Becoming a Medical Writer.

Human skull replica.

Sophie Hamr is a recent graduate of the Communications-Professional Writing program at Centennial College. She is currently working as a Medical Writer and Marketing Copywriter at SAGE Medica.

I’m not your typical student in the Communications – Professional Writing program. Until this year, I’d only ever studied science: a BSc in Biology at Dalhousie University, and then an MSc in Physiology at the University of Toronto. I loved medical science but didn’t want to be a doctor. So I started my Master’s with every intention of being a “scientist,” at least for the following 6 years – or however long it would take to finish a PhD. I didn’t plan to stay in academia beyond a PhD, but I’d figure out how to make a career out of science once I got there.

But roughly halfway through my Master’s, I had a harsh realization. I still loved science, but I didn’t like being an academic scientist. At all. I didn’t like the long, lonely hours in the lab, and I didn’t like focusing on one (extremely specific) topic day in and day out. I knew I couldn’t go further than a Master’s, so I started to panic.

Like most panicking students, I started to google what to do with my life. I searched for “alternative” careers in the sciences. I quickly found that UofT offered career development seminars for graduate students, and signed up for their email newsletter. Each seminar offered a panel of professionals from a different variety of scientific careers: government and science policy, business development, market access, medical affairs. I went to all the seminars. None of the careers seemed interesting to me. They weren’t “sciencey” enough, and they required skills that I didn’t have – or want to have.

And then one day, I got an email notifying of an upcoming seminar on careers in science communications. The speakers – all medical writers – came from a research institute’s PR department, a science communications agency, and the CBC.ca science and technology column. At the risk of sounding dramatic, this email instantly changed my life. I had no idea that science communications existed – but it made so much sense that it did.

And when I pictured what these people’s jobs might be like, I got so excited. I imagined them reading and researching all kinds of scientific topics each day, critically analyzing what they read, and writing about what they learn in a way that non-science people can understand. And I realized that I’d probably be really good at this; that I loved to write and talk about science (a lot more than conducting science) and that I’d always been told I have above-average writing and grammar skills. The seminar itself proved that the jobs were just how I imagined, and I knew they were the jobs for me. I slept easier the next few weeks just knowing that the field of science communications existed.

I knew that Let’s Talk Science, an amazing non-for-profit that educates elementary and high school kids, had a science blog, so I immediately volunteered to write articles for them. This was a quick and easy way to gain experience and start the portfolio I’d need to move from academia to science communications. As I wrote these articles, I noticed that writing about science for non-scientists was not as easy as I thought. Years of writing dense, jargon-filled journal manuscripts had left my writing style, well, dense and jargon-filled.

Because I wanted to avoid real life for as long as possible, and because I likely have an unhealthy addiction to education, I decided I should study scientific communications after my Master’s to hone my skills before starting my career. A quick search revealed that there is a serious lack of science communications programs in Ontario, the only one being at Laurentian University in Sudbury. While this program looks amazing, I wasn’t ready to leave beloved Toronto. (Somebody start a science communications program at a Toronto college!) I then had to widen my scope to searching for communications and writing post-graduate certificates. I knew I’d find only programs in corporate communications and public relations, which wouldn’t interest me, and that I’d have to give up on school and dive into the terrifying abyss of my future career.

But then my aha! moment came while scrolling through ontariocolleges.ca, when I stumbled upon the Communications – Professional Writing program at Centennial College: a brand-new graduate certificate program that addressed everything that was missing from communications programs in Toronto. The program description didn’t mention corporate communications or public relations. It talked about assessing audience needs and delivering thoughtful and relevant content, combined with effective project management techniques, to develop the skills needed to write and produce copy for a variety of professional settings and styles. It described how to turn writing skills into a career and it mentioned that future career opportunities could include science and medicine. This program description, along with an encouraging email from Kelly McConvey, program coordinator and all-around amazing human being, had me sold. Most exciting to me was that the program included a 6-week industry work placement and that Kelly promised to help me find one as a medical writer.

Now one year later, I’ve completed the program and my internship. I’ve learned how to apply the principles of good writing and the ever-changing communications and marketing industry trends to the world of science and medicine. I’ve created portfolio pieces that are specific to my industry – as has everyone in my program, whether it’s television and film, women’s rights, sports, mental health advocacy, or skincare and beauty. With Kelly’s help, I got an internship at SAGE Medica, a creative marketing agency for the pharmaceutical and healthcare industry, as a medical writer. And best of all – because what more could a college student ask for – I’ve been offered a job at SAGE. A job where I get to read about new kinds of science every day, come up with creative ideas to engage healthcare professionals and patients, and use the writing skills I learned at Centennial to effectively communicate everything I learn.

The Professional Writing program allowed me not only to perfect my writing skills, but to look at science communications from an outside perspective, and, for the first time in my academic career, to learn with and from peers that have a wide range of skills and passions other than science. I can’t be sure whether I would’ve ended up in this job without taking the certificate, but I am sure that I’m way more prepared for my job, and a much more confident young professional, because of it.

Header image by Jesse Orrico.

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