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Careers in technical writing

9/28/2017 3:49:20 PM

An interview with Diedre Ribbens

Many of you are familiar with Diedre Ribbens as the founding ASBMB careers blogger who brought you so much useful career advice over these past years. What you may not know is the incredible story behind Diedre’s own successful career transition into technical writing in the medical-device industry. 

During her Ph.D. program at John Hopkins University, Diedre did some career exploring to figure out just exactly what she was going to do with her degree. After researching career paths, she landed on science and technical writing as a good fit. She explains, “I was that person in the lab everybody would have edit their stuff because I have a good command of grammar and style. But I had never thought about the fact that somebody might pay me to do something like that.”

However, Diedre realized that she was going to need to gain some more writing skills to bolster her résumé for such a career. She emphasizes, “While a Ph.D. is a really valuable thing to have, you do need to be able to demonstrate you have other skills outside of lab work if you want to get a career doing something outside of the lab.”  

On the weekends or in between experiments, she did freelance work that included writing press releases for her grad school’s press office, contributing to ASBMB Today magazine and technical editing of manuscripts for non-native English speakers. After earning her Ph.D. in biochemistry/cellular and molecular biology in 2013, she continued to grow her freelance business and also worked a year for a consulting firm in the regulatory and compliance arena.

Diedre first got introduced to her current employer Medtronic, a global leader in the medical-device industry, through a contract technical-writer position and discovered how much she loved working there. She now works full time as a senior technical writer within the Cardiac and Vascular Group of the company, developing technical documents for pacemaker and defibrillator devices.

These technical documents include instructional manuals used by healthcare professionals to understand how to implant and manage these devices. Therefore, it is critical for the company to keep professional writers on staff who can synthesize clear and precise instructions. Additionally, text must be written in a way that makes language translation easier (and formatted in XML), so instructions can be translated into more than 30 languages for a global consumer base.

“Labeling has to be neutral and technical-focused and clearly understood by the end user. It can’t make false promises or claims or exaggerate things,” she explains. “I think it’s a great value to Medtronic to have a group that is separate from marketing and engineering with a sole focus in making sure content is accurate, complete and translates well for our end users all over the world.”

She also notes that technical writing is similar to other types of science writing for a general audience: “A lot of the same principles that apply to writing about science for a nonexpert audience also apply to technical communications. You need to get inside the mind of your user, understand what language the user would typically use to describe things that you are writing about and be able to distill a bunch of complex information into very discrete, clear steps.”

Diedre spends a majority of her time on project-management tasks to ensure writing projects within her group are completed on time and budget and, most importantly, comply with all applicable laws, regulations and standards. This compliance component is key when submitting new medical devices for approval or getting audited by a regulatory agency (e.g., the Food and Drug Administration).

Before working in the field, Diedre says, she hadn’t appreciated how highly regulated industries (e.g., medical device, pharmaceutical, aerospace, telecommunications) are. She says these companies have to put in a huge effort to prove to regulating agencies that their products are safe and effective for the intended use, which leads to job security for people like technical writers. As she puts it, “Any industry that needs instructional manuals will hire technical writers, so you can really follow your passion.”

Diedre points out that contract positions (six months to one year in length) are commonplace in this field and provide opportunities to explore the career path, get your foot in the door with an employer and even pursue full-time employment (if desired). She learned about her contract position at Medtronic through a contact (who runs a business managing technical- and medical-writing contractors) she met at an American Medical Writers Association networking event.

The AMWA also has a number of training opportunities and other resources, including a toolkit for new medical writers on its website. Another organization with good resources (and a job board open to the public) is the Society for Technical Communications.

Diedre also notes that it is becoming a trend to hire writers who have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in technical writing, as these degree programs become more prevalent. However, she reflects on the many advantages of having completed her Ph.D., including all the writing and project-management experience gained from doing her own research. She says she sees the top benefits as being the lifelong mentality of taking a problem-solving approach and not being afraid to tackle new projects.

In the end, Diedre says, she finds her job hugely rewarding and loves that she is making a real impact and improving patients’ lives. “I like doing things I love. I like writing. I’m kind of a bit of a nerd in that I like compliance and the chaos of project management. I’m getting to do things I love every day, and work with really cool, brilliant people. And also change patient’s lives. It’s not a bad deal,” she says.   

To get an idea of what types of technical-writing positions are out there, here is a sampling of jobs I found advertised.
 
  • Medtronic is hiring for a number of medical and senior medical writers to work within various groups on regulatory documents and other technical end products. Positions are located throughout the U.S. You can search the job board on its careers website to find out more details and job qualifications.
 
  • The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (New York City) is hiring for both a senior editor/grant writer and editor/grant writer within the Department of Surgery. A master’s degree (or Ph.D. for the senior position) in the life sciences and four to seven years of publishing, editing or management experience is preferred. An interested candidate should provide a résumé and cover letter by email to Henry Greene (henry@jackfarrell.com) and also can reach out to him with any questions.
 
  • The Gene Therapy Program at the University of Pennsylvania is looking for a scientific technical writer to help create reports and protocol documentation. A master’s (preferred) or bachelor’s degree in the life sciences or writing with three to five years of relevant experience is required, along with an understanding of related regulatory requirements. 
 
  • ClinicalRM, a contract research organization focused on clinical research and trials for biologics, drugs and devices, is hiring a technical writer to be located in Silver Spring, Md.. The writer will produce a variety of technical documents, including journal articles, technical reports, standard operating procedures and grant proposals. A bachelor’s degree or higher in biotechnology with four years of scientific writing experience is required.

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