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8 questions I wanted answered before I became a commercial science writer

Posted by Andrew Breeson on 20-Jul-2018 14:25:45

8 questions I wanted answered before I became a commercial science writer

At some point in their career, every scientist must decide whether to continue in academia, or to step outside the confines of the lab and make a scientific difference in another role. For me, when I finished my PhD, I knew that I'd completed my academic journey, and wanted to use the skills I had developed in another environment.

A career in science writing had always appealed to me, as learning and communicating about new and exciting science was my favourite thing about my studies. However, I had many questions about what being a science writer would actually involve, and wanted to know if I had the right skillset and experience to become one. 

Since I joined life science marketing specialists BioStrata, I’ve been lucky enough to learn about a wide range of interesting scientific topics (and I get to tell the world about it every day through my writing). This experience hopefully also puts me in a more-informed position to answer some of the questions I had before I started down this career path. So, if you’re thinking about a science writing career, I hope this blog will help clear up some queries that you may have!

 


Skip ahead: 

Question 1: Why move from academia to industry?

Question 2: What existing academic skills can you reuse as a science writer?

Question 3: What other skills are suited to the science writer role?

Question 4: What new skills will you get to learn as a science writer?

Question 5: How does science writing commercially differ from writing in academia?

Question 6: What is it like to work in life science marketing?

Question 7: How does being a commercial science writer differ from medical writing?

Question 8: How can you submit the best possible science writing job application?


  

Question 1: Why move from academia to industry?

There is a misconception within the public that working in academia is an endless series of eureka moments. As any scientist will tell you, the job can be much more about repetition, routine and managing your frustration when your experiments don’t deliver the results you were hoping for (and sometimes, no reliable results at all!). This means you can spend a lot of time repeating experiments and generally feeling a little stuck.

This is one of the things that instantly changed when I moved into the industry, and one of the things I love most about my job at BioStrata: no two days are ever the same and I get to work on short-term projects with a clear beginning, middle and end. From video scripts and technical papers, to blog posts and infographics—the variation is what keeps me on my toes and wanting more!

There’s also a different approach to writing, which I feel can be summarised in a single word: feedback! In academia, writing scientific papers is often a solemn and solitary process, and with peers and supervisors equally busy with other projects, it can be hard to source regular feedback. The refreshing change that occurred when I joined BioStrata was the satisfying teamwork that went into producing a piece of content. There is much more brainstorming and working together involved to ensure the writing is the absolute best it can be before it is published, and this collaboration has also helped me grow as a commercial science writer.

 

Question 2: What existing academic skills can you reuse as a science writer?

There are many skills that you may not even realise you’ve developed over the course of your studies that are perfectly transferable to industry. If you’ve been an academic scientist for a few years, there’s a good chance that you’re already an effective communicator. Whether it’s for an academic paper, a poster for a conference, or teaching undergraduates in a seminar, you have learned to communicate to a wide variety of audiences—a skill which is essential to be a good science writer.

Also, you will probably have become an expert in rapidly getting up to speed on a topic (e.g. through web research), including extracting the key information from several documents in a short amount of time. This will make it easier for you to find all the additional information you need to add value to a story you are working on. You’ll also be able to rapidly extract the key messages from briefing materials, making it easier for you to turn potentially dense info into interesting insights in very little time. Having an editorial eye and a brain that can see the big picture from the minuscule details is an inherent part of being both an academic and a science writer.

 

Question 3: What other skills are suited to the science writer role?

While your time in academia will certainly provide you with some advantages, there are additional skills that you may need to possess (or be excited to learn). Firstly, you will need a spark of creative flair. A good science writer can reconcile the analytical and artistic parts of their brain, to produce work that is both accurate and compelling for the reader.

You must also be able to stick to a deadline. From my experience in academia, I often felt like most time limits were generally self-imposed and can always be pushed back to next week. But in the commercial environment it’s another story. If the idea of deadlines fills you with dread, and you don’t work well under this type of time pressure, then it’s possible that science writing may not be for you.

It’s also vital to be passionate about learning. ‘Live to Learn’ is one of our core values at BioStrata, and for good reason—the diverse range of subjects that you’ll have the opportunity to write about means that you’ll have to get to grips with new, complicated topics quickly and often. For me this was a welcome break from my PhD, as I felt that I had become too specialised on one particular topic. Instead, a career in science writing gives you diversity, and while some of these elements could be considered challenges, they are actually reasons why I enjoy my role so much!

 

Question 4: What new skills will you get to learn as a science writer?

One of the great things about becoming a science writer are the opportunities you get to learn new skills. Not only can you accumulate techniques to improve your writing as a whole, but you also get to learn how effective communication and marketing can help ensure the maximum number of people hear (and care) about the exciting new technologies, products, services and discoveries shaping the future of the industry.

At BioStrata, the team really encourages your development in this way, with access to a wealth of additional training materials, the company proactively encourages you to take the time to dedicate to self-directed learning using the materials available. Further support and training is also available through one-to-one mentorships and regular meetings with teammates, which allows you to tap into the wealth of experience that they can offer. In short, I’ve always felt that the environment is specifically constructed to help you learn and succeed.

 

Question 5: How does science writing commercially differ from writing in academia?

While in essence, writing about science academically and commercially are very similar, there are some differences that you should be aware of. Primarily, as a commercial science writer, you are writing for a client, so they may want a particular style or approach to the content. If you’re confident in the versatility of your writing skills, then this should be no problem.

In addition, we’re often liaising with key opinion leaders introduced by our clients, who help to craft the insights they provide into a compelling story to share with the wider world. As such, we usually ghost write on their behalf—making them the designated author of the content we create together (if this is likely to be an issue, I’d suggest commercial science writing might not be the best role for you).

Lastly, the validity and relevance of the science is just as important in a piece of commercial content as it is in academia; however, with commercial science writing, there are other factors that come into play, such as story flow, use of appropriate titles, SEO optimisation, and writing to meet the needs, interests and desires of audience personas. If all of these elements sound completely new to you—don’t worry—they did to me too,  but full training was provided by the BioStrata team!

 

Question 6: What is it like to work in life science marketing?

Some people confuse marketing with advertising, and this can sometimes cause them to be a bit cynical about making the move from academia to commercial communications (as they are concerned that life science marketing is about trying to sell people things they don't need).

Based on my experience over the last six months, I can assure you that this is not the case. Effective marketing is about developing new products, services, and technologies driven by customer need that will improve how life science professionals work, and then communicating about them in a compelling way that highlights the value and benefits for the end user. The role of the science writer is to act as a conduit for the flow of this information, with the first thought always on finding ways to effectively engage the reader.

You may also worry that the content you produce ‘won’t be scientific enough’. For me, this couldn’t be further from the truth! At BioStrata, many of our clients work at the cutting-edge of the life science industry, so we get to write about the very latest innovations and breakthroughs. We interview global experts about their work and are often the first people to report it to a wider audience.

If you're curious about what a day in the life of a commercial science writer is like, then you can learn more in this blog post written by my colleague Kate.

 

Question 7: How does being a commercial science writer differ from medical writing?

As I mentioned (a lot of times it seems!), the thing I love about being a science writer is the variety, both in terms of the topics we write about, but also the formats we work with. As an example, today I’m blogging about what it’s like to be a science writer, but tomorrow I could be writing a white paper on the latest innovations on how mass spectrometry can be used to improve disease diagnostics, producing web copy for a client’s new website, or working on ideas for an infographic about the future of DNA sequencing. This variety teaches me new skills and encourages me to find new ways to tell a compelling story!

Contrasting this with more traditional medical writing, my understanding (from the research I did on the topic before moving into marketing) is that the focus is more on producing the documents that companies use to take a drug or device from clinical trials through regulatory approvals (e.g. literature summaries, applications to the FDA, documents intended for review by institutional review boards etc.), as well as the technical information included with products once they are released to the market (e.g. patient advice leaflets). In some cases, you might also help to produce the sales materials that drug reps use when explaining the benefits of certain drugs to doctors (e.g. PowerPoint presentations highlighting the results of clinical trial data), or ‘med ed’ content for explaining new drugs to patients.

For me, I naturally gravitated towards the story-telling elements associated with creating content for science marketing over medical writing. For example, I get to write about how technologies are being used across the world to carry out ground-breaking research, as well as pieces discussing the latest trends in the industry and where we’ll go in the future. I feel the work is similar to how a journalist might write about science (but with a focus on how our clients’ internal experts and customers are working to support, teach and inspire the life science community).

In contrast, medical writing seemed much more technical in nature and focused on creating detailed reports discussing things like clinical trial data (which I was less interested in). That being said, if diving deep into data is something you love, then a role in medical writing might just the role for you.

 

Question 8: How can you submit the best possible science writing job application?

While I can’t answer this one for you, it was a key question I had while searching for science writing jobs. Therefore, I asked our Managing Director, Paul Avery, for some top tips—here’s what he had to say:

“In terms of background, we don’t expect writers coming straight from academia to have any formal writing training or experience in writing outside of academic reports and papers, although this would be a bonus. However, I am always impressed when applicants can provide writing samples from outside academia, such as writing an article for the university magazine or when they have started their own scientific blog. When reviewing these samples, we’re looking for evidence of a clear and concise writing style, as well as the ability to craft a compelling and well-structured story that’s aligned against the interests of the reader. Our interview process involves a writing test that assesses these elements, so previous writing examples are not a necessity, although they do help speed up the process. We’re also looking for all the other things you might expect: flawless spelling, English grammar skills, and so on. In general, we tend to hire PhDs that have worked in molecular biology or chemistry, although there is some flexibility depending on the background of each candidate.”

 

How to apply for a role at BioStrata

If you’ve been asking yourself these questions have a passion to impassion others, then you may like to find out more about the opportunities available at BioStrata. Take a look at the science writing jobs that we currently have open within our team.

 

Find out more about careers at BioStrata