Interview with Dr. Geula Bernstein, Senior Medical Writer at AXON Clinical Trial Services
Please give us a little background about yourself (from Bachelor’s degree to current position)
I first completed an Hon BSc in neuroscience, and then an MSc and a PhD in pharmacology – all at the University of Toronto. I then went to Humber College to complete a diploma in journalism. I have been working at AXON Clinical Trial Services for almost 15 years, first as a Medical Writer followed by Senior Medical Writer. In addition, I have written freelance articles for magazines (eg, Today’s Parent) and features for grade 11 and 12 high school textbooks. I have also taught a post-graduate course in science and technical writing at Humber College.
What was the most valuable part of your graduate school experience?
Aside from giving me the chance to work with a great group of people, I think graduate school was really valuable in preparing me for what I was about to face going into the working world. Graduate school training is intense, and doesn’t necessarily start and stop on a 9 to 5 schedule – you need flexibility, perseverance and a devotion to your project as you see it through to the end. These qualities carry through well to the medical writing field.
At what point in your graduate career did you realize you wanted to become a medical writer and what influenced this decision?
When I finished my schooling, I found that the job market for people with graduate degrees was not what I expected. Those of us who were graduating but not going on to do post docs were wondering how to break into the job market. I attended some career forums run by the University of Toronto, and in one an Editor for a science magazine was presenting. Watching him present, I remembered how much I had once enjoyed creative writing, before entering the more technical world of the sciences. I thought how nice it would be to have a career where I could apply my science knowledge while having an outlet for creativity. Before the presenter left that day, I asked if I could submit an article for his consideration, and he later ended up publishing it online. I feel like that was the start of my medical writing career.
What does the role of a medical writer entail and what is your average work day like/some of the day-to-day tasks you complete?
The bulk of the work itself involves writing assignments – often on tight deadlines. These range from developing materials that improve recruitment and retention in clinical trials to the preparation of a wide range of documents such as scientific articles, abstracts, posters, reports and summaries. As in many other fields of work, a portion of my time goes to administrative tasks (e.g., project management, emails and updating the status in publication plans). I also have the opportunity to coach and train others, which is something I really enjoy, and avenues for professional development to improve skill sets and share knowledge. Pretty much every work day is different for me, but what remains consistent is the continuous learning, the wide variety of project types, the challenge of the role, and the satisfaction of knowing that I am supporting in advancements and innovations in the fields of science and medicine.
How has having your PhD helped you in your career, if at all? Is having a PhD necessary to secure a position as a medical writer?
I wouldn’t say that having a PhD is necessary to become a medical writer, but it can set someone apart from other candidates, and play a role in the position held in an organization. PhD studies give you experience in writing a variety of materials that will help prepare you for a medical writing career. You also gain experience in using programs that will carry into your medical writing job (e.g., using referencing software, Excel, PowerPoint). But getting a PhD is a long road to take in the hopes of ending up with a career in medical writing, and it’s not the only avenue. I think it’s helpful to research these other potential avenues, aim to acquire a skill set that will be valued in the field, and try your best to reach out to those doing the hiring.
What advice would you give to current graduate students looking to become medical writers?
I think it’s important to develop a skill set that the employers will recognize as distinct from other candidates. When I graduated, there weren’t many courses or programs available in medical writing – at least none that I was aware of at the time. I thought ‘how am I going to show employers that I can write?’ I decided to go back to school and get a diploma in journalism. During this program, I enhanced my portfolio, gaining practical experience by writing freelance articles for magazines. When I went into the working world, I felt that my background was somewhat unique – a PhD graduate in science with a diploma in journalism who had published articles for a variety of audiences. This seemed to catch the eye of some employers. I feel that researching the type of medical writing work you most want to do, aiming to meet the requirements for getting a job in this area, and then adding on a skill that sets you apart from the rest of the candidates is a good strategy in your job search. For example, there has been a lot of interest in the medical writing field in creating visuals that will help convey complex information. This is an area that I have focused on in my own professional growth and development, and may be an extra skill that a potential employer might notice and value.
Interview by LSCDS Exec Member Neeti Vashi
Neeti is a PhD candidate in the department of Molecular Genetics, pursuing her research in the lab of Dr. Monica Justice. She is interested in a career in Medical Affairs or Medical Writing. She can be found on LinkedIn here.