Matching with medical communications: my career speed dating experience

Written by Ewan Smith on Wednesday 12th June 2019

Ewan Smith, Medical Writer at OPEN Health, recently attended a careers speed dating session at the Institute of Cancer Research to talk about a career in medical communications. He was unsurprised to hear that students weren’t familiar with the industry, as he too wasn’t until completing his PhD. Here, he gives his thoughts on the reasons for its lack of presence in promoted careers after university, and what students should know.

Prior to entering the world of medical communications (or med comms, as it’s known in the industry), I studied for my PhD at the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) in Sutton, London. Last month, I was excited to be invited back to the ICR to talk about medical writing and med comms at the annual student conference, held at their Chelsea location.

The conference included a ‘speed dating’ session, which involved several 7-minute sessions with groups of up to eight PhD students (and the occasional clinician thrown in). During this time I had the opportunity to explain the role of a med comms agency in general, as well as medical writing, with around 5 minutes to answer questions from the students. The discussions were extremely enlightening!

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Why is the medical communications industry not widely known among students?

Many students were unaware of my profession (as I was when I finished my PhD) and some were relieved to hear that remaining in the lab was not the only career option that allowed continued contact with science and research. I quickly learned that there are two main reasons for this:

  • Lack of self-promotion – Although this seems to have improved over recent years, there has been a distinct lack of promotion of the med comms field at university career fairs (I certainly don’t remember any from when I was at university). Additionally, notices and adverts for med comms events and activities don’t seem to be reaching universities and students or are frequently missed. OPEN Health are working more closely with universities to change this, and based on the number of CVs from new graduates we’re receiving, our approach appears to be working!
  • Jargon and misconceptions – There are a few common misconceptions on what medical writing entails; for example, some think it involves writing science textbooks, while others consider it similar to science journalism – writing newspaper and magazine articles. I believe the essence of what we do in medical writing and communications can be lost in some of the jargon frequently associated with it. Terms such as ‘market access’ and ‘health economics’ can confuse and may even sound a little dull to some; however, as the old saying goes “don’t judge a book by its cover”, as you’ll never know what will pique your interest or what you will enjoy. Your career may lead you to certain agencies who specialise in these activities, or to one that does them all!

I later joined the students and the other ‘career daters’ for an evening poster session (and definitely not for the free pizza and beer) where the final-year students were presenting their research. I also had the chance to catch up with some former colleagues and students, which was a nice end to the day.

What students should know about med comms:

I’ve now had some time to reflect on what I think students need to know about a career in med comms. When agencies are talking to students, they should talk about some of the things that are most enjoyable about the career; which for me is variety and continuous learning. Med comms also provides the opportunity to remain close to science and research in many different ways, from analysing and interpreting clinical data to developing training slides for a rare therapy area.

Students, especially those studying a scientific discipline, will likely possess many traits of the desired skill set for a career in this field; in particular, scientific and technical expertise, to analytical skills and experience of science writing, presentations, project management, and team working. Another common misunderstanding among students is that a proven publication history and a PhD are essential to become a medical writer, in fact, many of our writers here don’t actually possess a PhD. They are selected based on talent and other criteria. So perhaps we should focus more on what a career in med comms can offer rather than trying to define what it is.

Med comms is an industry that provides variety, an opportunity to further your scientific knowledge and insight, a place where your ideas can be heard. You will also have a chance to showcase your creative talents, build relationships with key opinion leaders and work within a great and supportive team.

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If you now think med comms sounds like an industry you’d like to get involved in, please click the link below to learn about the OPEN Health Graduate Development Programme. To learn more about the OPEN Health and our Graduate Development Programme, please visit:

https://www.openhealthgroup.com/graduate-programme