Life as a writer outside the boundaries of academia


No one who aspires to a fancy job as a tenured research professor in the life sciences should read this article.

For those who wish to follow this career path, I can give only one piece of advice: make sure it’s EXACTLY what you want out of life.

Life as an Academic

I started out relatively modestly as a graduate student in the fall of 2004. I wasn’t sure if I wanted a career in film production or biology, and because going into film meant repeating classes and working at Starbucks simultaneously, I opted into a Master’s degree, which paid a bit of money and allowed me some flexibility to learn about something I loved and to figure out the rest of my career later on.

My project was fresh and interesting, and I was given every opportunity to make my own way, reaching out to collaborators and carving out a small niche for myself in neuroscience and cancer. I was supported immensely by my Principal Investigator, who encouraged me to do my own thing and publish what I was interested in.

After seven years of grad studies, I was sure that I wanted to become a professor like my Principal Investigator. There were things I wanted to do differently, topics I didn’t have funding for that I wanted to get into. I even had my choice of postdoctoral positions lined up for me when I graduated, and I took the job where I’d get the most flexibility to create new projects for myself. I built up a smorgasbord of results, characterized around fifteen different compounds, published in some respectable journals, then figured I’d go and apply for professor positions by the end of my second year.

Up until then, I was enthusiastic about staying in academia. I was sure someone would notice my work and get back to me, if only for an interview.

So, I kept applying and kept getting back rejection letter after rejection letter. As my contract was ending, I concentrated instead on finding a new lab to continue my research. I sent out email after email, and I either got no response or I was told that there was no funding for someone in my position, a 4th year postdoc who would not be eligible for many of the fellowships awarded to 1st year postdocs. Finally, after a few months, someone emailed me back, and I took up my next—and last—postdoc.

Now, I could go on about how horrible my final stint as a postdoc was. I could complain about how manipulative and passive aggressive my new Principal Investigator was, and how the research I was conducting had nothing to do with my own ideas. I could even tell you about how my Principal Investigator rejected my ideas for a side project for no other reason than, “it won’t get published in a high-impact journal.” The main problem wasn’t necessarily my Principal Investigator. It was how little funding there was to keep working on projects I felt connected to, which forced me to take the first job that was offered.

Once my contract was up, I wanted to end my stint in academia for good. I couldn’t keep bouncing around from lab to lab without any specific goal to it. I could apply for professor positions, but it wasn’t a viable plan. I couldn’t rely on getting another postdoc or research associate position and getting lucky. I had to get out of the cycle and build something solid, a place that would let me grow and develop without wondering whether I’d be out of a job once every two or three years.

Life Outside Academia

I finally found my way out of academia by applying to be a medical writer with a medical communications agency. I’ve always enjoyed writing and editing, and this was the perfect place where I could use all the knowledge that I’ve accumulated for something worthwhile and, most importantly, secure.

Medical writing is a funny thing; you think you know how to write until you don’t. It’s also very particular, something that must be attractive to many scientists who are also organisational freaks. For every sentence, an accompanying reference must be attached, highlighting the paragraph and sometimes the very lines from the specific journal you referenced it from. It was tricky to master at first but writing from the ground up like that was a great way to put all the research I had performed into context, especially coming from a translational research background. I began to research the basic biology of a variety of diseases, not just one, along with guidelines regarding therapeutic options for patients suffering from the disease, new therapeutic targets, research developments, and insights into how the pharmaceutical industry works.

If you’re able to thrive as a medical writer, it’s amazing the kinds of jobs that are available to you. As a postdoc, I’d never encountered a headhunter. As a medical writer, I was approached by a few within eight months. I parlayed my way from this first post-academic gig to an even more interesting job working in marketing for a biotechnology company.

While medical writing is on the drier side of scientific communication, marketing to scientists is much livelier. I’ve combined my background in formal medical writing and my love of science to create a blog that covers as many lab management and strange science topics as I can write about. I’ve written about the new coronavirus, 3D bio-printing, transcriptomics, gene editing, and anything else that’s as captivating to research as it is to read about. I’ve even created a popular lab fails contest for scientists, which gives them something for all the time they took to perform an experiment and to get it horribly wrong. (Entries now open for 2020.)

Working with marketers who are eager to sell products may seem like a challenge. However, marketing also requires a scientific mentality that aims to keep testing the methods and strategies that work best. I’ve come to a point where I’ve regained the flexibility I once had, combining one sort of analysis with another. I’ve developed new skills to go with old ones, including people skills I was largely lacking as a researcher, and I’ve managed to maintain a lot of the creativity and freedom of my PhD with blog writing and social media engagement (I get paid to create memes for my very own subreddit!). I’m even attending conferences — I’m flying to the American Association for Cancer Research’s (AACR) annual conference and the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) later this year — to interview other scientists and keep abreast of new developments in not just one, but many fields of research.

So, for those who think they’re stuck indefinitely in academia, cursed with a mediocre project or forced to jump from lab to lab, there are many ways to thrive outside the confines of your institution.

Working as a graduate student in life science sharpens many skills that others don’t necessarily have; the key is to take advantage of those skills and find a profession that’ll make you happy for longer than three years at a time.

Author Bio: Alex Goldberg is a scientific writer and social media manager for GA International.