So you want to be a Medical Writer: Interview with Dr. Michael Fiedler

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Dr. Michael Fiedler (MF) shares his experience in the field of Medical communications with Imit Kaur (IK). He describes the job and also provides valuable advice on how to best transition from academia to industry.

IK: Please tell about yourself and your background.

MF: I am from Southern California. As a kid I loved animals and decided to study biology at UC San Diego. During my time at UCSD, I worked in an academic lab and learned techniques in Molecular Biology and Immunology. Unfortunately, after sophomore year, my PI lost his funding and had to let me go. That was a pivotal, enlightening moment in my life in that I realized I didn’t want to spend my life in the academic world where I would have to struggle for research money on a regular basis. I still loved science, however, and wanted to reach the pinnacle of academic achievement (i.e., earn a PhD). After completing my BS in Cell Biology, I attended graduate school at Yale University. While at Yale, I really wanted to challenge my mind and take advantage of any opportunity I could because I knew I wasn’t going to be in academia. I am naturally a talkative extrovert and writing was a way to harness that energy. During grad school I had multiple blogs and part time writing/editing jobs and was also on the board of the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine. Towards the end of my PhD I strongly considered law school as a way to leverage my passion and skillsets, but ultimately decided against it because of fears related to work-life balance and student debt. At that point, I was 4 weeks away from my defense and had no idea what I was going to do. So I sat on the computer and wrote 2 words into Career Builder, “Science” and “Writing” as these were the two things I was most proficient in. That is how I came to discover Medical Communications (MC). Shortly thereafter I got my first job at Infusion Medical Communications, where I still am today.

IK: Explain Medical Writing (MW) and Medical communications (MC) in general. The field of scientific communications is expanding and are there distinct roles played by MW or MC in different organizations?

MF: Well there’s a difference in the type of content in MW. I like to explain MW using the analogy of DNA replication. There’s a leading edge, which is when new/private information becomes public (e.g., publication of clinical trial results) and there is lagging edge where published information is metabolized and leveraged for various purposes (e.g., slide decks).

There is also a difference in the type of communications. Proactive communications are the ones you see on TV, billboards, and Journal advertisements and they provide information that is strictly in the prescribing information or “on-label.” This type of communication is highly regulated and mostly done by sales and commercial people. Reactive communication on the other hand is in response to questions from healthcare providers (HCPs) and can be explained using a car dealership analogy. When you buy a car at a dealership you usually talk to the sales people and finance. However, if you have questions or car troubles after you buy the car, you don’t visit the salesmen who sold you the car, you go to the mechanic. In the pharmaceutical world, the mechanics are medical science liaisons (MSLs) that can talk about things outside the prescribing information to address specific questions. For example, if an HCP wants to understand how a drug works or if it is safe to use in an older or younger patient. In response to these types of questions, an MSL can discuss scientific information in a neutral, informative way with the HCP to help them feel more confident in their decisions. In this type of reactive communication, a medical writer will prepare materials that an MSL can use to facilitate the conversation (e.g., data summary slides, mechanism of action illustrations, etc.).

Another example of MC is with advisory boards, which are like committee meetings for pharmaceutical companies. Say a pharmaceutical company is interested in running a clinical trial for an approved drug, but for a new population (e.g., children). They will call upon experts in the therapeutic area who also have experience with pediatric populations. They will bring them to a central location for a meeting (e.g., Dallas, TX) to discuss the implications of using the drug in children (e.g., safety and efficacy) and what kind of patients would need to be included or excluded in a clinical trial. An MC agency will facilitate everything for the meeting to happen and capture the feedback. They will plan the event in terms of location, attendees and contracts, and create the content itself (e.g., agenda, discussion guide, slide development and onsite reporting). Afterwards they generate a report of who said what.

From a structure standpoint an MC agency has 4 parts:

  1. Business development: people going out and getting the business from Pharmaceutical companies.
  2. Account Services: people responsible for managing awarded projects, client interactions, leading calls, and ensuring completion of projects in a timely manner.
  3. Medical and Scientific Services: people like me who generate the actual content.
  4. Editorial and Graphics: they clean everything up and infuse graphics into the content.

IK: Considering MW for a fresh PhD graduate, is it a huge transition from regular academia? What advice can you give?

MF: Short answer yes, it is a huge transition. I liken it to your very first day in the lab.

Long answer, I would say every PhD or science professional has a general concept of science. As a PhD you are familiar with data, present in journal club, you are used to reading and writing, but as a professional MW, you are preparing material for a client. It can be somewhat of a culture shock in MC to leave your technical skills behind and focus exclusively on these “soft skills” like searching pubmed, creating powerpoint slides, and/or summarizing general research trends. As an MC professional, a pharmaceutical company will hand over their data and it’s your responsibility to present it in the most professional and coherent manner possible. Clients will ask you to research the available literature on their competitors and summarize it in a concise and cogent way.

For advice, the hardest and most critical thing when applying is demonstrating a genuine interest in the field. A company is looking for candidates who have a passion for writing. Can you and are you willing to do it on a daily basis? Another piece of advice is to keep working on your writing skills. I spent several years writing a non-science blog. Just writing will sharpen your skills and help you develop your own style. This is critical to your development as a MW. While applying for jobs, PhDs and post docs like to point out the techniques they know or publications they have, but can neglect the skills that are actually transferable. For example, publications often have multiple authors and the person who ties all of the data together in an eloquent manner has more to offer an MC company than the scientists who conducted the actual experiments.

IK: How did you gain your first writing experience? You mentioned blog writing but are there other avenues one should explore to gain experience? Is freelancing a good idea or is it frowned upon?

MF: It all depends on where you are at in the education process. If you are a 3rd or a 4th year grad student, a blog may be a good way to establish your own voice and portfolio (it doesn’t even have to be about science). If you are closer to finishing, you might want to be more focused. One recommendation I give is to write summaries of biomedical research articles. For example, I would pick a random article from the New England Journal of Medicine or The Lancet and write a 250-500 word summary explaining the findings and why they are important. You can also post these on platforms like LinkedIn. In MC you are often asked to write on areas outside your expertise. So by metabolizing an article and posting it, you are demonstrating your skill and showing that you are actually interested in the field.

Freelancing is also a good way to sharpen your skills if you can find the right opportunity. I found freelance writing and editing jobs in grad school and while I had no idea I was going to pursue MC back then, the skills I learned were completely transferable.

IK: How do you get noticed with your resume? There are a number of organizations like the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA), are these worthy? Also do certifications help obtain a job?

MF: Resumes should be 1-page and maximize use of white space (e.g., use columns); cover letters should be short, sweet and as specific to the job/company as possible.

AMWA is a good resource and I went to a workshop where I mingled with like-minded people. Also, they have good freelance resources, so if you have worked in an MC agency for couple of years and want to breakout on your own, you can make use of their freelance directory. If you don’t have a PhD and/or not a lot of writing experience, certifications from these organizations can be helpful to establish credibility. Publication writers also often pursue a CMPP credential that ensures good publication practice.

IK: Is it okay for a fresh graduate to jump right in or should they gain more experience (e.g., do a post doc)? Also, you started your career a couple of years ago, have expectations changed overtime?

MF: You definitely don’t need to do post doc. If you want a career in MC it is in your best interest to start as early as possible. For example I started at 28 and have seen a lot of growth in my position and salary. Had I done a post doc, I would have delayed my career development and not gained substantive transferable experience in the process.

As for the MC field, it has changed significantly in recent years with more and more professionals entering the space. But that doesn’t mean the market is saturated. The market is actually growing because pharmaceutical companies are being asked to be more transparent and they want to do so in new and clever ways. Compared to when I first entered the work force, new graduates are much more informed about MC and are booted up to make contributions right away.

IK: Following up on this, how about competition in the field?

MF: There is competition and it will help to have a portfolio. You have to show some kind of commitment to writing. I would encourage people to write as much as possible. It just shows your passion and enthusiasm for your future occupation. As a field, a lot of MC agencies have historically relied on experienced writers to work on publications. However, in this era of digital communication, agencies now need to up their game to be competitive and are taking advantage of the army of new PhDs looking for fulfilling careers. These will be the innovators of the MC space and I feel fortunate to be part of the wave.

IK: What are the challenges in the field?

MF: One of the most difficult things is that you are developing content for someone else and thus have no ownership of it. From a publication perspective you have no authorship, you are just a mediator between HCPs and pharmaceutical companies. MC is also a service industry and working with clients is critical, but tricky. Executing someone else’s vision with quality and on time is not easy. Depending on the “deliverables” you work on there can also be some travel involved (e.g., advisory boards) and this tends to increase over time (i.e., you might travel 10% of the time to start, but that can grow to 30% as you take on more projects). Also, you have to learn to be cognitively nimble because you may have to jump from therapeutic area to therapeutic area within the same day.

IK: You are a career counselor; how can someone reach out to you? Why do you this?

MF: LinkedIn is a good resource. You can connect with me on LinkedIn but you need to follow the proper edict. People send connection requests all the time, but I won’t respond unless you include a message articulating why you are sending me a request. If you just send a connection request, I don’t know who you are and I can’t even respond to find out.

I like helping people for 2 reasons: 1) there is a huge population of PhD professionals trying to grab an opportunity, just like I was, and it is rewarding to help anyway I can; 2) self-interest, plain and simple. By exporting good will, if/when I ever need help in the future I can approach my contacts and hope someone returns the favor. People are usually willing to scratch your back if you have already scratched theirs.

IK: what is the growth potential in the field?

MF: It depends on the agency and work you do. I started 6 years ago and I have been promoted 4 times. There’s also a huge difference between publication work and non-publication work. Publications are commoditized (i.e., a primary manuscript is charged a flat fee) whereas non-publication work (e.g., advisory boards, slide development) is charged hourly. Because projects always take unanticipated twists and turns, non-publications tend to be more profitable and that is where I have spent my entire career.

IK: Before or during the interview process, should you try to get in touch with a recruiter?

MF: Yes if possible because you have nothing to lose. Finder’s fees are paid by the agency, so a recruiter can only help you. To do this, try and apply to as many positions as you can, which are often gated by recruiters. This will help you get on their radar and then you can pursue a relationship, should one manifest. Once you get into the field, recruiters will try and get you to change jobs because they get a commission. That is trickier to navigate and up to you based on your circumstances.

IK: Once you have the job, what do you need to do to stay in the field and keep loving your job?

MF: Maintain professionalism, focus on quality, and care about your team. If you help them do their job, they will help you do yours.

IK: Thank you so much for your time. I am sure our readers and prospective medical writers will benefit from this interview.

MF: I am happy to speak with you and I hope this is of some value.

About Dr. Michael Fiedler

Michael is the Scientific Director of Ashfield Healthcare for over 5 years and
is a dynamic and well respected presence within the company.

About Imit Kaur:

Imit Kaur, Ph.D. is a freelance scientific advisor, medical writer, editor, and an active science blogger. She pursued her PhD in Pharmaceutics and Pharmaceutical Chemistry from the University of Utah. She is experienced in the field of oncology, hematology, pharmacology, nanotechnology and drug development. Follow Imit on LinkedIn (Imit Kaur) or Twitter (@imit_kaur)

Featured image by Vinita Bharat

The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).


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