How to Transition from Academia to Medical Communications
By Leah Persaud, PhD
Photo by Rawpixel
My Career Journey
Transitioning to industry from academia is not as hard as some may think, but it does take time. When I realized that I wanted to leave the lab bench, I prepared myself and made a plan. In this post, I share my own career journey and provide advice to help you with yours.
About two years before graduating with my PhD, I realized I wanted to work outside of the lab and began exploring “alternative” career paths for STEM PhDs. I researched careers in life science consulting, science policy, biotech equity research, medical writing, patent law, etc.
I also evaluated my skills, accomplishments, and the type of lifestyle that I wanted. Repeating lab experiments was starting to take its toll. I knew I had strong written and oral communication skills, high attention to detail, and that I worked well in teams. I was good at translating difficult concepts to a wide variety of audiences while keeping the material scientifically accurate. I also enjoyed learning about different therapeutic areas.
With all of this in mind, I found that medical communications was the best fit for me. After realizing this, I needed to learn more about what it was like working in the field—so I started to network.
Networking? How do you do that? Like many, I dreaded the thought of talking to strangers and trying to promote myself to get a job. It felt inauthentic and manipulative. I eventually learned, however, that networking is just the process of meeting new people and building relationships whether it lands you a job or not. If you approach networking with the lens of trying to learn about a person’s background and what motivates them, conversations become easier and the other person will learn more about who you are, too. By simply reaching out to learn about a person and their work, you can get helpful information about the industry and companies you are interested in and, eventually, a referral. So that’s what I did.
I attended local and national conferences and career-focused events, workshops, and panels. I met professionals in medical communications and learned about the types of companies in the field. I also reached out to alumni and 1st and 2nd degree connections on LinkedIn for informational interviews. In these 15-30-minute phone calls, I was able to get an idea of what medical writers do and the differences between their companies. I also joined the Cheeky Scientist Association (an organization dedicated to helping PhDs transition into industry) and the American Medical Writers Association where I met writers at a NY Chapter meeting.
Through these connections, I learned a lot about different types of medical communications, what it’s like to freelance vs. work for agencies vs. work for pharma, and what companies are generally looking for in a medical writer. Along the way, there were, of course, people who never responded to my requests to connect, but thankfully many did. I always made sure to send each new connection a thoughtful message to first connect and to always thank them for their time in a follow up e-mail or LinkedIn message.
I really ramped up my efforts when I was getting close to graduation. My goal was to land an industry job before graduating, and I did! I was able to get a part-time technical writing contract with a next-generation sequencing company in California. It was a perfect fit for me because it confirmed my interest in science communications and it was also remote with flexible hours so I could still focus on my full-time job hunt.
In the end, I was able to land referrals and job offers from two different medical communication agencies. One referral came quickly at the end of an informational interview. The other came after I established rapport with a medical writer for over a year. Choosing between the two offers was a tough decision because both teams seemed great, the opportunities to grow were clear, and I felt that I would mesh well with both company cultures. I even compared everything in an Excel file and calculated taxes, expenses, travel cost, health insurance, etc. to make my final decision. I eventually decided to join a healthcare communications agency in NYC.
Once I realized the industry I wanted to get into, I felt better about networking and building relationships. Without figuring this out, I felt that I couldn’t make those connections. I needed to get my resume and LinkedIn profile in order and really evaluate my skills so I could market myself. It took me a while to do these things, but it worked out. It also helped that I had two years to plan my transition, as well as the support of my mentor who really cared about me and my future.
I learned a lot while preparing for my transition, which I hope can help you plan yours.
Practical Advice for Transitioning from Academia to Industry
Identify your skills and values by asking yourself these questions
What do you like doing? What are you good at? What have others told you that you are good at?
What kind of work-life balance are you looking for? Do you value flexible hours? Do you want to work for a large established company or a growing start-up? What kind of company do you want to work for? One that values teamwork or individual accomplishments and competition?
Quantify your accomplishments
How many projects have you worked on? How many papers have you published or contributed to? Have you filed any patents? What travel awards or scholarships have you won? How many lab members have you trained, how many students have you taught? How many conferences have you attended and presented at?
Explore your career options
There are many resources out there that describe different careers in industry—a simple Google search can help you get started.
At conferences, there are usually career workshops and panels that discuss different career options for PhDs. There you can learn directly from individuals who are in the industry you are interested in.
Use an individual development plan such as myIDP. This is a career planning tool from the American Association for the Advancement of Science that helps you evaluate your skills and values and suggests career paths that fit you best.
Join scientific associations and organizations related to your field or industry of interest. Many times, there are member directories you can use to make connections.
Reach out to alumni in the industry and ask to set up an informational interview.
Find people on LinkedIn who work at companies you are interested in or have job titles that you aspire to have.
Go to conferences and free networking events sponsored by the Graduate Center, GRO-Biotech, or other universities and organizations. Ask the people you meet for advice, information about how they transitioned, what skills employers are looking for, and who else you should speak to if you’re interested in learning more.
Stay in contact with people you have met from conferences or meetings. Connect with them on LinkedIn and like and comment on their posts. Share articles or posts with them that are relevant to their interests or career. This is how you can gradually build relationships with the connections you make. Twitter is also a good way of staying in contact with scientists and updated with new trends in the field.
Thank people who have helped you along the way—former teachers, professors, classmates, previous managers, etc. Catch up with them and let them know you have appreciated their help—they will be happy to hear this!
Once you have built rapport with your connections and spent time developing the relationship, you can reach out to them about getting a referral for jobs at their company. Oftentimes, they will know of available positions before they are known to the public. If they remember you and think you are a good fit, they may even reach out first and let you know.
Send a thank you note
Always, always, always thank people for the time they give you whether it’s through informal chats, interviews, sharing your posts online, etc. Thank you notes are always appreciated and go a long way towards building positive working relationships.
This blog post was written by a Graduate Center student who took part in a course on biotechnology offered through the Office of Career Planning & Professional Development. This programming was sponsored by the CUNY Central Office Career Success – Workforce Development Initiative.