My Fellowship in Medical Writing: What I Learned

By Katelyn Rivas

Last year I had the pleasure of participating in the Synterex Regulatory Writing and Medical Communications Fellowship. I worked with and learned from Synterex staff members across all areas of the business, including medical writing, project management, quality control (QC), publishing, and business operations. Now that I have completed my fellowship and joined the Synterex team as a full-time medical writer, I thought I would reflect on what I learned and my advice for anyone considering a career in medical writing.

Top 5 Things I Learned During My Fellowship

1. Every medical writer has a unique educational background.

I entered the medical writing field with the naïve assumption that most people in the industry have a clinical background. I worried that I might struggle with parts of the job, since my previous role as a graduate research assistant in a microbiology lab did not involve clinical work.

Little did I know that not only do you not need to have clinical experience to work as a medical writer—you don’t need to have a science background at all. Synterex team members come from an impressive variety of backgrounds including (but not limited to!) veterinary medicine, pharmacy, basic science research, law, English, and history. The transferable skills you gain from your experiences—time management, organization, written and oral communication, teamwork, analytical skills, and problem solving—are more important than your specific educational background. If you have these skills and an interest in medicine, you can become a great medical writer!

2. Medical writing is a true team effort.

One of my biggest questions when I started the fellowship pertained to how the process of writing a document works. Would I be preparing the whole document myself? Would multiple people be working simultaneously on different sections of the document?

I quickly learned that it takes a village to complete a regulatory writing project. You need medical writers to do the writing, regulatory experts to advise on strategy, QC reviewers to ensure the quality and consistency of the document, publishers to do the formatting, project managers to keep things running smoothly, and IT experts to solve the technical issues that inevitably arise. A medical writing team is a well-oiled machine. Everyone applies their unique skill sets to produce quality products in record time.

3. Medical writers do more than just write.

Medical writers don’t spend the entire day writing. I found myself spending a significant amount of time discussing data with clients, following up on discussion points with subject matter experts, and tracking down necessary source documents. Medical writing is as much about project management as it is about writing.

4. I didn’t know as much about Microsoft Word as I thought I did.

If you’re like me, you’ve included “Microsoft Word” as one of your special skills on your resume. As someone who spent most of my working life in academia, I thought I knew my way around a Word document.

As it turns out, all I really knew how to do was type, change the font/spacing, and use Track Changes. I had virtually no knowledge of things like styles, field codes, or macros—not to mention the myriad tricks and shortcuts you can use to make writing and formatting a Word document easier. During my fellowship, I found my Word knowledge expanding rapidly while troubleshooting issues I never knew existed.

5. QC is more than just proofreading.

QC is one of the areas of medical writing I knew the least about when I started my fellowship. I thought that QC was synonymous with proofreading, i.e., reviewing documents for things like typos and grammatical mistakes. But that’s just one aspect of what a QC reviewer does.

Synterex QC reviewers use QC checklists, which contain dozens of items that need to be checked for each document. They make sure information is presented consistently throughout the document, check all the text and data against the source materials for accuracy, and ensure that the document adheres to the appropriate style guide. I now have an even greater respect for QC reviewers and their amazing attention to detail.

Top 5 Pieces of Advice for Aspiring Medical Writers

1. Join the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA).

Joining AMWA is a great way to meet other medical writers and learn about the medical writing industry. You can join a local chapter to network with medical writers in your area. AMWA offers numerous online learning activities, educational webinars, and career resources for both aspiring and seasoned medical writers. The European Medical Writers Association also has great resources for those living outside of the US.

2. Connect with medical writers on LinkedIn.

Reaching out to medical writers on LinkedIn is one of the best ways to learn about the industry and find out if it’s a good fit for you. Almost every medical writer I connected with on LinkedIn was happy to schedule an informational interview with me and answer my questions about their jobs. While medical writing career guides are helpful, nothing beats hearing someone’s personal perspective on why they love what they do.

3. Take a science writing course.

Many aspects of medical writing can be learned on the job, but a science writing course is a great way to get ahead. Inexpensive or even free science writing courses are available from various sources. Use them to brush up on grammar and familiarize yourself with the principles of effective science communication. I found some particularly useful courses on Coursera.

4. Practice writing for different audiences.

Medical writers prepare documents for a variety of audiences: regulatory agencies, clinicians, scientists, and general audiences. Tailoring your writing to your intended audience is no easy feat, especially when you need to summarize complex medical information for a lay audience.

Before starting my fellowship, I would write summaries of scientific articles and send them to my non-scientist friends and family to get their feedback. This kind of exercise is a great way to develop your science communication skills. You can also use these writing samples to build a medical writing portfolio to share with hiring managers when you’re applying for jobs.

5. Learn to use reference management software.

Reference management software is used to easily insert reference citations and build a bibliography in a document. These are incredibly useful tools, but not all medical writers know how to use them. For that reason, familiarizing yourself with reference management software, particularly EndNote, is a great way to get ahead.

All in all, transitioning to a medical writing career was the best decision I could have made, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who loves science and writing.

To learn more about Synterex medical writing fellowships, see Fellowships and Internships.