A chemist’s journey through academia, government, industry, and into medical writing

You may have been told at some point in your life that if you want to get a steady job in the future you should go into science, because that’s where the money is. With this line of thinking, Kelly Keating, who was just as interested in creative writing as she was science and math, opted for the “sure thing” in college and chose to major in chemistry.

Kelly Keating, Ph.D., Editor and Medical Writer. Courtesy Photo.

After a B.S., Ph.D., and several jobs that took her through academia, government and industry, she is now an Editor and Medical Writer for the Pharmaceutical Research Institute (PRI), a non-profit organization within the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Albany, NY. Go figure, huh? While you couldn’t call Kelly’s path into medical writing “traditional”, I think all the twists and turns along the way make her story so interesting. And it turns out that it wasn’t a waste to have taken the long windy road to where she has ended up, because along the way she was picking up all kinds of skills, the transferrable kind I wrote about in my last post. Some people know what they want to do from the get-go and go after that. But most of us, I think, navigate and jump around from one thing to another until we figure out what we want. And that’s perfectly okay. So, as I was saying, Kelly’s story just goes to show that there’s no one way to break into a non-traditional science career. In a nutshell, here’s her career path leading up to medical writing:
  • B.S. in chemistry (U.W. Madison, 1983)
  • A few years of basic research
  • Ph.D. in chemistry (U.C. Davis, 1991)
  • Post-doc in NMR spectroscopy
  • One year at small biotech company
  • Visiting Scientist in an NMR group at a national lab
  • NMR spectroscopist and lab manager for a larger pharmaceutical company
Then, when she and her husband moved to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) for his job, she started a freelance medical writing business and taught part-time at a local college. The toughest thing for Kelly initially was having no medical writing experience. It’s one of those Catch-22 things: you can’t get hired if you don’t have experience, but you can’t get experience if you never get a job! By being willing to be flexible, Kelly got the experience she needed by doing some freelance grant and manuscript editing for the science departments at UIUC. When her husband received a great job opportunity in Albany, NY, they moved. Shortly after, she landed her current medical writing job. “And simply by luck the month we moved here the job I have now was advertised,” she said. “I had planned on freelancing until I found a fulltime job, but this opportunity was too good to pass up!” At her current job, her daily tasks include: assisting graduate students with writing review articles and assisting the PRI staff researchers with their manuscript writing and editing. Kelly said the best part of her job is “not being dependent on when an experiment finishes to determine when I leave for the day.” “And, I can work from home on a laptop when we get 12 inches of snow in Albany (a frequent occurrence this past winter).” While she loves her job, she does occasionally miss being able to collect and analyze her own data and discuss it with her colleagues. But she almost gets to live vicariously through the students and colleagues she works for, letting her experience the best of both worlds. “My job here is a wonderful blend of academia and industry,” Kelly said. “I interact with students at the college who are thinking about applied science and medicine, and with my PRI colleagues who are collaborating with multiple partners in academia and industry.” To aspiring medical writers who are still starting off, Kelly recommends taking technical writing courses, or even going through a degree program to “hone your skills and also give you contacts through your program and professors for potential jobs.” “I’d recommend joining one or two professional organizations such as the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA), or the Council of Science Editors or others, and attend their conferences to network as much as you can," Kelly said. Kelly has chatted with other medical writers who suggested that she “start off with a ‘regular’ fulltime job first in writing, establish a network, then freelance later and tap into that network for clients,” which she feels is good advice, even though it’s not the way she did it. It doesn’t hurt to be flexible with the type of job you start off with and to be willing to relocate. But once you go freelance, then obviously you can live anywhere. Also, it’s good to have a back-up plan, a plan B, C, and even D, in case things don’t work out as you originally planned. Although Kelly has a Ph.D. in chemistry, she said it’s not necessary to have a science degree at all to become a medical writer. “Many medical writers were English or journalism majors in college,” she said. “They learn the scientific terminology over time, and of course, trust the author they are working with to get that part of it right.” Another route is to get a Masters in medical writing, which is a more “official” route. So, has it helped to have a Ph.D.? “Overall, yes. Spending the time and effort to get a Ph.D. pays off now in helping me to comprehend a wide variety of pretty technical literature quickly,” Kelly said. “And when I don’t understand something, say, all the medical terminology for example, I’m extremely comfortable with digging into related literature to gain the understanding I need.” Hmmm… transferable skills, need I say it again? Kelly said one of her life mottos is to never regret anything. “It’s a personal waste of time,” she said. “So, although I might do some things differently career-wise if I had the chance to go back, I think science and writing would still have played big parts, so I feel like I’ve been lucky to have had a series of jobs that involved both, and I’ve been lucky to have worked in academia, a government lab, and industry – I don’t feel like I’ve missed anything!”

Author: Christine Herman

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  1. I loved reading this….we all have different backgrounds…and sometimes it takes middle age [like me too] to jump in and do what you have always wanted to do–but now, with science. Thanks for writing!

  2. I am considering whether to accept a medical writer’s position or to go for graduate school of PhD in pharmaceutical science…Although I enjoy the excitement of scientific findings very much, I am not sure if I could go back to medical writing after my graduation. Anyway, thanks for sharing your story!