Take control of your MedComms career

Having a fulfilling and intentional MedComms career that really suits you is possible! Follow these simple MedComms Microtips to help you take control of your own career.

Video transcript

Hi, I’m Eleanor Steele and I’m the MedComms Mentor.

When I first stumbled my way into MedComms back in 2004, I had literally no idea what it was all about or what my potential career path could look like. I knew that I wanted to use my scientific background and that I liked writing. I wasn’t really thinking further than finding a job that combined the two.

After a short hybrid role as an editorial assistant, I specialized to become a Medical Writer and aspired to become a Senior Writer, and then maybe one day a Scientific Director. But I didn’t really know of any other options. This was just based on the hierarchy in the agencies where I was working at the time.

Times have changed, and there’s now a lot more information available about different career paths in MedComms. This is partly due to the sterling work by Peter Llewellyn, and the MedComms Networking resources, webinars and events that he organizes, and there’s a link in the video description if you haven’t come across MedComms Networking yet.

LinkedIn is also a great resource, with lots of companies posting profiles of their team members talking about what they do and how they came to be in that position.

But having more information available can sometimes be a bit of a curse rather than a blessing. Information overload can make it harder to see the things that would be right for us specifically.

If you are hoping to get into MedComms and you’re not sure what role would be right for you, I did a masterclass with Peter on that exact topic last year, and again, there’s a link to it in the description below.

But if you are already working as a medical writer today, you may still be wondering about what your future could hold.

There are definitely more possibilities out there than the simple ladder of Medical Writer to Senior Writer, to Principal Writer, and then Scientific Director, and those possibilities are expanding every year.

So how can you take control of your career and not become overwhelmed, whether that’s by the range of possibilities available to you or by the volume of work you’re doing, just churning the same things out without ever really seem to make any progress?

1. Get to grips with your job description

If you are a Medical Writer, you might think your job description would be fairly self-explanatory, right? Well, actually, there’s a big variety across all the MedComms agencies out there in terms of what would go into the job description for a Medical Writer. And some agencies have their own terminology for a job that would be called “Medical Writer” else.

It partly depends on the broader agency structure. Is there a separate client services function? Are there in-house editors or freelance editors that you use regularly?

It also depends on the structure within individual teams, depending on what the account needs and the skills, experience, and preferences of the people within the team, the line between writing and account management or editing could be drawn in different places.

And while I’m definitely not naming any names, I’m aware that there are some agencies out there that have such focus on delivering client work, that internal tasks like writing or updating job descriptions fall to the bottom of the to-do list and sometimes never get done.

Having an up to date job description is a crucial starting point because it’s difficult to make plans for how you want to progress if you don’t know your current position.

If you don’t have a job description, talk to your line manager because it is an important thing to have. Once you’ve got that job description, you can take a look at it and think about what responsibilities are listed within it and how they measure up to what you are actually doing.

Are you getting to do the full range of things listed or are there things that you haven’t been exposed to yet? Sometimes this can be tricky. If you are working on a traditional publications account, but your job description includes supporting digital projects or going on-site to support meetings, you may not get the opportunity to experience these things, and that could have an impact on your progression prospect.

Knowing that’s the case though, makes it much easier to do something about it. More about this later.

Also, does your job description set any expectations for the level that you should be performing at? Maybe the level of comments you should receive when you’re working on a draft or the rounds of internal review necessary.

This can be tricky to evaluate, but you can look back at recent feedback from your line manager or team leader and see how this measures up to any expectations listed in your job description.

Looking at these factors, what you’re doing and what’s expected of someone in your role, will help you identify areas where you might need more training to reach that expected level or to take on broader responsibilities.

It should also highlight areas where you haven’t had the opportunity to experience certain aspects of the job, or if you are being pigeonholed into always picking up a certain type of project.

This is a really common problem in MedComms because once a writer has shown proficiency with a particular type of project, it’s easier and more efficient in the short term for them to keep doing it rather than giving them something new, which might take them longer, or to risk someone else picking it up and potentially not doing it in the way that the client wants.

OK, so these microtips should help you evaluate where you are, and identify areas where you could focus your attention for immediate growth. But how do you know where you want to go in the long term? Having a good idea about where you are aiming to go eventually will help you prioritize what you focus on because we can’t do everything at once.

2. Talk to people

Broadening your network and the types of role that you are exposed to will help you see what the possibilities really are. In a big company. There might be opportunities to chat to people outside your team or even in sister organizations that might do things very differently.

The classic scenario for this would be in the kitchen waiting for the kettle to boil or your toast to pop up. But I realize these in-person opportunities are much less frequent these days.

Networking events are also great for this, online or in person, so check out what’s going on with MedComms Networking or see if there are any local MedComms groups or even online ones on LinkedIn.

If you find yourself faced with someone you can chat to, try asking what path they followed into their current position and what kind of skills, experiences, and preferences help them get there.

It might feel a bit weird initiating a conversation like that, but remember, people love talking about themselves, especially senior team members who like to feel like a bit of a mentor. Give them the slightest hint that you are interested in their origin story, and you will get a full download.

If you really don’t want to actually speak to someone, or don’t have any opportunities to get to any networking events, then the MedComms Story series is a great resource.

Peter Llewellyn has been interviewing a huge range of people across the industry about how they got into MedComms and how their careers have developed from there. There are video and podcast versions, and I’ve linked to them below. Lots of juicy and inspirational stories you can enjoy from the comfort of your own pyjamas.

But while you’re listening to them, it’s a good idea to think about what you’re hearing and reflect on which roles and companies appeal to you, and why you have that reaction.

Do the projects or the clients sound interesting? Does the company’s ethos or values match yours? Does the level of responsibility for that role sound appealing?

Sometimes we’ll hear about something that sounds like it should be the logical thing we should aim for, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s actually right for us. It’s worth examining your motivation for latching onto something if you find something really promising.

Does it match up with your skillset? What about your working preferences?

I know a lot of Medical Writers who feel like they ought to aspire to become Scientific Directors, but the level of client contact involved in that role wouldn’t necessarily suit their more introverted nature. And on the flip side, I’ve also known Medical Writers who’ve taken on roles that just bury them in data because that’s what the company needed them to do, when actually they would thrive in a much more dynamic meetings account.

Knowing what suits you, and why, will help you identify an ambition that will fit your interests, your skills, your experience, and your working style. It’s important to be honest with yourself about this rather than simply aspiring to something just because you think it’s expected of you.

3. Make a plan

Once you’ve mapped out your current position using everything we discussed in the first microtip and figured out where you’d like to get to using the second microtip, you are ready to make a plan. This plan will help take you from where you are now to where you want to go.

The first thing to consider is where there are areas of your current job that are directly preparing you for your goal already.

If there are, fantastic. Keep doing that.

On the flip side, are there areas that you haven’t covered at all yet? This is really where I want to focus because it’s where the magic happens.

The traditional approach to career development is that we simply do the things we’re told to do and gradually accumulate enough experience to be promoted. It’s really passive.

What I would recommend is making your career progression an intentional part of what you’re doing every day. Now, that doesn’t mean it should be something that takes up a lot of time or effort. It’s more about having a mindset of thinking about everything that you are doing, and also what’s going on around you, so that you can make use of available opportunities to get where you want to go.

Knowing where your gaps are will mean that you are much more likely to be able to take advantage of an opportunity to fill that gap than if you had no idea it existed. Proactively thinking about what kind of things could help you get the experience that you need will also help you actually achieve them.

Is it something you need training on? Would working with a mentor actually be more effective? Who could that be? Maybe you need exposure to a particular type of project. Is that available on the account that you are working on, or do you need experience on a wider range of therapy areas?

Getting business development experience early in your career can also be a fantastic way to pick up a huge amount about how MedComms works, and will also prepare you for more senior strategic roles, but we often have to push a bit to actually get those initial opportunities.

OK. So once you’ve mapped out the gaps in your experience and identified ways you can potentially fill them, it’s a good idea to break them down into small steps that will build towards your broader career objectives.

Basically, it’s unlikely you are going to be able to do everything at once. So what comes first?

Also, are there crucial things that you absolutely have to do versus things that might just be helpful or nice to have? Prioritize as much as you can because you really don’t want to get overwhelmed. Career development shouldn’t lead to burnout, and if it feels like that’s where you are headed, you need to slow down.

That is why we should also think about timelines, making sure they are practical and realistic. My rule of thumb is to think about when I want to achieve something and then add at least 50% more time, if not double, because humans are terrible at estimating how long things will take. Plus you can guarantee that things you haven’t anticipated will crop up along the way.

Giving yourself more time makes it more likely that you will achieve your objective because a missed deadline is a great excuse to give up. On the other hand, it feels awesome when you beat the deadline, and you don’t need to tell anyone it’s because you gave yourself more time than you actually needed. That’s our secret.

It’s also a good idea to talk through these steps with your line manager because they’re likely to have advice or support they can give, and they may be able to line you up for working on new projects or clients if they know you’re specifically interested in that. Opportunities that might otherwise float past and be offered to someone else.

It is worth trying to build these personal objectives into the objectives you agree with your line manager as well during the performance review process. They may not completely align, and your long term career ambition objectives may have a broader scope than the ones you set with your line manager during your annual review process, but it’s good to make sure they’re not contradictory and that the objectives you are working on with your line manager will be helping you get to where you want to go.

And that brings me onto my next microtip.

4. Carry out your plan

Yes, once you’ve made your plan, you actually need to carry it out for it to work. Sorry.

But this is where I can introduce another secret weapon. For most people, objectives are something their line manager asks about at their annual review, and if they’re super prepared, they have read what they agreed last year. That’s it. Some of them may have been achieved, but almost by some happy accident rather than by design.

But that’s not how you are going to approach your objectives. You are going to make them a living part of your work. Again, this doesn’t need to add to your workload. I know how busy most medical writers are and I don’t want to add to that with unrealistic expectations, but there are some really simple things you can do to make your objectives work for you.

Every time you start a new project, think about how it could help you achieve your objectives. What new experience will it give you? How will it help you develop towards what you are aiming for in the long term? How can you suck this opportunity dry?

And then at regular intervals, maybe monthly plus at the end of big projects, take stock. Look back at your objectives and see how you are tracking in reality. Are you ticking things off? Are you going in the wrong direction? Do you need more support? Are you actually interested in a slightly different angle and need to tweak your plans?

It’s also a really good idea to listen out for opportunities that could help with your objectives at resourcing meetings or brainstorms.

I love a brainstorm, especially when it includes people who don’t normally work together. They are such great opportunities to be exposed to new ideas and new people. Plus, there’s something really special about being involved in something from the moment the idea was hatched.

You can use these opportunities to slot specific actions into your plan to tick things off and make proactive progress.

But remember, it’s always OK to change your plan when you need to. Maybe that’s because you want to shift what you are aiming for. You’re aware of something new that sounds actually better suited to you than what you were originally aiming for. Fair enough.

But also, maybe that’s because your career isn’t actually your priority right now. This is something that I don’t think gets talked about enough. Life can get in the way. I mean, global pandemic, anyone? I had to massively adjust my career plans during the pandemic due to a lack of childcare during lockdown, and other personal or family things can also have a huge impact.

When things like this happen, just getting your job done, keeping things ticking over, is a legitimate position and nothing to be ashamed of. It’s a good idea to talk about this with your line manager so that your objectives and expectations take it into account. And I know this might seem like a daunting conversation to have, but acknowledging a shift in your focus proactively shows you are taking your career seriously and will generally help things turn out better than desperately trying to keep progressing amid really challenging circumstances.

Taking care of yourself is much better for you, your job and the company that you’re working for, than burning out and having to take time off for stress.

Remember, you are in control of your career. Don’t let it control you.

Download the PDF summary

Working as a medical writer can be a pretty full on experience, but if you follow these microtips and:

  1. Get to grips with your job description to understand your current position and where there might be gaps you need to fill
  2. Talk to people in different roles and at different companies to understand the full spectrum of possibilities available to you
  3. Make a plan to take you from where you are now to where you want to go
  4. And actually carry out that plan, tweaking it as necessary

…then you will have an intentional and fulfilling career that suits you, your life, your skills and experience, and your working preferences.

I really hope you found this video helpful, and please do press the like button if you have.

You can also download a PDF summary of all the microtips from the link in the description below to help you every step of the way.

And do leave a comment below if you have any questions or if you want to suggest a topic for a future video. I’d love to hear from you.

‘This content was originally posted on the MedComms Mentor blog and is reproduced here with permission from the MedComms Mentor’

Download a PDF summary of all the Microtips to help you take control of your own MedComms career.