second example, a client may ask you to create a research manuscript using a recent poster presentation or powerpoint.

Again, you will need to understand what information is important.

Since a presentation uses more graphics and less text than a research manuscript, the presentation will likely be the base for your document, and you will then build the story with intense research, planning, and correspondence with authors.

Yes. Medical writers still need to talk, mail, and meet with the authors.

Believe it or not, writers must possess good interpersonal skills.

For a research manuscript, it is important that the medical writer is comfortable with searching medical literature, understanding and presenting research data, accommodating the document review process, and understanding the editing and publishing requirements of the specific journal.

Needless to say, it is important that the writer also understands the medical terminology and concepts that are presented.

This is exactly why a PhD with prior experience in the field is highly coveted in the medical writing industry.

The catch, though, is that medical writers often write about many therapeutic areas, and it is not possible to be an expert on all of them.

As long as you are comfortable learning new topics, and you know where to find reliable sources of information, you can easily master new therapy areas.

Medical writers can write many different documents in various therapy areas…which I would argue is a definite win if you want to have a variable day-to-day workload.

Choosing your audience

 In the two examples above, a news release and a scientific manuscript, who is the audience for these documents?

After all, the purpose of writing the document in the first place is to engage the reader.

Medical writers need to present the data or the interpretation in a way that the targeted audience will understand.

For the news article, depending on the source for publishing, the audience could either be a group of professionals or the general public.

Understanding the project brief before writing, medical writers must target their work for the publication.

Medical journalism, which includes newspapers, magazines, and blogs, nearly always targets the general public.

A scientific manuscript, on the other hand, can be written in an academic style with the scientific community as the audience.

“What is the purpose of the document? Would you like to inform? Are you trying to sell? Are you trying to raise awareness?”

Matching the audience to the purpose of the document is critical to meet the needs of your client.

Who hires medical writers?

 A medical writer is someone with a high level of scientific knowledge and a vested interest (and skill) in writing.

Who would benefit from this combo?

Pharma companies.




Academic institutions.

Venture capital firms.

Medical Blogs.

Patient organizations.

App developers.

The global medical writing market size is over $800 million .

There are plenty of people who need the expertise.

There is tons of work to go around.

How do I break into the industry?

 Everyone has their own unique story about how they broke into the medical writing industry.

When I first started applying to entry-level medical writing jobs, I experienced a catch-22.

You need experience in the field to land a job, but you can’t land a job without experience in the field.

Having been a freelancer for just over 5 years and finally starting my companythis past January, I can offer you a few tips and tricks to distinguish yourself from the pool of highly qualified, PhD level applicants.

1) Join a professional medical writing organization. AMWA and EMWAare both fantastic resources for writers. They sponsor yearly conferences, offer highly valuable medical writing certification programs, have a reputable job boards, and offer the best platforms in the world for industry specific networking.

Attend a local meeting.

Seek out other members on Linkedin.

Show that you are dedicated to the career change.

2) Start writing. In most cases, motivated self-study is the mainstay of initial training. A writer who is self-motivated and curious can do a lot in training himself/herself on different types of medical writing.

I started a blog. It wasn’t medical writing, but it helped me see that I really enjoyed the process of drafting a document and researching new topics.*

Seek out departmental or institutional organizations that would benefit from your writing, and start asking if you can help.

If this cold calling sounds too scary for you, suck it up. Rejection and failure is just part of business, and it isn’t personal. Besides…you might find a great opportunity in the future by simply giving value NOW.

3) Take writing courses. I know what you’re thinking. I just spend 10 years in academia, why would I need writing courses?  The answer is straight forward enough: academic writing is unique…and medical writers, like journalists, need to write as clearly as possible in several styles.

There are many online writing courses available.

I have taken the following:

  • AMWA self-study certificate: 8 modules to teach you all the basics to come up to speed. From punctuation, grammar, sentence structure, statistics, and more, this course gives a detailed refresher of all the topics you may already know but would like to refresh. I highly recommend this course as a starting point for med writing-curious scientists.

Cost: $950

  •  EMWA EPDP certificate: The European version of the AMWA education. This can only be obtained by attending the annual conferences. The cost varies depending on your enrollment at the conference, and how many course you take.

Cost: €160/course; 8 courses for certification = €1280 + conference registration + conference travel fees

  • Stanford University Online Certificate: Writing in the sciences is a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) offered from Stanford University. Unlike the AMWA and EMWA courses which are truly medical writing training modules, this is for scientific writing, which is only a part of medical writing. At any rate, this course trains scientists to become more effective, efficient, and confident writers. I highly recommend it.

Cost: Free (like all the best things in life)

After you get your feet wet with some basic skills trainings, you can even find education for starting a freelance medical writing business. This course comes from one of the most respected and senior medical writers, Dr. Emma Hitt. Her company, Nascent Medical, offers a highly exclusive training for serious writers.

There are plenty of other trainings out there, including master’s programs from various American universities . . .but you do not need one of these degrees to land a job.

Are you still interested in writing for a career?

Don’t forget to join the Cheeky Scientist Association to develop those interpersonal skills, craft a fantastic resume, and ace your interview.

If you would like to discuss one-on-one career counseling or medical writing, please send me a mail.