E014 Vicky Sherwood on Leaving a Tenure Track: How To Start as a Freelancing Medical Writing PhD?
August 9th 2020
Dr Vicky Sherwood has a very unique personal story as she decided to leave academia as an established Principal Investigator. She holds a PhD in Biosciences from the University of Nottingham, UK. During her studies, she worked on understanding the interplay between DNA tumour viruses and the host’s innate immune response. She then went on to do a couple of Postdoc projects, including one at Lund University in Sweden.
During this time, she developed an interest in understanding the molecular basis for the development of metastatic skin tumours. This interest led her to start her research lab in 2011 in the UK, where she ended up as a Principle investigator at the University of Dundee. Her research group worked on the development of novel treatments for the deadliest forms of skin cancer.
Despite her academic career track, Vicky had always harboured an interest in taking the plunge to experience life beyond academia and discover what else was out there. In 2017 she went for it and made a career transition into the medical communications field. Here, she works on developing a variety of promotional and non-promotional materials for the cancer immunotherapy market. Her experience from this transition has sparked a personal interest in career opportunities for STEM researchers.
Since January 2018, Vicky has published her blog (www.biomedbadass.com), revealing insights into the career transitions from research scientist to industry professional. The blog aims to help researchers answer some of the challenging questions they face when considering an industry career. Questions such as; “What skills do I have that are useful in the industry?”, “How does the work culture differ compared to academia?”, “Will I enjoy working in a company compared to academia?” and “What kind of opportunities are available to me?” to name a few.
In this endeavour, she hopes this resource can provide much-needed support for career planning by STEM researchers. In this webinar, Vicky shared her impressions from leaving academia as a PI, her first steps in the field of Medical Communications, and talked about plans for her blog. She also gave us a lot of general career advice for easy career researchers.
Vicky’s LinkedIn profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/vickysherwood/
Please contact Vicky if you need some advice concerning (1) Working in Medical Communications and (2) General career advice for researchers working in STEM who are looking for options outside academia.
The episode was recorded on 9th August 2020. This material represents the speaker’s personal views and not the opinions of their employer(s).
Natalia 00:10 Hello, everyone. Welcome to the weekly Sunday webinar by welcome solutions. Today, we have a very special guest, Dr. Vicky Sherwood. She holds a PhD in biosciences from the University of Nottingham. After her PhD, she went to do a few postdocs. She started her research lab in 2011 in the UK. She ended up as a principal investigator at the University of Dundee and researched the molecular basis for the development of metastatic skin tumors. That’s quite amazing because that means if you go to this holy grail that we always hope for when we are in academics, but she left her van on her wheel.
Despite her academic success, in 2017, she stepped out of academia. And she made the transition into the medical communications field. Her experience from the transition sparked a personal interest in career opportunities for STEM PhDs researchers. Now, she leads her own blog, Biomed badass, which I can recommend. I’ve seen a few posts of very good quality there. If you’re in biomedical sciences, look it up. You can see how hard it is to be getting wet without moving out. We’ll be using the towel a lot today. I will give the floor to Vicky. And thank you so much for accepting the invitation. Please tell us a little bit about your personal story and up to this point.
Vicky 02:07 Thank you Natalia for inviting me. It’s fantastic to be here. I love the whole welcome solutions thing that you’re doing. I think it’s brilliant. I did my undergrad many years ago. It was in biology and biochemistry. I went out into the industry and got a job at a medical devices company. I spent one year there. We were working on inhalers for a variety of different drugs. We had GSK as one of our biggest clients because they made some salbutamol for asthma. We’re also working on something innovative, which was an inhaled form of insulin.
I think Pfizer was the client at the time. And they got FDA approval for this new inhaled insulin, which they released onto the market. And the company I was working for was making the device. It’s subsequently been withdrawn because it had contraindications for lung disease. But at the time, it was quite exciting to develop this new device. And that’s the work we were doing. And I observed that most of the managers who were leading the science teams on this project, and all the projects across the company, had PhDs or at least had postgraduate education.
I thought if I’m going to climb up in this company as a scientist, I have to go back to university and get a postgraduate education. That’s exactly what I did. I went to Nottingham and as you said, I graduated in 2006, with a PhD in virology, I was looking at DNA tumor viruses. And I’d worked hard like most PhD students do, trying to get everything to work. It wasn’t the perfect PhD by any stretch. But I enjoyed it. I enjoyed working through it. I enjoyed a kind of being my own boss and working through projects and managing the project. But I wasn’t very strategic. And I didn’t think about my career. I made that mistake that a lot of people make. I thought I’ll sort it all out at the end when I write my thesis and everything will be fine. And of course, in the end, I had to just get something so I kind of went down the default route.
I took a postdoc because they’re just easier to get. And you know, you have a network in academia with new people. I went off and I got a postdoc at the University of Bath in the UK and I loved it. I enjoyed my time there. I always entered into academia doing my PhD and thinking that I would eventually return to the industry. That was the reason I went in the first place. But during this time in Bath, I got so engrossed in the research. I was working on a new RAS effector molecule and hyperactive RAS that causes tumor development. It was really exciting trying to understand what this molecule does.
We discovered loads of new things. I got completely enthralled by it. And that whole concept of thinking about going back to the industry, at this time completely disappeared from me. And I thought I’m gonna keep doing work. I love oncology. I love cancer research. I took a second postdoc. I decided to go abroad and see what life was like outside the UK, which is one of the best things I’ve ever done. If you want to learn about your own country, go and live abroad because it gives you a completely different perspective. That is one good thing about academia. You can easily go abroad if you find the right postdoc for you. If you’re thinking about doing a postdoc, I could strongly recommend it. Abroad is fantastic to immerse yourself in a different culture.
At that time, I was working on melanoma. I was working on aggressive metastatic skin tumors. I started to develop a niche in that area. I returned in 2011 to start my group in the UK. I worked on that until 2017 which is when I decided to move into the industry, but I’ll get onto that in a minute. It was a very exciting time coming back to the UK and starting my own group. It was right on the back of the financial downturn in 2008. Academia was in the UK, at least trying to find its feet again. We bailed out the banks. We paid huge money as a taxpayer. And things needed to be cut. And money into the universities was one of those things, and the universities had to work out a new financial model.
The main model that they use, at least in the UK, was to increase the tuition fee and face their finances, mainly on undergraduate tuition. And up until this day, that’s still the case. There was a lot of debate at the time, about whether that was the right thing to do or not. But we lost most of the centralized funding. What this meant was a lot of research then was completely dependent upon external funding money and you had to apply for this money. A lot of people, therefore, are employed on soft money. Soft money means money that you have to keep getting in from the government or from charities, or whoever the funding bodies are. It was tough.
As a new lecturer at the time, I had to deal with learning how to teach writing that I needed to do because it was a teaching post. I took the first one when I first came back. Plus, I had to get the money in developing the group, developing the niche, and getting out during talks. It was a real hustle. That’s a step from postdoc to PI. It’s quite a big one. I would say the academic system doesn’t prepare you very well for it. You can learn from your mentor. But when you’re doing it yourself. It’s quite a shock. I remember when I was doing a postdoc in Bath, one of my co-supervisors at the time said, Oh, this postdoc will be the best academic days of your life, you know, enjoy your postdoc before you become a PI. And I remember thinking, why is he saying that, he’s pI, and he gets all these fabulous projects to run.
And he’s the one that’s living the dream, in my opinion. But I realized what he meant when I was starting my lab. It was tough. I will say it’s tough. But at the same moment, it was great fun because I got to answer the questions that I was most interested in. And that was fantastic. That’s the part of the job I really enjoyed. However, it came with the fact that I had to write grants continuously and I was never on the lab bench. That was quite a shift for me. I think it might have been seemed quite naive to me at the time that I hadn’t considered this because my PIs and my supervisors were never at the lab bench either when I was in academia.
It came as quite a shock to me even though I should have known that. I was just starting to think if it’s the fit for the rest of my life. How am I going to be writing grants forever? Yes, I probably am. Is this what I want? And that niggling feeling was still there. It was still something I was interested in. It never actually went away. And it started to resurface probably about three years before I decided to take the plunge and leave. I started thinking well, there is more out there. You can be a scientist out in the industry, where you don’t have to worry about the money quite so much. That’s kind of taken care of.
I started to explore this more slowly at first because my research was going on and my group was growing. I was kind of enjoying what I was doing. I didn’t take it seriously. I just started to think about what else is out there and slowly started to build a network of industry contacts, again, because, before that point, I’d say nearly 100% of my network was academic-based. I didn’t have contacts outside of academia. I started to introduce a few contacts, ask questions and did a little bit of intimate informational interviewing. Because the other thing I didn’t know was the extent and scope of jobs out there. My research was very focused on therapeutics.
We were looking at novel therapeutics for metastatic skin cancers. I had a natural interest in the pharmaceutical industry but I didn’t know fully the broad spectrum of jobs that were out there within that industry, other than r&d. I started to explore that in a little bit more detail over those three years. And eventually, I found a few things that I thought would be of interest to me. I decided to leave. I decided not to do r&d because I was worried about going into the industry and not being able to answer my questions, which is what I’ve been doing as a Pi.
I felt that I would find that transition very difficult because I would be trying to do things that were for the products that were being produced by the company. I decided not to go down the r&d route. That left a big hole that what else could I do. But in this discovery process, in this research process, I realized that there are an awful lot of jobs in the whole development pipeline of a drug that is not based on research and discovery. That’s only the beginning of the pipeline.
The whole development part of the drug involves taking it, manufacturing it, getting it through regulation, getting it marketed, getting the messages out there in the correct way, the communications, and eventually going on and selling the drug in different markets throughout the world. There’s a huge broad spectrum of expertise that isn’t necessarily based on research alone at the beginning of the development of the process. I was trying to explore what are the things I could do and what I enjoy doing.
This also involves a little bit of introspective work. I had to ask myself, what aspects of being an academic did I enjoy. I loved managing the lab group and working with other scientists and collaborating and seeing junior scientists come through and training and mentoring them. I loved that. I enjoyed it even though I said, the grant writing was hard. I actually enjoyed writing. I enjoyed telling people about our results, writing up the papers, going to conferences, and presenting. These were the things I enjoyed. The communications and the management, and the interaction with other scientists were the things that I was looking for work that would fulfill those personal things I enjoyed.
And I just thought medical communications is the perfect fit because I get to look at the communications that are going out in the development, the drug process. I can work in teams and eventually become a leader in some of those teams. I can use the management skills that I’ve learned in academia. It just seemed to me like a logical process. It took me a long time to come to that conclusion, and decide what I wanted to do. But once I did, then I was able to go forward and find people in that industry and start to network. That’s really how I made the transition. I spoke to people in the medical communications industry, in different companies, or at different levels with different experiences and saw what they enjoyed.
I narrowed it down to a few companies that I was particularly interested in through doing this research and talking to people. I think I had five on my list at the end. I applied to four of them. One of them only took people in twice a year. They only had two intakes of people in their company to do medical writing as a profession. The other three invited me for a fantastic interview. I had the interviews consecutively a few weeks apart from each other and I was very fortunate enough to get offered the job to all three. It was a fantastic moment because I was able to choose which company to go for.
It also gave me a little bit of negotiating power in the starting salary. It was a long process. I wouldn’t say it was easy. But I have made the transition. I haven’t looked back. I wouldn’t say I don’t miss my research. I do and I still have questions that remain unanswered that I left in academia. I would still love to know the answers to those questions. And I still search the literature to see if any of the people that were working in my field, or my colleagues are working on similar questions. It was the right step for me at the time. I haven’t looked back and I enjoyed the work. I enjoyed the impact it has.
But it wasn’t I’m making it sound like a fairly simple transition. I had a lot of personal gremlins to overcome during the transition process. I worried about disappointing people, and insecurities that I had around me, and was I too qualified? Was I too old? You know, I was a PI. I had been in academia for 16 years. Would anybody want my skills? You know, these were all things that I fought with. I hear other people talk about them as well. I think if I overcame them, you can too. That’s kind of my transition story. I’m happy to talk more about medical writing, Natalia.
Natalia 16:24 That’s a great story. I have one comment for people watching this webinar right now. You can ask your questions in the chat at any moment. And we will be taking the questions and answering them as soon as they come up. Please don’t hesitate to ask anything. From my side, I can say that referring to what you said about your networking skills and networking habits, I can endorse that. I think you’re great at networking. I can learn a lot from you in that department.
My first question for you would be very practical. I always wonder about this. How does leaving academia as a PI look in practice? Because it’s not like a corporate manager. If you are a corporate manager, you can say, sorry, guys, I’m quitting in three months, and then you have to find a replacement. But if you’re PI, I guess it’s such a specialist position that only a few people in the world can take over you. What do you do then if you take that decision?
Vicky 17:48 I reiterate that it was a really hard decision. And the hardest part was having to tell my research group that I was going. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that they were upset. They were definitely, but I promised them that I would fix it. I would find them, other people, to work with and finish their projects off. We had funding that needed to run through its course. I handed over the funding to other PI in the department, who then took on these projects, or tailored the projects a little bit more to what their labs were doing. On a practical level, it wasn’t easy.
And it was emotionally tough for myself and the group. But we all got through it. I had a PhD student at the time who was writing up. And I made sure that his thesis was all okay. I started the job and I still worked with him and helped him. I read through his thesis remotely from the university and helped him prepare for the Viva. By that time, the other PhD students who were coming up in two or three years had more time to prepare with their new PI. They didn’t need me as much. But from a practical point of view, the PhD student who was just about to finish did need my support. Whilst I went off into my new job, I made sure that he was okay. And he passed with minimum corrections. He did well, even though I left right at the end.
I hope, one day, they do forgive me for doing that. But it was the right thing for me at the time and I think they understood that. I mean, it was tough when I first said it came as a shock to a lot of people and my colleagues as well as people in the field, the wider field that I was working in. I had to go back and tell people and my old supervisors. But I was leaving as well. People were very disappointed. I must have had the same conversation over and over again. You know, do you want to take some time and think again and reconsider? It was hard. And a lot of times I was thinking, am I doing the right thing? Why am I doing this? But realistically, I think I should have thought a lot earlier in my career about what I wanted to do. I think I made that mistake as a PhD student of just ending up doing postdocs and just going along the career track that was in front of me instead of analyzing and thinking.
I was listening to people and thinking, okay, they’re saying, I should do this, I should apply for this, and I should apply to this fund. I did those things and it worked out for me, which was fantastic. I wouldn’t regret it for a minute. But realistically, I should have been a lot more systematic and thought about my career. I didn’t systematically plan my career until I started to think about this transition. That’s kind of where my blog comes in. I try to talk on my blog about how to ask these questions and think about what it is you want to do next from an early stage, not right at the end of your contract or right to the end of your studentship. I started to think about these things strategically. That’s how it kind of worked on a practical level. It was tough.
Natalia 21:37 I can add something to that. I’m currently working on my second book. It’s more about job markets in general and navigation not only for PhDs but more for educated professionals. I paid a lot of attention in this book to this illusionary success because I have a feeling that many people become victims of their own success. Early on in their career when they are in high school or during undergrad studies, somewhere along the way, some of their talents are being discovered in the school system.
For instance, they are good in the sciences, so they are being sent to all these international competitions. And then they get all this appreciation and rewards. They feel like, this is my way, I’m good at this. They go for it. They’re very early on in one particular direction. Sometimes, it’s sports. There are certain types of talents that the school system is good at picking up. But there are certain other talents that you have to figure out for yourself because no one will tell you at school. If you’re good at investing money, or if you’re good at dancing, or alpinism, no one will tell you at school about those. You have to figure that out for yourself.
Your landscape of potential is very complex and multi-dimensional. It has these global maxima somewhere. But it also has a lot of local maxima. If you land in one of these local maxima and you stay there, then it might take you half of your life or even the whole life to discover that maybe that was not your best talent and maybe you have even more talent somewhere else. But some people discover that really late later down the line. Then it’s a problem. I can definitely see how they are. This is tricky.
Let’s take questions from the audience. Diana is asking, thank you for sharing your journey. What would be a good way to start medical communications? I guess this question assumes that you are advising someone who is not an accomplished researcher but rather more junior. You came from a particular place in academia, but have you developed a feel for the pathways that others have taken?
Vicky 24:20 It’s a great question. I should go into a bit more detail. I came from a particular place. And I got a job based on some of my subject matter expertise. I was working on oncology. At the time, immunotherapies were a hot topic. I wanted to work in companies that were working on communications of immunotherapy. I targeted the companies I was most interested in. And working on some of those blockbuster drugs was a really big pull for me to particular companies that I wanted to target. That was like a natural progression for somebody who doesn’t know yet what kind of medical communications they want to work on.
I should reiterate that medical communications are a huge industry. You can specialize in different areas. You can try different things once you’re in. For example, you can work on the type of communications like scientific publishing, and also how to communicate, and how drugs are working in the clinical trial data that’s coming off to clinicians and other subject matter experts. We call them key opinion leaders. Clinicians are essentially going to try all of these drugs that drug companies are developing. You can work in that area which is like classical medical communications and publications. You can do things like regulatory medical writing, where you would be producing FDA approval documents, where you could be working in medical education, where you’re writing more textbooks, and maybe developing anatomy.
I know somebody who works in anatomy. They write books about how surgeons can learn to do different types of operations. There’s a wide range of medical writing you can do that’s under the term medical communications. The first thing I would do is try and think about which areas you might like to work in, what fits best with the type of writing, and the type of communications you would like to do. And then try and look up some of those companies that are doing those and some of the companies that are doing well and which companies are growing and competing well in the market because they’re going to have the jobs in the future.
I would say that even in the economic downturn that we have, medical communications are still soaring particularly around COVID. I’ve seen loads of jobs around looking for writers who can work on these projects in the pandemic era that we’re in right now. I know the company that I was working for previously in London. They hired 52 people during the lockdown. These are companies that are growing. It has been a growth industry for the last 10 years and it hasn’t taken any downturn. There are jobs and opportunities out there. You do have to look at the companies that are doing well. They’re also stable enough for any kind of economic downturn if there is one because there is huge competition in the companies. Think about aspects of medical writing you’d be interested in, then do some research on the companies you’d like to approach.
I would recommend taking a networking approach as I did. Rather than just finding out my CV, I would try and talk to some people who are working in those companies as writers. And then talk to them about how it is. That’s essential research for you because you get to know what the culture is at the place. And whether you feel it would be a good fit for you that’s important and that helps you narrow down which companies you’re going to apply to. At the same time, it makes you a known quantity and increases your visibility in the workforce. If you’re talking to people, they can pass you on to other people, and then you can talk to them.
Eventually, you may get to talk to a hiring manager or an HR person within that company. At that point, you get a formal introduction. That does help. That’s what helped me eventually. I spoke to the company that hired me in the end. I was speaking to medical writers who worked there or had previously worked there. And eventually, somebody said, why don’t you reach out to the recruiter at the company who does the hiring of people and ask her some questions about the type of thing she’s looking for. I got a formal introduction to her. That was my break because she was expecting my CV to come in. She was looking out for it. She invited me for an interview. That is the best way to make a break into the industry.
Some events can help as well. If you’re in the UK, I would strongly recommend going to one of Peter’s events. He’s somebody in the industry who’s creating careers fairs. If you like medical writing, that allows you to go and hear people from the companies and network and meet people face to face. You’re not just reaching out remotely on LinkedIn that can help. You can ask questions directly. I would strongly recommend looking at that. He also runs a website. That gives a lot of resources on how to break into the field and the companies that are hiring and he’s running some events remotely at the minute, online because there haven’t been meetings going ahead. You should check him out if you’re UK-based.
Otherwise, I don’t know, there must be similar things in the US. Because I wasn’t working in the US, I don’t know what those networks are. You’ll find them with a bit of googling and a bit of research into the industry. I would say the network is the only way you are going to break into the industry most easily.
Natalia 30:31 Can I ask additional questions since you’re a blogger, and the question for you would be, is writing your blog and demonstrating that you can do medical communications, a good way to find your first job in medical communications?
Vicky 30:50 That’s a great question. I didn’t start my blog until a year after I’d made the transition. And the reason I started the blog was that people were reaching out to me asking, how did you make this transition? I was answering that question a lot. I decided to write a blog about it. It has just taken off from there. Ultimately, I would say that I probably did it to show that you write different things. You don’t have to write your blog. You don’t have to set up your website, necessarily. You could offer to write blog posts for other bloggers or you could produce content on LinkedIn. You can write interesting articles on LinkedIn. You don’t necessarily have to set up your website.
I think it’s a natural transition. If you want to be in medical communications, and you want to be a medical writer, you probably enjoy writing. You know, setting up a blog does seem logical. But it certainly wasn’t something that I had on my CV when I made the transition. But I had done things like I’d organized events, I’d organize seminars, I’d organized worldwide events in our field of interest, organized annual symposia for our department, and things like this. I had those sorts of different things other than just academic publications.
I had done things like organizing events, teaching things like workshops, other things that might just show that you’re involved in other types of communication, and guest posting things like that. I think it can help. I’d written a small article about nature careers and things like that. If you can reach out and do different types of writing alongside, it’s certainly another thing you can put on your CV.
Natalia 32:55 I have a question about these journals, like Nature or Science because I know that most of the articles they publish are commissioned, and careers became a hot topic in the last two or three years. I think it’s not as easy to publish there. I have the story that in the last years, I was doing one project that was a big open project. It started on Twitter and everyone can join. We were working together on a big manuscript that was about self-management advice for researchers in STEM and medical sciences. I was quite proud of this work because it was very collaborative. There were over 40 people from all around the world. And we’ve had people from really good universities with really good mentoring experience.
I think the piece was really good. And there was a big body of work of over 13,000 words. We had a lot of material and a lot of information. I started sending it off to journals and I realized that without being invited, it’s really hard to get in because probably they are top-notch journals. They are bombed with similar materials. In the end, the article went through the desks of maybe five editors. And it ended up being a really good journal, the best ones in the field. I was also losing hope at some point. I was like, this was not a good idea. This article will never never be published. In the end, by luck, we succeeded.
The problem is, on one hand, it’s a popular topic because there is a lot of attention that is not given to careers and post PhDs. But on the other hand, there is also a lot of competition because barriers to entry are quite low. Anyone can express an opinion about what they think about post PhD career tracks or careers for young researchers. And almost any researcher can make a statement. There are a lot of competitive materials. What do you think about this?
Vicky 35:34 This would have been around 2018 when I was starting my blog. I did try a couple of times with a couple of articles. They didn’t accept my first one but they did eventually accept something. I would say, just keep trying. And you don’t have to write for columns like Nature and Science but medical communications company. If you’re looking for a job there, it depends on what types of things you’re writing, and the broad experience of writing that you have, whether it’s relevant to the types of jobs you’re going to be doing.
I wouldn’t say, it matters. This is the thing about academia. Everything matters like, where you’re publishing, what funding you’re going to get, whether or not you’re going to get that next position or that promotion, or that PI position. It all depends on the number of publications you’ve got. Those publications are in a way more important in some aspects. But outside of academia, that is irrelevant. For somebody who’s trying to move into medical communications, I wouldn’t get too head upon where you’re publishing. I would say, just try your hand at writing different things. You can put that on your CV as broad expertise. That will be my advice.
Natalia 37:07 I have to say that I admire your passion for writing. Because if you’re working as a medical writer, then writing a blog in your free time must be a real passion.
Vicky 37:22 I do like writing. I’d like to write a novel, but not right now. I’ve got too much writing on.
Natalia 37:31 Okay. Let’s ask another question from the audience. As you look back, can you suggest how to make this transition to the industry smoother? And if it ever can be smooth?
Vicky 37:46 I had more challenges being a PI to make that transition. If you’re finishing up your PhD as a PhD student and your natural progression is to go into another career, be a postdoc, or transition into industry, that’s a natural time you would do that. You close your project by producing your thesis. You may have papers and things to write. You may even have some follow on money to help you finish off a few things. But generally, I think that would be easier and smoother. I’m not saying people might not necessarily want to talk to you about it. If they want to push you towards an academic career, then you would have pressure there.
You will also still have those personal gremlins about, are my skills good enough? Does the industry want me? Those types of questions you will still have to overcome anyway. It’s never going to be perfectly smooth. It is a completely different environment. When you go into the industry, I could talk for an hour or more about the cultural differences you will face when you enter that new environment, and how to progress in that environment. It is completely different to come to academia in so many ways. But it’s a journey. I know that’s such a cliche but it’s a journey. You have to undertake and it’s never going to be perfectly smooth. You can certainly do things to mitigate.
One of those things is that you have to have a strategic plan when you’re making the transition. You’re not just flying your CV out all over the place applying for hundreds and hundreds of jobs which I have heard some people do who struggle. That’s demoralizing. Take some time to network and talk to people and make that transition as smooth as possible and understand exactly what it is you’re moving into.
It’s going to help in that transition process for sure. It is so different in industry versus academia that it’s going to be a little bit of a cultural shock. There’s no doubt about it. I felt it. I’m sure everybody who has made that transition from academia to the industry knows that it’s a difficult path. Most people will make it eventually, or they will move out into the industry. The statistics show that most people will not stay in academia. They will make that transition. A lot of people have done it. I’m sure they’ve all got their personal experience of how they did it.
But you know, it does take some effort, and it is a step. It can only be as smooth as you can make it. That’s a bit of my answer. But it’s never going to be a perfect step out because there isn’t a natural pathway out into internships and things like that as there are some undergraduate and graduate roles in the industry that are coming.
And then things are changing. There’s more than a talk and a narrative now around transitions into the industry for research staff and students. It is starting to change and that transition will become smoother. I’m sure that in the future, people in academia start to realize that most of their students will take that step. And they’re postdocs, and it just becomes a natural route. I’m sure it will eventually become smoother. But right now, you have to put some effort in, and you have to work on yourself and do the research to know what it is you want to do and talk to the right people who can help you and who have made those transitions.
Look for the PhDs who are working in those positions that you’re interested in. They will help you make your mind up and give you advice on how they made that transition. I’m coming back to networking again. The more people you can talk to, the more help you will have, and the transition itself will be smoother.
Natalia 42:12 I agree with absolutely everything. I can add something to this. There’re two things. The first thing is I think that universities already spotted the problem. I can see that there is an increased amount of interest in careers for your young researchers. And there’s an increased amount of investment in coaching services and courses. The problem was spotted. I think that the way universities approach, it could still be better because I think there’s still not enough dialogue between academia and industry. The fact that you hire a former academic to become a career advisor of the university doesn’t mean that they will give the proper career advice. It’s much more complicated than that.
But there is a shift in the right direction. I’m happy to see it. I’m looking forward to furthering developments. The second thing is, I think that the difficulty of the career switch between academia and industry is not that much even about your topic or the branch of science you come from but it’s more about what is the mental difference you have to make and how much you need to redefine yourself. And let me explain.
Let’s assume that you work in a team as a PhD student, you have some specialistic project, and you want to do similar research in a company and you want to join some other team in a company and do work on similar topics, you just don’t have this publication pressure or fear of tomorrow. That’s your good criteria, but you’re generally interested in doing the same type of work just in a different setting.
I think the transition is relatively simple because with your skills and your experience, you will be wanted everywhere with open hands and you will probably get the good paycheck you want. I think, in that case, the transition is quite straightforward. But the problem starts when you feel, like, I just have to redefine my role in society. I have to redefine the way I’m playing the role toward other people. I don’t want to be a specialist anymore. I want to work with people in teams. I want to be a leader. I want to create some community. I want to solve global problems. I’m not a specialist. I’m a generalist. I want to have an overview of the big problem. And that’s hard.
Because to do that, you have to go through two steps. First, you have to define that new role. That takes a ton of time to get to know yourself and get to know what is your new mission and how you will act, what is your optimal, optimal role and in what setting you want to prove yourself in that new role. Because if you want to just throw yourself in deep water and prove yourself by doing something new, then you might not be trusted at first. You will not get the job as fast and you might start from a very low paycheck. You have to work your way back to the salary you had before. It can be a long and painful process. The difficulty is not that much about the type of science you did before but more about the mental distance between what you did before and what you’re planning to do next.
Vicky 46:17 That’s excellent advice. I could just add on to that, if you use your knowledge, as you were explaining to make that transition, so you’re a subject matter expert, and you move into the industry as a subject matter expert, for example, perhaps you take a postdoc in the lab, somewhere in a farmer lab, that’s the transition a lot of people make and that’s good exposure, then getting your foot in the door, and then seeing how a company operates and trying to learn more about other auxiliary roles that you could move into.
This is a big distinction in the industry. Once you’ve moved out into the industry, somebody is taking care of your career in a way if you’re working in a company if you’re going to go and set your own company or work as a freelancer, but when you’re in a company, you’re talking to your line manager regularly about your career and where things are going.
This does happen in academia. But it’s so different. If you don’t get the funding and if you don’t get the publications, you won’t progress. In the industry, there are more options available for you. You can talk about your career and where you want your career to develop, so you could start in a very technical role. But eventually, you could say, I want to manage the lab, or I would like to try marketing, and there are ways in a big enough company to move and try different things. I know, scientists have moved across and done scientific roles in industry, and then they are now general managers heading up whole divisions or sections because they expose themselves and experience different things within the company.
If you want to remain a specialist, you will just have to work in that niche area for the company. And progressing into the management levels really won’t happen because you have to expose yourself to the high management levels. I should say, you have to expose yourself to different aspects of how the company works to progress. I would say, you can use that as a stepping stone in the industry. And you can then try and develop other things if you think you might have an interest in them, or you can stay as a specialist. You can keep working your way up to a senior scientific role. You can also transition back to academia, again, if you want because you will remain a subject matter expert in that particular area.
Once you make the transition to industry, there are more options available to you. You have regular conversations about your career. You might not do necessarily a postdoc because those conversations are more about where you’re going to look for money and whose lab you should go and work in next rather than direct current career progression into a faculty role necessarily.
Natalia 49:05 Okay. Let me ask you another question, which is about Biomed badass. I would like to know a little bit more about how it started. And well, you told us how it started, but in what shape the blog is now and what your plans are. Tell us a little bit more about this project.
Vicky 49:27 I think I explained when I made the transition to medical communications, and medical writing. People were asking me. There were mainly people from my lab and a lot of other labs that, you know, I knew within departments that I’d worked in in the past, asking me how it was to work in that industry and how I made the transition like this. I decided to start the blog. And more people reached out to me asking similar questions. I just use those questions and suggestions to mold the content for the blog and try it out to answer as many questions as I could. That’s essentially what I still do. I’m quite excited because I’m going to start a similar YouTube channel to try and speak better to visual learners.
Because at the minute, everything’s written on the blog. But I would like to try and explain things in a visual way like a short 10-minute video. I will experiment a little bit with that. I’m quite excited to get started there. That’s kind of where the future of it will go. But, you know, generally, it is a blog there to help people and to offer advice or support. If people have questions about making a career transition, generally, or into medical writing, drop me a question. And I always try to answer where I can, on the blog. That’s kind of how it evolved. The reason for it is that it was quite an organic thing. In the beginning, I was just offering advice because it was the right thing to do.
I was trying to support people as best I can. But I’ve developed a passion for this now, you know, talking to people and trying to help them guide them in what they think, what they’re struggling with, and what they think they might want to do. This has become quite a passion for me, alongside the day job of being a medical writer. I’m looking over the last few years that I’ve been writing this blog and it’s grown. I’ve got interested in a way that I never expected I would when I first set out on it. I have developed a passion. I think that’s another piece of career advice that I have for people is to follow your passion. It gets back to what you were talking about earlier. When people decide early on, they’re pushed into a particular way because they show talent in something when they’re small, when they’re at school as a child, and they don’t explore their options. I think we got to look at our passions and what we’d like to do.
We follow things that other people are doing or that we see on TV, you know, someone’s a vet, someone’s a doctor or lawyer, we should all try and progress our way through that. But actually, there are so many jobs out that you would never have a clue about until you get out into the world of work and discover for yourself that the options are infinite and how do you even know where to put your talents? This whole question about passion and following your passion can be a little bit misleading. I’m sure as researchers we’re all interested in science. We wanted to go work in a lab later on, and we followed our passion. But you can develop a passion if you identify a problem.
You start helping people with that. I’ve discovered you can actually develop a passion for something and also solve a problem at the same time. There are different ways to think about a career and decide on the jobs you would like. I think there’s a whole narrative and discussion to have around that.
Natalia 53:13 I also think that passion often happens at a certain level of proficiency. That’s often also what academics say that for researchers who went far, they often say that they only started feeling love for what they do once they already got to the point that they were fluent and that they got enough success that they felt confident with what they know. Then they started feeling real pleasure from doing it. It’s often the case that it’s like develops slowly and burns slowly but the flame has to ignite, and sometimes it needs years. I agree.
Vicky 53:56 Once you reach a level of proficiency, you could only really start to understand what you don’t know because then the questions expand exponentially. When you become a subject matter expert, you start to realize what the boundaries of human knowledge are. And as PhDs, we’re working at the boundaries of human knowledge. At that point, you can start to enjoy yourself. I agree with you. You have to develop over years or months and level of expertise to try and see what those problems are and how to help solve them. That’s when you develop a passion, which is exactly what happened to me with the whole careers thing and the Biomed data flow.
Natalia 54:43 Can you tell us a little bit more about your general plans? Do you have some general vision for what you want to do in the next five years?
Vicky 54:52 Because of personal circumstances of what’s happened in my private life, I’ve had to leave my job in London behind, and we moved to Dublin. The great thing about being a medical writer is if you’ve got a few years of experience, and you’ve got some contacts, you can freelance which was one of the big advantages for me as well. When I was researching, I’d spoken to people who’ve done a few years freelancing, and then they went back and work for a company and then done freelancing. Again, that’s quite a flexible job. I needed flexibility. I have a young family. My husband works for a multinational and we could get moved at any moment to any part of the world. I needed flexibility. Otherwise, I would probably have become an MSL because I quite like that work.
I spoke to many MSLs when I was thinking about my career transition, but the traveling and the prescriptive in a particular region were quite limiting for me. Medical writing gives a lot more flexibility. Right now, we’ve just made this move about six months ago to Dublin. And I’m working as a freelance medical writer, using the contacts that I had before when I was working in London. It’s a real world industry which is why I suggest if you want to work as a freelancer or as a medical writer, first do a few years in the industry itself to get to know people, and then you can make that transition. I’m figuring out how to set up a company and work for myself and pay taxes and all the things that go with that. It will be very interesting. I will do that for a while. And while we need this level of flexibility, I would eventually like to go back into a company and work on my management skills.
As I said to you, I enjoyed managing the lab and working with people, and helping them develop and grow in their careers. That’s a real passion for me. I can see that now with the blog as well. I think that’s where that kind of passion comes from is helping junior people excel and I love that. I would like to go back into a management role in a company. At some point I think, I will just keep going with the blog and now the vlog as well, the video blog that I’m going to put out, and just see where it goes and see if I can help develop that in any way forward as well.
I’m kind of a junction at the minute and thinking about different things I can do. But the great thing is I have options. That’s just medical writing is fantastic for flexibility and options if that’s what you want from your career. I was remote working as a medical writer. I was going to London two days a week and working from home the rest of the time. It had flexibility in the industry before the lockdown. It’s just a naturally flexible industry. If you’re looking for flexibility, I could strongly recommend medical writing as a career.
Natalia 58:03 Can I ask a question? How about having your own company? Because if you like medical writing, if you like managing people, and if you like independence, then it sounds like it might be an option.
Vicky 58:19 I have considered that. I have a baby who’s only one year old. And I would like to see her in school and then make a decision. I have contacts also. I was working in London and I am interested in setting up agencies potentially in the future. That might be something we consider, as I said before the market is growing, but it’s also becoming more and more competitive. And I think you would like to develop a niche for yourself and work your way in through that. I only transitioned in 2017. I’m still new to the industry in a way and I’m still learning. I’m still making contacts. It’s not the right moment for me now. It is a distinct possibility of something I might consider in the future.
Natalia 59:09 I enjoy having company so much. I’m currently on the earth as many people I know as entrepreneurs. I think I keep on doing that for another few years, probably.
Vicky 59:25 Can I comment on that? I think entrepreneurship and PhDs go hand in hand. It’s the most fantastic training to become an entrepreneur because you are your own boss. You have to be self-disciplined. You have to tick all the boxes that an entrepreneur needs to do. You have to be able to work all night if your experiment needs it. You have to be able to take huge criticism for funding and get in front of people in a panel. You have them eat you alive and try to get money from them. That’s exactly what entrepreneurs do. I think anyone who has taken a PhD has done training in entrepreneurship.
Natalia 1:00:06 The thing that helped me the most in developing a company is not what I had during my PhD, but rather what I didn’t have. I was quite under-supervised. The fact that I always got to find my own ways and work around the problems plan everything. I was quite on my own. That was the part of my PhD that I hated the most. But from perspective, this is what helped me the most.
Vicky 1:00:41 It makes you resourceful. When you don’t have much supervision, you become resourceful on your own. It’s a simple spin time.
Natalia 1:00:50 I think it doesn’t matter what happens to you but what you do with it. If you have a problem, you can turn this problem into something good. If you think long enough, and you have a plan if you create a plan out of it. I think almost anything that happens to us, unless it’s something tragic, like, you lose a leg, and that’s not a very good event that you might potentially turn into your advantage. But most of the problems, like everyday problems, have some good sides if you look long enough.
Vicky 1:01:31 You’re the ultimate problem solver as well. I think as a PhD, that’s what you learn how to do is to solve problems continuously, if you’re not in a very supportive team or have a supportive supervisor. You’re right.
Natalia 1:01:54 Let me ask you this question, as this is something I often ask towards the end of the webinar, what is the general advice or some life hacks, that you would like to share with more junior researchers and those hesitating about what to do next, or those who are ready to take a decision?
Vicky 1:02:15 I would say don’t do the mistakes that I made and start planning early. Think about what it is you want. Don’t leave it until you’re writing your thesis, or you’ve just submitted it to start doing this investigation. I started three years before I made the transition. But in reality, the transition itself took me at least six months.
By the time, I decided what I wanted to do, I was networking with the right people and sending out the applications to where I knew I wanted them to go and tailoring those applications to those different companies and the work that I knew they were doing. It took time. And starting just with a knowing that your contracts about to end in three months at you have left it quite late.
I do get a lot of people who reach out to me on the blog saying, I’ve only just started my PhD six months a year ago, I don’t need to think about these things. Now, I still got three years ahead of me. But I would say this is an ongoing process. And professional development is an ongoing process, and you should be making time for yourself during your working week. I didn’t and I ended up you drifting at some points in my career.
That’s not a good way to be. You should be making time for developing yourself and deciding what you want to do and also generating the skills that you would need to move into particular jobs. There are so many resources now that you can do. You can use Coursera and different types of online resources that you can tap into to try and develop your CV in the right way for the transition.
But these things are going to take time. Then I get back to my point again, I’m like stuck about it, but network. People hate me saying to them, you need to go in the network. Because the network has such as horrible connotation to it. I say all the time that people feel like they have to go out and sell themselves and say how wonderful they are. But realistically, when you’re researching and thinking about the different jobs you can do, it’s basically about having a conversation with a very interesting person who’s got a different experience of life from you and asking them about themselves.
What I found is the vast majority of people when you ask them, what it is that they’re doing, how they’re enjoying it, what aspects they enjoy, what they don’t enjoy, and where they would like to go next. There are general questions. People love talking about themselves and their own lives. It’s easy for them. You make it easy for them, but at the same moment, you’re learning about if that’s going to be the right career for you. You really should be making time to build your network, a supportive group of people around you. I carry that network with me now. The network that I established during the initial stages of trying to work out is that I wanted to be an MSL. I still have those people in my network. I still talk to them even though I’m not an MSL. Some of them have gone to do different things in pharma, but I’ve built a supportive network, and you can keep that network with you. They can help you throughout your career as you go on.
It’s a fantastic thing to do. There’s no reason you can’t start doing that. Now, even if you go into that career in the future, just go and explore. And it is difficult because we’re all under time pressures to produce work. I know what love works like. It’s things don’t work, and you need to pick stuff up and do other things. And you’ve never done as a researcher ever, there’s always more to do. I really would suggest taking a bit of time out of your working week, even if it’s just a few hours on a Friday afternoon or a Saturday morning, and devoting that to yourself, and your personal development. That is the biggest thing I would say that people should do. Because I never did it and I wish I had.
Natalia 1:06:04 I agree. I think I fought like this as well, some time ago that the career development is basically taking good key decisions like taking the best studies, getting to the best university, and then you’re set for five years, you can just do your studies, and then you choose the right first job. Then you choose a good PhD and it’s like every single time, you change a job or change a profession, which happens every few years.
This is the decision point. This is where you will build your career. But now I know that there are people who are best at career development or people who understand that this is a process that happens every day because you’re building your impact slowly day by day.
This is your decision. If you decide to spend this evening playing football, maybe writing another article, maybe calling some of your former colleagues and asking how they are doing and like, if you make the right decision over a long period, then all of a sudden you are well connected. That’s that you have the most opportunities and you build the best career.
Vicky 1:07:21 There are many options for you. You can develop your career in different ways that might interest you. You have your own self-initiative to go to your line manager, and say, I would be interested in trying my hand in marketing for a month, is there any opportunity that I could take up some marketing or some business development. You need to be driving your career at every stage. And as a PhD student, you need to get your publications and your papers done and your work done and your thesis ready. But these other things or networking are equally important.
If you even end up staying in academia, your network and who you talk to in academia are incredibly important. You need to have the publications and the papers. But you also need to know who you need to be talking to, to know what positions are becoming available at which universities, what fellowships are open, and how do you prepare those applications in the right way. This is all networking. It’s an essential skill. It needs to be told to people on their first day, their first week at university, that it’s something their professional development, and then networking is something they need to start at an early stage.
Natalia 1:08:41 Great, thank you so much. Lastly, I would like to ask you, for people who might be watching this webinar, or later on YouTube, if they are interested in collaborating with you in some way after watching this episode, for instance, collaborating on your blog, writing something for you, so to what capacity are you interested in these collaborations? And how can they best contact you?
Vicky 1:09:09. I’m always open to collaborating with people. I love collaborations. I loved it as an academic. Please reach out to me at the blog. It’s www.biomedbadass.com. My email addresses are on at Biomed badass, and you can just reach out to me. I’m very approachable. I’m on LinkedIn. Please connect with me there. We can chat through LinkedIn. And I’m happy to collaborate with people and discuss more. If anybody’s interested in medical communications or more, I can help them develop their CV.
Please reach out to me. I’m talking about these things all the time. I’m building a community. We have a forum on the blog as well. People are on there discussing various aspects of their careers so you can find the forum on my website as well. And I’m always open to collaboration. And if anybody wants to guest post on my blog, please reach out to me. I’m happy to work with people on that.
Natalia 1:10:10 Okay, fantastic. The last question is, what are your dreams? What are your hopes for the future? What shall we wish you for?
Vicky 1:10:23 I started this blog and I started thinking more and more about PhDs, where we ended up in industry and academia, and how we get on in the world. My wish would be that, like PhDs, we connect and we support each other. I mean, most of us aren’t going to end up out in the private sector at some point in our careers. There are lots of people with MBAs and they are business-focused. They tend to be at the higher levels of companies, on boards, and in executive-level jobs. And I think, they have a network. They all went to particularly prestigious MBA colleges to get their MBAs and they hire each other.
And I think as PhDs, now we’re getting out into industry, and the massive skills that we have, we bring in troubleshooting and problem-solving, and all the fantastic things we bring to companies that we’ve pushed forward. We’re innovative and we should be supporting ourselves in the same way. We should be getting into hiring-level jobs and looking at other PhDs and supporting their careers through that, and working our way onto the boards, and having our logical approach and our outlook, rather than being viewed as subject experts who can’t think outside of that.
It’s a false image out there. That image is still there in some PhDs that we’re not able to think widely and in a business context. That’s a complete misconception. It’s our job as PhDs to go out there and show the skills that we have and be great ambassadors for the education that we have.
If you’ve got a solid grounding in any kind of scientific education, the world is your oyster, you can turn your hand to anything because you have the logical approach, you can deal with the numbers, you can make decisions based on data. That is going to help any company and so we need to be out there supporting ourselves as a community. That’s my biggest wish that we can support our way through our career development together as a collective group of PhDs.
Natalia 1:12:43 It’s the fantastic ending to this webinar. I wish you all the best Vicky. Thank you everyone for watching and participating in the webinar.
Vicky 1:13:00 Thank you so much Natalia for inviting me. It was brilliant.
Natalia 1:13:05 Niraj is saying, thank Natalia and Vicky. I look forward to it more often. Great, thank you so much. Have a good evening everyone. You can expect that this material will be posted on YouTube today or tomorrow. Goodbye, everyone, and have a nice evening. Thank you.
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Please cite as:
Bielczyk, N. (2020, August 9th). E014 Vicky Sherwood on Leaving a Tenure Track: How To Start as a Freelancing Medical Writing PhD? Retrieved from https://ontologyofvalue.com/career-development-strategies-e014-vicky-sherwood-on-leaving-a-tenure-track-how-to-start-as-a-freelancing-medical-writing-phd/