PhD To A Career In Medical Communications

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Why are PhD graduates in demand to take up jobs in the specialist field of medical communications? How do you take the first step onto the ladder to build a successful career in the sector? Read on to find out more about this career option and to gain insights from the medical communications consultancy Oxford PharmaGenesis™ Ltd, one of many organisations which value the skills that PhD graduates bring to their business.

What is medical communications?

Medical communications agencies provide strategic consultancy services to help pharmaceutical companies educate physicians, patients and other stakeholders about new therapies and the conditions they treat. These communications activities are not confined to writing manuscript after manuscript, but instead use a variety of media to target a diverse range of audiences:

-    journal papers, conference presentations, product monographs and meeting planning are all directed at healthcare professionals

-    many publications are aimed at pharmaceutical company staff (e.g. training materials, publication strategy advice and information resources)

-    policy makers are an increasingly important audience, with value demonstration and health economics submissions playing a key role in patient access to medications.

Kim Allcott joined Oxford PharmaGenesis™ in 2011 as a trainee medical writer following completion of her PhD in cancer sciences and immunology from the University of Birmingham, and here she shares information about roles available in the field of medical communications: “While there is a wide range of roles within agencies, from account directors to team leaders, most PhD graduates will enter the industry as trainee writers or editors. At first, much of a trainee’s time is spent developing technical skills and learning about new therapy areas, but writers will soon become involved with building client relationships and developing publication strategies, and editors will take on additional skills, such as coordination of print and digital media production.”

What are the competencies employers are looking for?

To transition from your PhD research to a first role in science communication you will typically need to demonstrate the ability to perform at a high level in skill areas such as:

-    clear and accurate written and verbal communication

-    project management and organisation skills

-    subject expertise and ability to write evidence-based content

-    ability to work in teams.

During your PhD you will have developed many of these competencies, and in your CV and at interview you will need to evidence and articulate your relevant strengths and expertise to employers.

Medical communications agencies often seek to recruit employees qualified to doctoral level as these candidates have typically developed valuable transferable skills. Oxford PhamaGenesis™ highlighted the following:

Research expertise – new employees are often required to work across several therapy areas, commonly in fields unrelated to their research background. The techniques developed through carrying out a research project and writing a thesis enable candidates to pick up new and complex concepts quickly.

Communication experience – PhD students have opportunities to present their research at conferences, in seminars and through written publications, all of which improve their ability to convey scientific information to a variety of audiences.

Understanding the publication process – publishing a paper can pose many challenges. Choosing the most appropriate target journal, understanding the type of content that will be of interest and learning how to respond to reviewers’ comments are all skills that can be developed during a PhD.

Time management – balancing research with other commitments, such as teaching, writing and education, can be challenging. Successful PhD graduates often have excellent project management skills and strong organisational skills, both of which are vital when juggling several projects and deadlines. 

What steps can you take to get ahead in the medical communications job market?

Plan ahead – whilst you are doing your PhD, if you are seriously considering medical communications as an option, then take every opportunity to develop relevant skills by speaking at conferences, getting published and finding opportunities to communicate your research to non-specialist audiences.

Gain experience or get a mentor in the sector – this will help you to find out whether you are suited to a job in medical communications and will also provide you with first-hand knowledge of the sector.

Find an organisation aligned to your values and motivations – employers will want to see that you have done your homework and that you are motivated to work for their organisation.

Let’s end with some further tips and advice from Kim at Oxford PharmaGenesis™:

-    Get published! It may seem difficult, especially if your research is not as successful as you might hope, but there are plenty of other opportunities out there, such as writing for scientific magazines and websites. You could even start a blog.

-    Make the most of any training courses offered by your university. Many institutions provide writing courses to help with producing a thesis, or communications courses to aid effective presentations at conferences.

-    Hone your project management skills. Planning and executing your research will begin to develop these skills, but getting involved in different types of projects, such as organising a conference or running undergraduate projects.

-    Remember to tailor your CV for the role. Medical communications companies are not interested in an exhaustive list of laboratory techniques that you’re now skilled in.

Look out for future articles which outline job roles and sectors which make good use of a researchers skilled ability to write, communicate and present to their audience.

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