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Writing in the Sciences: Tips From a Freelance Medical Writer

By Lindsey Schmidt

As a soon-to-be graduate who is completing degrees in biochemistry and psychology, works at the writing center, and recently joined OPW, I have a passion for both science and writing. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Michael Schofield, a GVSU alumna and medical writer, about career options in science writing. Michael is a freelance medical writer and former science journalist who decided mid-PhD to pursue a career in medical writing. In this interview, Michael discusses how she got her start in medical writing, describes her favorite parts of the job, and shares tips for students interested in this career. 

Why science journalism

Michael, like a lot of people in the field, did not go to college with the intention of becoming a science journalist or a medical writer. She attended the University of Michigan Medical School with the goal of going into research or academia. When describing why she decided to make the switch to science journalism, she said “my partner, now husband, was in web development, and I really envied his ability to hang out at home while I went in and did benchwork all day. So I started looking around for some type of a career that would enable me to have a better work-life balance, and science writing and medical writing was something that popped up during that search.” After deciding to pursue science journalism, Michael got a gig covering an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference and from there got an internship in science writing at The Wildlife Society. Currently, she owns her own freelance medical writing business, Schofield Scientific Communications, LLC, and occasionally writes for Medscape.  

Key differences between science journalism and medical writing

Michael noted that medical writing pays a bit better and allows her to have a better work-life balance compared to science journalism. She also characterized the main difference between science journalism and medical writing in terms of language and target audience. A science journalist translates technical scientific jargon into layman’s terms to make scientific findings available to the general public whereas a medical writer, as Michael explained it, “digs a little deeper into medical issues” and writes for professional audiences such as doctors, pharmaceutical companies, or pharmacists. As such, medical writers tend to use more technical and specialized language.

The role of writing in science

Michael also noted that “science, in general, is not effective without effective communication.” She expanded to say that writing is an important skill for scientists to have as you may need to write for a variety of purposes, including to request money via grant applications or share your ideas so that they can be used and built upon. Michael also reflected on how her mother, who was a high school English teacher, had an impact on her own career. “Writing skills and the importance of good communication were always heavily emphasized at home.” She continued by saying that these skills influenced her career choice and gave her a leg up in the field. 

Advice for current students

“Get as much experience as you can” was the first advice Michael gave to current students interested in science journalism or medical writing. Michael described how she worked at the writing center as an undergraduate student. She also took a science writing class while in graduate school, which, she said, was very helpful. In addition to gaining writing experience, Michael also suggested that students research science writing internships and join professional organizations such as the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) or the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA).

Though some may recommend getting a graduate degree in science journalism, Michael noted that it was not mandatory. Instead, she suggested that students focus on expanding their writing portfolio and have samples to send to potential employers. To students working in STEM fields who may worry that their degree is not suitable for a career in writing, Michael said: “Don’t fret! I graduated from Grand Valley State University with a degree in Cell and Molecular Biology.” She added: “What I gained from my education, both as an undergraduate and graduate student, is the ability to jump into a new area, understand it, and write about it.” 

Talking with Michael helped me to gain a better understanding of science journalism and medical writing as potential careers. While we may not always think about it, writing is what allows ideas to be shared, used, and implemented. My next step is to use Michael’s suggestions to kickstart my own career in science journalism. 

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