I would say that, by comparison with most medical writers I know, I took the long way round into medical communications. By comparison with other freelance medical writers I am unusual (although by no means unique) in that I went freelance before I became a medical writer.
After graduating, rather than go on to a PhD, I went to work in the pharmaceutical industry as a process development chemist – taking on likely candidates from the initial safety and efficacy screens and finding and optimising work-arounds to the laboratory synthetic route to make it suitable for full-scale manufacturing. Having gone on to do similar jobs with Tate & Lyle and then Zeneca Agrochemicals, I came to the realisation that I couldn’t progress my career in the lab without a PhD (which I still didn’t want to do), so I started to look around for a new career.
At about the same time, PJB Publications (whose business was later incorporated into Informa) was looking for an editor for a new competitor intelligence product (AGROProjects) for the agrochemicals industry. It seemed the perfect answer: I’d discovered an aptitude for and enjoyment of writing during my lab career and here was a job that would allow me to develop those skills without completely losing touch with my R&D roots. And I had the challenge and the fun of developing it pretty much from scratch, including making market research visits, working with the design team to come up with a ‘look’ for the product, working with the marketers to develop promotional materials, developing budgets and sales targets and, of course, gathering and validating the content. This was all experience that would prove useful later.
After 4–5 years of growing the AGROProjects portfolio of products I was offered the opportunity to take over the management of the editorial team for the business reports division of PJB. These provided insight into new products and technologies, changes in the regulatory and business environment and company profiles for the pharmaceuticals, medical devices and animal health sectors as well as agrochemicals. (I still find this ‘big picture’ stuff really interesting – and Twitter makes it really easy to stay in touch. I’d definitely encourage other medical writers to take an interest too.) The job came with opportunities to mentor new in-house writers and editors, to provide input into the content of the reports and to commission freelance writers.
At the end of 2002, a reorganisation of the business reports division eliminated the need for an editorial team. My job was made redundant and I took the decision to strike out on my own. I had work right from the start – primarily editing and proofreading – thanks to the contacts that I’d made whilst Editorial Manager and through former colleagues from PJB who’d moved on to other organisations. Initially though, I couldn’t get work from med comms agencies – they only wanted to use people with agency experience.
I signed with some of the primarily London-based recruitment agencies that handle freelance and interim contracts, and that led to some very interesting work outside of my usual area of expertise. Then in mid-2004 I had a call from a recruiter who was looking for a freelance editor who could also work in-house for a med comms agency not far from where we lived in Berkshire. I got the job, and MedSense is still a client now – although since our move to Kent I no longer go and work in-house, and I do as much writing as I do editing these days. Over time, working with MedSense allowed me to build up some real experience of agency life beyond writing and editing – liaising with clients and KOLs, helping to run advisory boards, preparing materials for conferences and symposia, working up designs with the studio and preparing and pitches.
Not long after I started at MedSense I got a call from an ex-PJB colleague who was working with Medical Action Communications (now Innovex) – again they wanted a freelance editor who could work in-house when they needed extra help. I’ve estimated that in the first year that I worked with them I edited and referenced around 1000 Powerpoint slides!
In 2006, my husband took up his dream job in Kent. As a freelancer, I was able to take that pretty much in my stride. Being primarily home-based it was no struggle to combine working and managing childcare in the initial months while he was away in Kent during the week, and then just move my office and client list once we had found a new home and schools for our children. Since we’ve been in Kent I’ve continued to alternate between short-term and long-term contracts (primarily with med comms agencies) and purely freelance work.
Finally being able to say that I had some agency experience really opened up doors into other agencies, and I’ve gradually been able to add to my client list. Once or twice I’ve become aware that my (twice made) decision not to do a PhD has meant that I’ve been passed over for a job, but overall it doesn’t seem to be an issue. (Although I can point to 7 years in commercial R&D and a couple of peer-reviewed papers to strengthen my credentials as a scientist. )
In terms of sourcing new work, recruiters are still an important source of introductions for me, but just as important are my EMWA listing (http://www.emwa.org/Freelancer-listing.html), my listing on the MedComms Networking site (http://www.medcommsnetworking.co.uk/independents.html), LinkedIn (http://uk.linkedin.com/in/jytricker) and my own website (www.freelancemedicalwriting.co.uk). Just occasionally I think about a permanent position, but not usually too hard and not usually for too long. Freelancing has its downsides of course, but overall I relish the variety of work it brings me and the opportunities to ring the changes in how and where I work.
To find out more about me and my medical writing work, please visit www.freelancemedicalwriting.co.uk .