Last Updated on March 19, 2022 by SDN Staff
As an active member and advisor on the Student Doctor Network forums, I’ve received countless questions from medical students (and recent graduates) about jobs and opportunities in the non-clinical world of medicine. Many medical students are seriously asking themselves whether clinical medicine is really the “right fit” and they want to learn more about the various types of non-clinical opportunities available. Some may choose radiology or pathology to avoid patient contact. Others pursue non-clinical jobs in healthcare industries that avoid the clinical setting completely. In this article, I will focus on opportunities in the world of medical writing.
Why consider non-clinical options?
Why look at non-clinical opportunities? Some medical students were pressured into attending medical school. I personally know some who went to medical school because it was an expectation while they were growing up. Now, they’re looking for other opportunities because they never really wanted to pursue a medical career.
Do you see yourself enjoying a lifelong career in medicine based on your unique strengths, talents, interests, and personal qualities? Some may feel like they’re stuck in medicine because they can’t imagine any other type of career. After all, where can you go to learn about non-clinical opportunities? Plus, if you have significant student loans, you may feel like you have to find a high-paying job to make loan payments and still survive.
Additionally, academia tends to look down on non-clinical opportunities. When I was a medical student, one of our attending physicians left the world of academia to work for a pharmaceutical company. This individual was criticized by others for moving over to the “dark side.” You’ve probably heard that euphemism before, even if you’ve never watched Star Wars.
Residency and non-clinical Jobs
Let me start with the most common question I get from medical students who don’t see themselves practicing medicine: “Should I do a residency?” Residents often ask: “Should I complete my residency?”
I generally try to encourage every medical student to pursue residency because I’ve found that physicians have many more non-clinical opportunities if they complete a residency and become board certified in a specialty. At a minimum, complete an internship so that you can gain some clinical experience. This way, you won’t look back and wonder “what if I had done a residency?”
I realize that some students are completely convinced that they want to get out of medicine. They have no plans of pursuing a residency. As a result, they often approach me with questions about non-clinical opportunities for medical school graduates who lack residency experience. Medical writing is one of those opportunities.
Medical writing 101
What is medical writing? This field is so broad that I could write several articles about it. In a nutshell, the world of medical writing can be many things at once. It can be: flexible, lucrative, enjoyable, boring, stressful, and mundane. If you’re confused, you should be. Most people don’t understand what medical writers do.
If you enjoy writing and consider yourself a strong writer, you may wish to pursue this career. I recommend starting by joining the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) and learning more about the field of medical writing. Keep in mind that most medical writers are not physicians. However, physicians make some of the strongest medical writers, especially when it comes to projects that involve a heavy amount of clinical science and first-hand patient experience.
Allow me to expand on this a bit further by providing you with a few examples of medical writing opportunities.
- Professional medical communications and medical education: There are many small, medium, and large companies that focus on medical communications. Some are large print publishers. Others, like WebMD, are mainly online publishers. There are also many private companies that develop medical education activities. It’s important to clearly delineate between promotional medical education and certified medical education.
- Promotional medical education: This is also commonly known as marketing, but promotional sounds better though, doesn’t it? This ranges from content presented at promotional “dinner meetings” (which are not occurring as frequently due to budgetary constraints), journal advertisements, to direct-to-consumer (DTC) television advertisements. Companies may be called “promotional medical education companies” or even “ad agencies.” Publishers also get involved in this space.
- Certified medical education, also called Continuing Medical Education or CME: In the past, CME was a loose term that people threw around when they were talking about any type of formal or informal education that took place after residency completion. Today, CME specifically refers to certified education that meets the criteria set forth by the ACCME (Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education). CME dinner meetings still occur and they are clearly labeled “CME” or even “certified CME.” Private companies that develop CME activities are not allowed to develop promotional activities. The only exception to that rule applies to entities that declare themselves to be “publishers.” You’ll still find CME in medical journals like JAMA along with full-page drug advertisements (but they won’t be on the same pages as the CME activity). Universities and professional medical societies produce a large amount of CME, so you may find some opportunities there as well.
- Consumer-level health education: WebMD is well-known for educating patients about health topics. These types of companies rely on medical writers and reviewers for content that is written on a consumer level. This can sometimes mean a fourth to sixth grade reading level. There are many other companies that offer similar services and most jobs in this area would fall under the “medical writing” category.
- Clinical research: Research opportunities for medical school graduates are abundant in university settings. In fact, this is how many foreign medical graduates enter the U.S. if they are unable to secure a residency. Research can obviously also occur in academia or in government institutions. Be prepared to write grants, research papers, abstracts, posters, and more. You can also find opportunities within Contract Research Organizations (also known as CROs). Medical writing in the world of research often involves regulatory writing, drug safety reports, protocols, etc. Once you gain some experience in this space, you may have the chance to work in pharma/biotech.
- Freelance/contract medical writing: Many successful medical writers work from home or telecommute. In fact, a large number of writers have a busy freelance business that keeps them busy all-year long. The nice thing about freelancing is that it gives you tremendous flexibility. The major downside is the potential for unsteady income. However, if you want to work on various types of writing projects, you may enjoy the life of a freelance writer.
- Market research and survey writing: I actually meet medical students who don’t know what the term “market research” means, so if you happen to be one of them, you’re not alone. These types of students typically have no business training prior to medical school. Market research is often performed through surveys that are written by clinicians or medical writers. If you have an analytical mind, then you may enjoy writing market research survey questions and analyzing the data for marketing purposes.
- Medical blogging: Yes, you can be hired to write for medical blogs (or even non-medical blogs). You don’t have to be a professional writer, but it helps if you have a unique communication style. You may have read the NY Times article about a nephrologist who left clinical medicine to go into full-time blogging (about Apple rumors).
Other non-clinical opportunities
If you don’t enjoy writing, then keep in mind that there are other non-clinical opportunities in industries such as public health, venture capital, executive search, health information technology, public health, consulting, pharma/biotech, and more. You can learn more about these types of opportunities by visiting www.NonClinicalJobs.com.
Preparing for non-clinical work
Finally, let me provide a few tips for those medical students who don’t plan to go into residency (or if you’re thinking about quitting in the middle of your residency – which I do not recommend to anyone):
- It’s critical that you grow your social network if you plan to look for non-clinical jobs immediately upon graduation. This may be the most important step in determining what type of position you land.
- Connect with executive recruiters. You may have heard of them as “head hunters.” These individuals can be very helpful in providing you with job leads and they are eager to help you. They shouldn’t charge you anything since they get their commission from the hiring company.
- There are many positions that may be considered “springboard” jobs. In essence, these jobs will provide you with the necessary corporate experience to then “jump” you into another career or industry. You may gain tremendous experience by working in a “springboard” position for 2-3 years before making a major move. Consider the gains if you’re willing to make such a sacrifice (sounds like residency).
- As you work in the non-clinical setting, you’ll meet more and more people who may become invaluable leads and contacts for the future. Continue to grow and maintain your social network because you never know when you may to find a new job.
- Enhance your computer and technical skills. You’ll be expected to be very proficient and productive on the computer. You’ll be working in Microsoft Outlook, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. You probably won’t carry a pager, but you may be expected to use a mobile e-mail device like a smartphone.
Have specific questions? I’m a volunteer advisor on the SDN forums and I welcome your questions and comments. Please note that this article is not meant to discourage medical students from pursuing a career in clinical medicine. This article is also not meant to encourage residents to leave residency. Rather, the purpose of this article is to provide some education about non-clinical options so that students can make informed decisions about their career paths.
Dr. Joseph Kim, MD, MPH, is an active physician blogger, and he blogs daily about non-clinical issues Non-Clinical Jobs. He is a strong proponent of strategic social networking, and he has used his personal network in various situations to help people find non-clinical opportunities in different healthcare industries.
2 thoughts on “Opportunities in Medical Writing”
Dear Dr. Joseph,
It was very interesting reading your article and you have very explicitly touched upon Medical writing and the immense opportunities in this lesser-known but highly exciting..equally remunerative area. I partner with pharma co. supporting them by providing comprehensive medico-Mktg consultancy and communication solutions.
That’s a really great summary of what medical writers do. It’s rare to find such useful descriptions, so kudos for doing so.
Your advice to join AMWA is sound, as they are a great organisation. However, it’s perhaps worth mentioning for any non-US readers of your blog (and with a great article like that, I’m sure it will be read widely) that the European Medical Writers Association would be a more appropriate choice for any medical writers in Europe. EMWA also welcomes members from the rest of the world, and no doubt AMWA does do. Anyone outside the US or Europe might want to look at both and see which they prefer.
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