In 2018, after many years in academia, I decided to make a career switch to a full-time medical writer. Previously, I had been doing freelance medical writing and copyediting odd jobs here and there ever since I realized that I enjoyed writing and researching in graduate school. When I first told others of my plan to switch careers, almost without fail they would ask why. I cannot claim that what works for me or is ‘right’ for me will necessarily be true for others…but I can give you my “why”.
Reasons why I switched careers to medical writing…
Before just delving in and listing reasons 1, 2, 3,… I should give a little context. I am driven. No doubt. I make goals for myself, and I work hard to achieve them. After graduate school, I sped through my post-docs with the goal in mind to get a job in academia. I loved teaching, researching, and writing, and I knew that a small, private university position would be perfect for me. I found such a position, and I worked very hard within the institution to be promoted to full professor and department chair. For the most part, I loved it. I would not trade the experience of meeting all the students I taught through the years. I also learned so much from that time.
After more than 10 years at the same university, the stress was taking its toll on me. I had married. My wife and I had been told that it would be unlikely that we could have a family due to health issues…and then we were blessed (and wonderfully surprised) to discover we were expecting. I had a health crisis and needed to reprioritize life. It was not easy to leave a rolling-contract full professor position, but I knew I had to leave for health, my sanity, and my growing family.
So, rather than scale down my duties or find a similar job, why did I change careers? I had been doing freelance medical writing work (primarily copyediting) occasionally, and I loved to learn, research, and write. Why make the career change specifically to medical writing…?
For me, flexibility is the main reason for the career change to medical writing. I set out looking for opportunities with flexibility in scheduling because the top priority for me was being ‘there’ or ‘around’ for my growing family. I wanted to be involved in their lives, and my previous career was unbelievably time-consuming. It was a given during the academic year that I would put in a minimum of 60+ hours each week with occasional weeks of 80 or more hours spent working. Yes, I did get a reprieve during the summer, but by that time I was spent and broken.
I entered my career switch with the goal being I needed more time with my family, and I requested flex-time in scheduling. A medical writer who is 100% full-time freelancing will have more power in scheduling; however, for those switching careers and seeking medical writing positions within industry, it is doable to find remote medical writing positions with flex-time.
Flexibility became even more a priority for me when one of our sons was diagnosed with a condition requiring frequent doctor appointments, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and so on. Plus, our time together is priceless, and I do not want to go back to being bound to long days working in a less family-friendly environment.
For freelance medical writers, there is also flexibility in the projects (or jobs) that they accept. I typically did not get veto power in the courses I had to teach at the university. Even as department chair, I usually worked beyond contract and had to pick up classes that were required to teach (but lacking professors).
2. Less stress
For me, I felt so much relief just announcing I was leaving academia and pursuing medical writing full-time. I did not have any jobs or contracts lined up or ready. I just made the metaphorical leap. Every interview I went to did ask me ‘why’, and most interviewers would specifically ask why I wouldn’t change my mind to go back to academia. I answered honestly about needing more family time/flex-time, and I would tell them I wanted, and needed, less stress.
Medical writing projects are usually less stressful for me because I broach them using project management skills. [Don’t worry this will not devolve into a diatribe on the agile method!] I personally find it gratifying to accomplish goals–even small deliverables or milestones–so I live by checklists. My previous career did not allow for that on the macro level. I was to the point professionally where it felt more like I was working in HR while juggling countless hours between the business office, academic affairs, and the lab. Now, my life is not stress-free, but it is orders of magnitude less stressful. I actually get to enjoy my cup of coffee in the morning! I plan projects as they come along, and I get to see them accomplished. Yes, curve balls can still get lobbed at me occasionally, but I’m ready at the bat.
I loved teaching and interacting with the students; however, the aspects of my previous career I had enjoyed had grown stale and monotonous. Less time was spent with teaching and curricula development while more time was spent on all other aspects of the job. Even after I had stepped down as department chair that last year, this situation did not improve. I was being asked to teach the same materials semester after semester. Some people find comfort in the monotony; I find restlessness. I love learning new things. One of my favorite responsibilities I had (at times) was curricula development, especially writing new courses where I could learn more about new topics.
Medical writing is such a vast field. I am constantly learning. Some medical writers may choose to really focus in one particular subject-matter area while others may prefer to primarily specialize in deliverable or service (such as CME/CE development or copyediting). Before I started to actively pursue this career, I did not realize how broad medical writing was or really everything it could encompass.
Do I have my regrets?
Honestly, not at all! I have not considered returning to a career in academia. Just as I suspect with any career, I have learned more about myself, and I have encountered both ups and downs; however, I do not regret making my mid-life career change to full-time medical writing. Now, our family has grown to include two sons, so flexibility, less stress, and wise time management are all even more important. Life in our house is never boring.
For more information on medical writing, check out the American Medical Writing Association (AMWA) website. The AMWA provides many resources on medical writing, including a job directory for members. The AMWA also collaborates with the Medical Writing Certification Commission (MWCC) to develop the Medical Writer Certified (MWC®) credential, which some employers may refer to in their job postings. [Full disclosure: I am currently an office holder of the Florida chapter of the AMWA and also have my MWC certification. If you are a medical writer in Florida, we would love to have you join us.]