Do Science Writers Need an MD or PhD?

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If you’re building a career as a freelance writer specializing in one or more of the life sciences, you may come across opportunities that look perfect for you. And then you scroll down to see they require a PhD or some other advanced degree. Do you need one to be a science writer or medical device copywriter?

If you work in the pharmaceutical, biopharmaceutical, or medical device industry, you may need to hire a content writer to develop your blog articles, white papers, case studies, and other content. Or you may need a sharp copywriter to develop messaging, website copy, or collateral.

Should you look for a science writer with an MD or PhD after their name? Or is on-the-ground experience enough?

To give a really annoying answer, it depends.

In many cases, you don’t need an advanced science or medical degree for life sciences and pharma copywriting. But—there’s always a but!—for many types of medical writing, it’s incredibly useful. Sometimes, it’s a necessity.

Before I go on, a point of clarification. This article relates to marketing content for life sciences and healthcare companies, which ranges from hospitals and health systems to contract research organizations (CROs), medical device manufacturers, digital health developers, clinical technology companies, and more.

Some of this work falls under the scope of what’s called “medical writing.” However, medical writers also create content that must follow strict ethical, regulatory, and publication guidelines. American Medical Writers Association has a good primer on medical writing. There’s some overlap, but I view them as different disciplines.

Okay. Now. Let’s continue…  

When is an MD or PhD necessary?

You need an MD, PhD, PharmD, or similar when you’re applying for a medical writer or science writer job that requires it. You may be able to bypass this requirement if you have extensive experience that’s relevant to the position.

For staff positions or freelance roles that involve preparing regulatory documents, an advanced degree is highly useful, if not essential. According to American Medical Writers Association’s 2019 survey, about 78% of medical writers have a master’s degree or higher. A little less than half (46%) have a PhD or other advanced degree. The remaining do well because of their extensive experience.

Do you really need an advanced degree in the life sciences to be a science writer or scientific content creator? It’s a multi-layered question. Let’s break it down further:

An advanced degree is necessary to be a reviewer or author of scientific manuscripts

I’ve met medical writers who help prepare manuscripts and regulatory documents who learned on the job. So it’s not impossible. But if you pursue that line of medical writing, you’ll be limited in what you can do.

“To sign certain documents as author or reviewer (and definitely as approver) it is required to have an academic degree and/or a long history of experience in the field,” says Claudia Brandt, PhD, medical writer and partner at Heile Töllner Brandt GbR, a medical writing firm based in Hamburg, Germany. “To get an academic degree you have to learn scientific thinking and writing, understand data retrieval and data analysis, and present data in a reasonable way. These skills, in my opinion, are essential to do most parts of medical writing.”

I suspect an individual with a journalism background can learn to retrieve and analyze scientific data, just like a scientist can learn the principles of storytelling. Both come with a learning curve. Would it be worth the journalist’s time to learn those skills? Hard to say. I enjoy writing about the data, the analyses, and the conclusions, but spreadsheets make my head hurt.

It’s not necessary for marketing writing or science journalism

A copywriter who writes primarily promotional materials and brand messaging typically needs a bachelor’s degree and five or more years of relevant experience. If you want to specialize in longer-form content (white papers, research-backed articles, case studies), the knowledge gained from an advanced degree is certainly valuable when you’re covering highly scientific topics. However, experience writing on multiple topics in your chosen field, repeated over several years, may give you an edge over a newly graduated PhD.

An experienced writer may have covered surgical robotics for over a decade and knows the technology backwards and forwards. The science writer with a PhD in genetics may be starting from square one.

It’s necessary to get (some) full-time science writer and medical writer jobs

Many (if not most) medical writer and science writer positions either require or strongly prefer candidates with MDs or doctoral degrees. These companies want to know you know the subject matter. If you’re tasked with preparing regulatory documents or journal articles, they want to know you’ll do it right and very well. When it involves the FDA, mistakes are very expensive.

Requiring an advanced degree also helps companies narrow the talent pool. “Potential clients or hiring managers have hundreds to thousands of applicants,” says Alex Generous PhD, scientific writer at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. “A simple way to narrow down that number is to require a degree. Note that this is just a gating method – it does not guarantee landing a job. In that respect, a Ph.D. is particularly helpful – less than two percent of the working population has a Ph.D., so it is a strong filter.

“Since graduating, I’ve been able to aggressively pursue better positions, without fear of unemployment,” he continues. “I am now a salaried employee with fantastic benefits, somewhere around the 90th percentile for science writer compensation, in what is literally my dream job at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.”

Side note: Alex and I met when we both worked at SCORR Marketing as scientific writers. I remember when he got his dream job. He was a very happy guy. I’m grateful he was there to do things like explain host cell protein bioanalysis in 15 minutes or less.

It’s not (always) necessary if you have (enough) experience

I’ve known since I was a kid that I wanted to write for a living. I’ve written about many things; since around 2014 or 2015, my business has focused on medtech, drug/device development, some healthcare tech, and many of the cool subcategories, like digital health, SaMD, and DTx. The industry is constantly changing and there’s always something new to learn.

The subject matter knowledge I’ve gained lies on top of 23 years as either a freelance or staff writer, plus almost a decade planning and creating marketing content. Glob it all together and you’ve got someone who can bring real value to the marketing department of a life sciences company.

Life sciences writers who have that trifecta—rock-solid writing, deep subject matter expertise, content marketing savvy—will go far. Add in true customer service and professionalism and you’ll be top tier.

An advanced degree enables peer-to-peer conversations with subject matter experts

Over the years I’ve interviewed who knows how many celebrities, executives, patients, physicians, scientists, and other wonderful people. I know how to ask thoughtful questions and listen.

When discussing highly technical or scientific content, however, the writer with an advanced degree has something more: the ability to converse as a peer. “In a recent interview, an SME had found an obscure protein domain that could be used to improve anti-cancer therapy,” Alex says. “I just happened to have worked with that domain previously, and so could ask very in-depth and specific questions about it.

In another interview, I was able to find some of the emotionality of the story, because the investigator had found the protein c-Myc was involved. C-Myc is involved in many cancers, so finding it is a double-edged sword. It is well-established to have a role in oncogenesis, but it decreases the novelty of the scientists’ finding and is known to be ‘undruggable,’ which we were able to discuss at length. I can see some of these issues or angles because of my experience as a scientist.”

You’ve got to have strong knowledge in the field to do well. There are too many nuances that, if you get them wrong, reflect your inexperience like a strobe light. Writers interested in pursuing one or more of the life sciences should have experience in the field. If you don’t, study it.

Don’t Let Lack of an Advanced Degree Stand in Your Way. But Know You’ll Have Competition from People Who Do.

With so many different types of writing available, and with so many niches within life sciences, if you want to write about it, go for it. Figure out what you can do and give it your all.

If you’re hiring a freelance or full-time scientific writer, know that an MD or PhD isn’t always necessary. There’s a big difference between contributing to a scientific journal and writing a piece of marketing content.

In many cases, a writer with several years of on-the-ground experience will be able to deliver the high-quality content you need. On the other hand, if you need someone with deep expertise in an obscure protein domain, or you need someone who can help prepare your manuscripts and investigator brochures, bring in a writer with credentials.

Looking for a partner who can hit the ground running? Let’s talk.

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