Matthew Edmonds took a very scientific approach to career planning. His previous ideas were based on old information, he realised. So he re‑assessed things, and changed direction.
Academic research just wasn’t doing it for me anymore. The realisation came as a shock to me. Since my undergraduate days I’d always assumed I would have a career in academia, with the goal of my own research group and a healthy flow of students to teach and mentor.
But the rose‑tinted glasses started to crack a little during my first postdoc position. I’d always known about the difficulties of making the breakthrough of getting your own funding, but the obstacles seemed to be getting higher. My PhD gave me solid but unexciting data, and so it was difficult to publish. I found this position (surely not that unusual), was holding me back. The university had plenty of additional activities I could perform to broaden my horizons and CV, as long as I did them in my free time. The demands on that time would only get greater as I moved up the ladder whilst hitting a pay ceiling for the foreseeable future.
I also felt I had strong skills that weren’t being used or appreciated by colleagues. I’ve always taken a meticulous approach to my work, bordering on an obsession about accuracy and precision. Out of the lab, I had sharp eyes for mistakes in draft manuscripts and reports and noticing inconsistencies or dodgy conclusions in both our own data and the wider literature. I enjoyed interacting with students and was often complimented by them on my clear explanations of scientific and technical concepts. However, opportunities to do this were frustratingly hard to find and would not be formally credited by the university.
All of these concerns sat uneasily with me, but I had just secured a great lab in a different university for my second postdoc. Perfect – I could continue my path through academia in a fresh environment.
A few months in, however, I was still uncomfortable. Things were done slightly differently at my new university, but all the niggling concerns I’d had hadn’t gone away. And so I found myself in the position of questioning whether the career I’d planned was right for me.
Science writing and publishing
Career advice for postdocs at universities tends to focus almost exclusively on academia. I thought the skills I had which had been neglected in academia would be perfect for science writing or publishing. I starting looking at job adverts and found not only that many were looking for exactly the skills I had, but also that there were many more jobs out there than I’d realised! I started entering science writing competitions to see what kind of writing suited me best, and found I enjoyed writing for diverse audiences from public understanding to technical. It gave me confidence I was on the right track when I was selected as one of the winners of the Naturejobs blog #scidata16 competition.
So I’d identified my strengths and the industry I wanted to move into, but how could I find a company that fitted my interests and personality? My institute’s early career researchers group held an event focusing on careers outside academia and I took the time to talk to every writing or publishing company that turned up. Among a number of medical writing firms was one that caught my eye: Insight Medical Writing. They specialised in regulatory writing, which was a new field to me. My interest was piqued and I signed up for an open day at their office near Oxford, UK. After hearing about their work in more detail I found it resonated with my interests and principles. In preparing regulatory documents, all the data must be reported and discussed, unlike medical communications, which may focus more on key aspects of the data for a particular target audience. What was more, the people were friendly and the work environment was pleasant – a key point!
I told Insight I was interested, sent them my CV, had an interview and here I am, three months in as a medical writer. We principally work on the regulatory documents required when an application is submitted for a new drug to be licensed, or for updates on existing drugs. This can include summarising clinical and non‑clinical data and the knowledge in the literature. The bulk of the work suits my skills: a clear overview of complex data must be built without excluding important information. Every document must be quality checked for factual accuracy and style, so my perfectionism also comes in handy! The specific drug, disease or device of interest depends entirely on the client, so I’m exposed to a wide variety of medical fields. This is a refreshing change from the narrow vision of research projects.
So what have I learned from my experience? I had a definite career plan, but it didn’t seem as certain as before. By identifying my key skills and actively talking to people outside of academia, I found a career that suited me and took the leap. My previous ideas had been based on old information, and I re‑assessed them based on the new. After all, that’s what any good scientist would do.
Matthew Edmonds is a medical writer with Insight Medical Writing in Oxford, UK. With a background in cellular and molecular biology and cancer research, he now writes about drugs and devices from all areas of medicine. He enjoys communicating and discussing science and the issues surrounding it with any audience. You can follow him at @benchmatt.
- Opening doors to open data at #scidata16
- How can better data sharing and management improve a career in science?