BEST Retrospective: From Graduate Student to Medical Writer

By Emily Weikum

As I PhD student in my final years, I dreaded any conversations with my committee about my decision to explore careers outside of academia. In my second year, at my first ever committee meeting, I had multiple advisors question my need to stay in graduate school if I didn’t want to become a professor. I was so taken aback by this comment that, at the time, I didn’t stand up for what I knew to be right, that a PhD does not just train you for academic research. 

We have all heard the bleak job prospects in academia, have witnessed our PIs work 24/7 to finish a grant proposal, and have been told that we have to put life on hold to achieve success in that world. Therefore, from the start, I knew my talents and desires were suited to a career outside of academia. However, I was unsure of where to start, what “alternative” careers were even out there, and whether I had a shot at any of them with my only work experience being an academic lab. It was the answers all these looming questions (and more!) that the BEST program provided for me. 

It was 2014 when I joined the second cohort of BEST trainees. First, I was finally exposed to the vast number of careers that were available to PhD graduates. Second, I realized that I had a range of transferrable skills that companies were looking for such as teamwork, critical thinking, writing, and time management. Third, I was able to build a network of like-minded students that were also struggling with their PIs or committees in terms of career trajectory. Finally, and most importantly, I gained the confidence to pick up the phone and have informational interviews with people from various non-academic tracks. 

The BEST program was integral to where I am today, but it all started when I decided to be intentional about my professional growth. As author Rachel Hollis says, “I am successful because I have never once believed my dreams were someone else’s to manage.” Being intentional about looking for jobs, going to networking events, or doing an internship can be met with resistance within academia. It is my hope, as the BEST program has pioneered, that more universities like Emory will show their support for student growth outside of the academic arena. 

Looking back, I could not have imagined a better career choice for myself. Three days after defending my thesis, I began a career as a medical writer. During graduate school I had always enjoyed putting together presentations, working on figures, and talking about my science, yet I never knew I could make a career out of it. As a medical writer, I develop scientifically sound content for our clients, which are predominately pharmaceutical companies. We work on a wide range of projects—manuscripts and posters, video scripts, brochures for conferences, symposia presentations, you name it! Our clients also come from different therapeutic areas, so I have developed content for subjects from immunology (rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease) to neuroscience (Parkinson’s disease and opioid withdrawal). Through my experiences with the BEST program and my career thus far, I have learned some valuable lessons that I will elaborate on below.  


Determining what you don’t want to do is just as important as determining what you do want to do

The BEST program did an impeccable job of showcasing professionals from numerous careers. Through Career Workshops, we heard from government officials, consultants, educators, and more. Hearing testimonials from a diverse cast of speakers and having the chance to ask questions in a small group setting was critical to learn what careers really sparked my interest. When you google, “non-academic careers for science PhDs” you get 347,000 hits. This can be extremely daunting, particularly for those PhD students who feel they cannot talk to their mentors about their professional goals. The BEST program provided the perfect supportive environment to explore what’s out there. 


Networking really is king 

I know we heard it all the time in BEST, and sometimes we would roll our eyes, but I have to admit networking is a must. I am in my dream job because of a referral, one that I got because of an informational interview. Building your network can seem overwhelming, but I found that every person I emailed was more than willing to talk about what they do. I was also surprised by how receptive they were to my requests to shadow them. When people love what they do, they are usually eager to share more about it. It is also why I am keen to pay it forward! I am so passionate about what I do, and want to share that with other PhDs, that I am always willing to answer emails or jump on a call.


Your PhD is highly valuable outside of academia 

In my last few months as a graduate student, I started to become disheartened that I wouldn’t find a job. I had already made plans, as many at Emory do, to stay and post-doc for a while. I am here to emphasize that a post-doc is not your only option. I am an example of someone who did not post-doc and jumped straight into my job. This is not seen as a negative and is actually becoming more mainstream. As academia becomes more receptive to training and supporting their students for “alternative” careers, I think this trend will continue. As I’ve stressed before, graduate school is the perfect training ground for many transferable skills that any company would love to have in their future employee. 


Lastly, I want to mention that I would not have my job without a PhD. My company only hires writers with advanced degrees. If I had taken my committee’s advice during that first meeting, I would not be here to share my experiences, nor living my best life in my dream job. 

Never be afraid to take control of your professional development! For me, the BEST program was the optimal place to grow and prepare myself for what came after graduate school. Take advantage of professional development opportunities available to you. You never know where they may take you.