Thursday, August 30, 2012

Why do I want to be a Medical Writer?

One of the email lists I've been subscribed to for a long time is the Hitt List, a listing of open positions for medical writers across the country.  It's been interesting to see the types of roles that qualify as medical writers, everything from writing CMEs to filing regulatory documents.  It's intimidating, because some of this I clearly something have no business doing, but there is a lot out there that I could do with a little guidance.  I've had the pleasure of speaking with some medical writers, and frankly the position appeals a lot.  You write documents, based on other peoples work.  Sometimes this is copy editing, sometimes this is pulling together bits of other documents into forms, sometimes this is working from raw figures.  The deadlines are often short (days to months) (which I've decided I like much better than very long deadlines, where you can be haunted by your early, naive choices), and the specific work environment can be incredibly flexible.  People do this anywhere from freelance to part time to full time.  And did I mention that it is well paid?

Great, there is some magical job out there that I am still not qualified to get.  I've joined AMWA and try to keep an eye on the listservs, but that hasn't yet helped me figure out how to "be a medical writer."  However, Emma Hitt (of the Hitt list) offers a 6 week course to get people (PhDs and MDs) up to speed on starting this freelance career. I'm working on my application right now.  The part that is hard is trying to explain why I want to go into medical writing.  Clearly, it is a good career path that would take advantage of my education.  It would challenge me to keep up with trends in my field, and I really enjoy writing so this seems like a good fit.  I applied for the course, and was accepted.  Interestingly, this is about to conflict with some other opportunities, so now I need to start making some of those choices about what I want to do with my life.  More on that later.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Scientists don't have just a PhD

I don't want to be pessimistic about my job hunt. I have been learning a lot about careers, employment and how to get there over the last year, however, and it is quite obvious that Seattle does not support a job classification for people to be employed as scientists who have a PhD but no post-doc. Of course, if you know someone really well, if your PI is part owner in a start-up, maybe this can happen for you.  But I've met a lot of people who work here, working as a scientist (at the bench) requires a post-doc.  (For the record, working as a tech with a PhD is regarded as a very bad idea.)

For the last year, I've been quite confident that I could find something that wouldn't require a post-doc, and here is what I've come up with. 
You don't need a post-doc to become a medical writer. 
You don't (always) need a post-doc to teach, particularly at non-research schools.
You don't need a post-doc to get into patent law, or that arena of intellectual property, but you do need to pass the patent bar or have some significant business savvy. 
And you don't need a post-doc to just have a job- many positions (again, not at the bench, but administration springs to mind) don't actually require that PhD in the first place, but if you can make the case that you are well qualified it shouldn't preclude you working. 

So if just a job is the goal, a PhD is great- it shows you can work hard, learn challenging things, juggle multiple projects with changing priorities.  But you might not use your science at all. And frankly using that science is what people will pay the most for.

Now I am wondering, it's been a year, and I still don't have my dream job (although I am a lot less dissatisfied with contract work), and I don't actually know what that dream job looks like (I've found fixating on a single position has not been that good for me). Perhaps I should keep trying things to see what sticks.  Right now I am looking at medical writing.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Mentors and Mentoring

Much has been said about the importance of mentors helping trainees navigate their career, provide opportunities and offer guidance and encouragement. Ideally this person is an adviser, someone more senior with both experience and influence. Perhaps they even help us see ourselves in a way that we can't, by recognizing our latent talents, strengths and interests. But most of us don't navigate our careers with the fairy godmother of mentors looking out for us, I think it is much more common for us to cobble together the role of the perfect mentor from the offerings of people around us. 

Fortunately, I had some experience with this earlier in my career.  My graduate project was in a field (virology) that is only tangentially related to my adviser's core interests (yeast genetics and quality control). We worked closely with a collaborator who is a world class virologist, and I often thought of him as my scientific adviser.  My graduate adviser would help me design experiments in terms of "this is how we will show this figure, we need these controls..." and my scientific adviser would help me get those experiments to work. So I am open to the idea that often there isn't one person who has all the answers.

As I started thinking about my career in graduate school, it became pretty clear that while both of my advisers wanted me to succeed, the only path to success they knew was their own.  Since I don't want to be a R1 faculty member, I didn't get a lot of specific career advice from either of them. Still, it was nice to know that when I was writing applications for policy fellowships or getting phone interviews with state agencies, they were pleased. After my defense, I left the bench prepared to do this battle on my own.  It surprised me a little that these guys (or any faculty at Pitt) weren't more involved at this point, but I felt prepared to be independent.  When I moved to Washington, I found it easy to find and meet people who were willing to share what they know about the job scene here and how it should be navigated.  Again, no one ever had all the answers, so it seemed important to get wide perspectives.

A fellow AWIS board member sent me this link recently, to the Science Mentor blog, which is full of great tips for figuring our how to find your own (internal) resources to navigate your career.  It breaks my heart a little to think that Self-Mentoring might become en vogue (are so few people willing to help each other?  Do we really think we are an island unto ourselves?), but if the people serving as your mentors have gaps in their ability to help you, sometimes it is easier to fill those yourself.

And yet, there have been a couple times when I have had a fairly objective question about where I stand in my career that I need some external, engaged but disinterested party to help me answer.  Is it a bad idea to take a job as a tech? Should I leave my unpaid internship for a paid internship? Or the very common, is this cover letter ok?  Without a real community here, it has been a challenge to answer some of these on my own.  Fortunately, my colleagues at AWIS have served as great ad hoc mentors, because they have local knowledge and a variety of experience.  I have been really pleased with how valuable getting involved with this group has turned out for me. 

I still think I need more help. When I consider what my barriers to finding a real career are, I think lack of focus and indecision have really held me back. And although I know this, I don't know how to overcome it. Sure, everyone wants the fairy godmother scientist to make their dreams come true.  At this point I would settle for any type of enduring support.  This is why I've signed up to join the Seattle AWIS mentoring program next year.  It should be a good opportunity to build my professional community and spend some time thinking about my professional goals.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Is this enough job?

There are lots of things to like about my current gig.  It's never boring, I'm paid between fine and well depending on who I am working for, and it's really gratifying to have work.  But I continue to blog and look for other opportunities because this doesn't seem like enough, somehow.  Don't get me wrong, I am busy as all heck.  Two of my contracts are committed to about 40 hours a week, and I have another with regular weekly deadlines, so I'm working lots.  I just can't really see this working out long term.  Am I going to be 35 and juggling 3 clients every week?  The sensible thing to do is keep multiple clients, when one doesn't need me as much, I can still get paid.  But maybe the magic number there is two.

And then there is the bureaucracy.  I should figure out a better system for keeping track of my invoices, so I don't spend 30 min trying to submit an invoice for $350.  It really eats into my effective hourly rate.  For some irrational reason, I loath signing contracts too, which is a pretty regular feature of my work.  I don't mean to complain, but these were problems I didn't really want to have when I got "a job." 

An opportunity has come up that I should think about, but I am really having a hard time making the comparison.  My internship (at the surface chemistry company) needs a part-time tech.  They like me, and I think the company has a lot of promise if they can be well managed.  Although, is a part-time tech position in a chemical company a step up from making fine money in my living room?  Is this the opportunity I have been hoping for to get "industry experience," or is being a tech going to be a black mark on my CV that will create a life-time of hurdles for me?  Is inventorying monomers and validating SPR results better than writing about IT and Biology and thinking about how kids learn? 

A parallel to this entry, I'm going to write soon about mentors. 

Thursday, August 2, 2012

My Publication Record

My manuscript got accepted!  Anytime a manuscript gets accepted, it's gratifying, and this one is especially so.  As a grad student, I wrote a draft of a manuscript in my 3rd year that continued to be developed until shortly after graduation.  I submitted this just before I stopped working.  At the time, it seemed like the missing piece- the paper will get out, I'll update my CV and get a job.  So simple! This paper went through 3 journals and was finally accepted on its 6th submission.  It's about time!

There is lots of time to think during 6 submissions.  Can you really believe you are a good scientist if your peers won't publish your work?  If your 'peers' only ask dumb questions about your science, do you really have to respond?  How many submissions would it take before you'd just scrap the idea all together.  Fortunately, before I came up with answers to those questions, we were able to address the actual issue with most of those rejections.  My super specialized/limited-audience work wasn't ideal for a general Biochemistry type journal, we really need a specialized journal.  Antiviral Research gave us legitimate feedback that was reasonable for us to respond to (Thank you!), and now I've got my second first author publication.  Phew!

As long as this process has drawn out now, I'm not sure it is going to be the fix-all I imagined.  Other papers came out in the field (it figures that drug discovery in polyomaviruses is trendy now), so my work isn't exactly seminal.  But more than that, it has been a long time since anyone asked about my publication record.  I told a industry scientist once that I've got a couple papers to my name, and he gave me a sort of patronizing look.  I've gotten less interested in bench work, where it might come up more often.  Neither internship asked about papers.  I've tried drafting resumes to technical writing positions that include my papers, but they seem like a cumbersome way to demonstrate "I have communication skills."  I'm still figuring out the best ways to use these.

This also raises a few questions.  I no longer have a semi-regular excuse to communicate with my old adviser.  We had discussed writing a review, based on the intro to my dissertation.  That's easily a year out of date now, so it would require significant effort to update, and there was some doubt anyone would publish such a thing (and after this ringer, I'd love to write something that could get published).  But would it make a difference?  I don't think I've had a hard time finding a job because my Antiviral Res paper wasn't out yet, I think it's because I don't have preclinical experience or a background in immunology.  Would publishing a review change my prospects as all?  Is it a good idea to require semi-regular updates with my old adviser while I am looking for a position?