Like many PhD students, I found the last year in the lead-up to my thesis submission the hardest of my life. I was struggling every day with writing my dissertation: I didn’t think that my results were meaningful or that I deserved the degree.
But during that difficult time, I started to see clues of what I actually enjoyed doing: editing colleagues’ manuscripts, slide decks and posters. I helped them to prepare and practise their oral presentations. I loved teaching. I enjoyed doing literature searches and explaining advances to scientists and lay people. I even enjoyed the writing and designing part of my thesis. I still remember my principal investigator saying: “Your scientific writing sounds too much like Shakespeare — you should tone it down and make it more technical, more scientific.” Maybe I should have paid more attention to that comment, because it was clearly pointing to my true passion as a science communicator.
As it was, the stress that my dissertation was causing me made me realize that academia wasn’t for me. I didn’t feel that I was contributing to scientific knowledge, or to society, in the way I wanted to, and I felt uncomfortable with the hierarchical structure of academic science.
Once my doctorate had ended, a six-month stint in industry, following benchwork protocols, made me realize that doing that kind of work wasn’t for me either. I felt that all the skills I’d learnt during my PhD were useless. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, or what I was good at outside academia. My scientific career was falling apart, and I felt that I had wasted years of my life. I needed a break to help me see my next move, so I took a sabbatical for almost six months and travelled.
One of the tools that helped me most during this transitional period was life coaching. I started receiving one-to-one sessions, and these were followed by a four-month coaching course. The questions I was asked made me see how I could contribute to science. Coaching helped me to realize my value as a PhD holder in the ‘real world’, and to gain clarity on what I actually enjoyed about science: literature research, writing and editing scientific documents, and discussing scientific topics with scientists and non-scientists. I saw a missing link in the way that scientific knowledge was being communicated between scientists and to the public; and I felt a sense of urgency to bridge that gap.
I then joined the Cheeky Scientist Association, a worldwide organization that helps people with PhDs to move from academia to industry, and I realized that I wasn’t alone on this path. PhDs from all around the world were sharing the same struggles, including a lack of self-worth and doubts about their future. These resources helped me to realize that I was passionate about science communication and gave me the tools to make that career transition.
Medical writing and science communication are a perfect fit for many PhD holders, because these people already have the scientific background, research and writing experience, and project-management skills required for the job. But despite having these skills, they often lack the confidence to see their value outside academia, and have few clear ideas about how to break into the field.
I’ve been working in medical writing and science communication since December 2015 (exactly one year after finishing my PhD in biochemistry). I started as a freelance scientific editor and slowly progressed into other roles. Currently, I communicate scientific knowledge to a lay audience and help scientists to be more effective in their communications. My role as a science communicator is quite multifaceted, from editing scientific manuscripts to writing about health for a lay audience and helping other PhD holders to develop the skills they need for this career path.
Medical writing is an umbrella term that covers everything from writing about medicine to editing, translating and project management. However, many people with PhDs haven’t heard about this career path or considered it as an option.
Today, the most rewarding part of my job is communicating scientific knowledge to the public in a way that can positively affect their health and well-being. I have also found it extremely satisfying being able to share my struggles as a scientist — especially as a woman, coming from a South American country, Argentina — and inspiring other scientists to take that leap of faith and follow their dreams.
However, it’s far from a perfect career. As I mainly work remotely, my job can be quite lonely at times. Also, you probably won’t become a millionaire by working in science communication. You have to be passionate about your job and clear why you’re doing it.
I developed the skills that I use now, both during my years in academia and once I went out into the real world. I always had an eye for detail, and this is a key skill in medical writing. My passion for teaching and sharing knowledge started in academia and was what I missed the most when I left. I learnt the specifics about the medical-writing industry by joining organizations such as Cheeky Scientist and the European Medical Writers Association. Networking, adding value and asking the right questions not only gave me a better understanding of the field, but also created strong connections that led to job referrals. I also gained numerous skills by attending workshops and receiving feedback from colleagues.
After I switched from academia to science communication, I started mentoring and coaching people with PhDs who wanted to move into medical writing. It is rewarding when I’m asked for help and advice.
I’m now leading the Medical Writing Organization, an online training programme run by Cheeky Scientist for PhD holders who want to move into the medical writing or science communication. I’m also the co-editor of the Medical Writing journal. And, most recently, I became part of a global network of women in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine, as part of the Homeward Bound project. This career path has been beyond rewarding so far — and I can say now that it was worth all the struggles.
This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged. You can get in touch with the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.