Taking the plunge: 6 pitfalls starting medical writers should be aware of

By Mariella Franker, PhD


A friend of mine and fellow medical writer once said: “I used to be a neuroscientist, but now I’m a corporate whore.” I responded: “What a coincidence. I’m a neuroscientist looking to become a corporate whore.”

We had a good laugh, but our little quip just about sums up how a lot of scientists feel about leaving science. There is an unspoken belief that you only leave science because you are unfit and you eventually sell your soul to the corporate world and become an empty shell living from pay check to pay check… Okay, enough of that.

Two years after finishing my PhD I am now the proud owner of a medical communications company and officially an entrepreneur. I can tell you that there is indeed life outside of science! Although I toyed with the idea of starting my own business for a few years, like many others I was hesitant to leave my comfort zone. I applied for jobs close to academia and lab work, such as science officer, CRA, academic lecturer, educational program manager, medical science liaison, etc. Eventually I got hired by a small medical publisher and for one year I learned all about medical writing and publishing. Then, again, I was unemployed and looking for a job as, yes, a science officer, CRA, academic lecturer, etc. They were great jobs, but the bottom line was that I lacked experience in some area or another and I wouldn’t get the job. This went on for a few frustrating months, until I was lucky to be offered a freelance project. It was the kick that I needed to finally get started on my own and it turned out to be the best decision I ever made.
However, getting started can be tough. Here are six pitfalls that I’ve seen over the past months and that starting medical writers should be aware of.

Losing the scientist mindset. The scientist mindset can be a blessing and a curse. The first hurdle I had to overcome was: letting go of “being an expert”. As a scientist, doing your homework is king. Before warming up my buffers, I would read up on the literature, (re-)familiarize myself with the protocol, double-check my constructs, set up my transfection schedule, reserve microscopes, and.., well, you get the idea. In other words, being overprepared is my comfort zone. Initially, I approached being an entrepreneur in the same way. For weeks, I was reading blogs and articles, watching YouTube video’s and TED talks about entrepreneurship. But I still felt that I didn’t know enough to take the final step. Finally, urged by a potential assignment, I ran down to the chamber of commerce. Showing up with only my identification and no idea, an hour later I was the proud owner of a medical communications company. And it was all fine! The assignment came and went, and turned into a second assignment. I started to realize that being prepared can only do so much. Eventually, you have to just do it.

I’ve now adopted another great scientists’ quality: Experimentation! Just like in the lab, not everything that you do as an entrepreneur will be successful. You take an educated guess and then you just have a go. Now I consider every email with a potential client, every assignment, or new logo idea for my company as an experiment to learn from. Some things will work out and others won’t. But every step teaches me something and lets me tweak my steps for the future.

When working from home becomes living in isolation. I was really looking forward to working from home. So much freedom! No more daily travel to and from work, no more packed trains and delays. Making my own hours and my own schedule.

Most of this is true and it is one of the big advantages of being an entrepreneur. However, be careful with working completely alone for too long. Writers often think that getting rid of distractions is necessary to be productive. But you also need exposure to other things to spark creativity in your writing. I have finally accepted that as much as I like working by myself, I do need regular interaction with other people and I actively look for these little escapes. If you live in the city, you can always find a nice café somewhere to get some work done and to talk with other laptop owners who are enjoying their cappuccinos. A lot of the time they are fellow entrepreneurs. Need a quieter space to really knuckle down? There are various group working places for freelances throughout the city or maybe try the local library. If you live outside of the city like me, why not suggest meeting with fellow entrepreneurs to work together for one day a week? It is the perfect way to get to know other writers, but also to meet with people outside of your field. So, don’t be afraid to ask your designer neighbor for a joint-working session. Inspiration can come from strange places and it’s all about breaking out of your bubble and getting inspired.

What is networking again? Networking has almost become a dirty word nowadays and I also dreaded it. Especially the idea of going to networking events and pitching my company to potential clients makes me nauseous. But that isn’t all that networking is about. In my case, my network has already proven very useful and a friends’ recommendation landed me two assignments. Another time, I talked with the uncle of a friend at a birthday party who turned out to be the owner of a pharmaceutical company. I was invited for a tour of the company that started as a one-man business in a basement and now has over 70 employees in the center of Amsterdam. What an inspiring story!

To create a useful network, basically you tell people what you do and what your dreams are for your company. You may hear some inspiring stories of others along the way. And sometimes you might find yourself in a situation where you can help each other and a new assignment is born!

Having an elevator pitch at hand will come in handy at these times (another dirty thing, I know, but don’t despair). The purpose of an elevator pitch really is to briefly and concisely explain what you do without using any jargon. The idea is not really to sell yourself, but to spread the word of your company (and you don’t have 30 to 45 minutes to do it). It takes some practice, but I also approach this as an experiment. By talking to friends, family and neighbors, my pitch evolved from: I started my own company, period, to: I’m a freelance medical writer (what’s that?), to: As a medical writer, I write texts for physicians and patients to educate them about new drugs. This last one was already received quite well. Next time I might throw in an example and see what that does. Of course, don’t rehearse a single pitch to robotic perfection to leave your audience dazzled, but have a simple description of your basic services at hand as a starting point for conversation.

Getting used to the new rhythm. As a freelancer, you have the freedom to design your own schedule. But with great flexibility, comes great discipline. For my previous job, I got up at 5.30 hours, then yoga, shower, breakfast and in the train by 6.30. When I left that job and during my unemployed, I basically stayed in that rhythm (give or take an hour). It wasn’t a conscious decision at the time, but my body was already used to it. It proved to be a big advantage. Because shifting back into a work schedule for my company was not very difficult. I’m not saying that everyone should start that early and if you are not a morning person don’t force a 5.30 wakeup call on yourself. The point is to find a daily rhythm that works for you and then stick to it. No assignment this Tuesday? Still get up on time and fill your day with other useful things. It will help to stay in a productive rhythm and makes going back to work much easier when the assignments start coming in.

Staying motivated. The most important thing is: keep challenging yourself. One way that I do this, is to take courses. A DISC communication training here, a design workshop there, courses from EMWA or Coursera. I always come back feeling refreshed and ready to take on something new. I also find a lot of inspiration learning from others, from other medical writers and scientists and from entrepreneurs who share their experiences on YouTube and TED. There is a lot of knowledge out there and you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time.

Which brings me to the final pitfall: Trying to do it all. As a PhD, you are a one-man production team. You’re executioner, decisionmaker and PR for your project. And it’s great! Because you learn so much about all these different aspects. But you’ve probably also learned that you are better at some of these tasks than others. My message to you is: do the things that you enjoy most! It starts with learning to say no to assignments. I know this is tricky. As a starting writer, you typically want more clients and you’ll tend to say yes to pretty much any assignment that comes your way. But ask yourself: is this really what I want in the long-run? Do you want to write anything related to medicine? Or do you feel more motivated writing for patients? Or maybe medical illustration gets your motor running? Seek out companies that work in those area’s and get the word out that this is what you want to do.

Besides content, “not trying to do it all” also applies to the practical side of your business. You’re a business owner now, so you need to think about more than just writing and start planning the future of your company. This includes financial planning, long-term direction and day-to-day administration. If you need help in this area, it’s a good idea to hire an accountant as soon as you can afford it. There are many accountants who offer their services to starting entrepreneurs for decent rates. Hiring an expert makes sure that it gets done well (sort of why publishers hire medical writers to write their content 😊). And it’s one less thing to worry about, so you have more time and energy to put into your company goals. I can say the same about asking for help, for example, from fellow entrepreneurs. Maybe you have bitten off a bit more than you can chew and need help finishing a project. Asking another writer to help (if your client is okay with it) creates a win-win situation for both of you. Or if there is some tax policy that you just don’t know how to deal with. Don’t be afraid to ask a befriended medical writer if he has seen it before. I have not met one medical writer who wasn’t happy to talk about how they started and give advice. It may feel like we are competitors, but really, we are colleagues.

Being a freelance medical writer is a world away from academia. But the complexity and variety of entrepreneurship puts our scientific skills to good use: it really is a continuous process of experimentation. Every small step, including mistakes, will help to carve out your little niche and to figure out how you can add value to the world while doing what you love.

Good luck!

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