What’s a scientist like you doing in a place like this?

By (what I assume is) pure coincidence, this blog post marks the fifth anniversary of my career in the medical communications industry. This caused me to reflect how, after spending eight years studying biochemistry at university, I ended up in where I am today.

Several conversations I’ve had with friends, colleagues and prospective employers have started with the question “so, why did you choose a career in medical communications?” Having recently been promoted to Senior Medical Writer, I think I’ve made the right career choice. But friends who have remained in bench science have often wondered how anyone working at the cutting-edge of scientific research, making advances in knowledge to benefit the good of humanity, would want to move to the seamy world of advertising, marketing and public relations? Why waste the skills I spent so long developing?

When I first moved to work in Surrey and London, after 27 years of living and studying in a triangle of Nuneaton (my hometown), Birmingham and Coventry, I found that many of my ‘Midlands’ traits were accentuated (my accent probably the most noticeable). In much the same way, working closely with creatives and account handlers, I find myself relying as much on my scientific skills as I ever did in the laboratory. OK, so I’ve never nipped off to a teleconference room to make a buffer solution, set up a rack of eppendorf tubes on my desk, or nagged an account director about how to use the ultracentrifuge, but there are transferrable skills I keep coming back to.

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By training, scientists tend to be a cynical and critical bunch who are also observant, with an eye for detail and an urge to constantly refine and improve their work. For example, when telling my PhD supervisor about a new experiment I was planning she would always ask, “So what? What does it add to your research and to wider knowledge?” Early drafts of reports and presentations came back with more red pen than printer ink. While my primary responsibilities now include acting as scientific advisor, and writing scientific materials, I am also asked to review work from other team members. Scientific knowledge and fact-checking is complemented by analytical and critical skills to help ensure that each deliverable is content-rich and scientifically credible, as well as engaging and accessible. These properties have to go together to avoid work being dull and uninspiring, or ephemeral and meaningless.

This brings me to an example of a time when things went a bit wrong. Recently a designer I know had the following as his Facebook status:

“Sorry to tell you, your logo is not scientifically correct and is utter nonsense.” I’m sorry, let me get my biology degree so I can sit on the same pedestal with a stick up my arse like you.

Reading that made me quite angry – not only because one of my ex-colleagues was making derogatory comments about my discipline, but also because a piece of work with a scientific element had got through to the client without checking.

While I don’t know the full story behind his post, it illustrates how creative and analytical minds need to come together in this industry to avoid a bad outcome. And we all know how a great client relationship can be spoilt by just one blemished deliverable.

As an ex-scientist, I find it inspiring to work with creative teams. If I had remained in bench science I would never have had this opportunity, and in a way this satisfies my early ambitions to work in the pharmaceutical industry. I just didn’t think it would be in this way.

So to answer the question posed by so many: I chose a career in medical communications, not because I wanted to leave science behind, but because it’s a different way of staying close to the science I enjoy. I may not be developing the next life-saving drug, but I am helping to communicate about the ones available now and in the future. And that’s what I’m going to keep doing in a place like this.

David Jenkins, Senior Medical Writer

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