By Rubin Baskir
Writing is an integral part of the scientific process. Kim Korwek is an example of a graduate student who used her writing expertise to begin a career in the field of medical writing. Before graduating in 2009, Kim gained practical writing experience through work she did with the Vanderbilt Editors Club, Life Science Tennessee, and the journal Disease Models and Mechanisms. She currently works in Nashville for the Hospital Corporation of America (HCA), the largest private health care service group in the US.
Rubin: Could you talk about the work you do for HCA?
Kim: I work for a clinical services group. Their basic mission is quality improvement, putting together programs to improve clinical services in their facilities. They’re subject matter experts, MDs, nurses, pharmacists who put together tool kits, programs, workshops, HR; all the different things that come out of the facilities, so they want to improve vaccination rates, reduce infections, basically make things better for the patients.
Where I come in is I write up the results of studies they’re involved in, help them get published in medical journals, pool together abstracts for conferences and award applications.
I’ll meet with different groups on a quarterly basis. We have an infection prevention group, women and children, nursing care, clinical improvement, and different subgroups. Some of the papers I worked on include decreasing MRSA infection, increasing vaccination rates, improving radiation safety, and improving basic measures of quality in facilities.
Rubin: What are your hours like and what is a typical day like?
Kim: I work 8:30 to 5:30. A typical day will depend on what manuscripts I have and what stage they’re in. I usually have 6-10 manuscripts in different phases of completeness. So I may be editing, I may be researching, I may be writing a draft, I may have a meeting with the subject matter expert to discuss something. I pretty much set my schedule. I have a lot of creative freedom.
Rubin: What work did you do at Vanderbilt?
Kim: My graduate degree is in neuroscience. Molecular mechanisms of learning and memory. About halfway through my graduate career I decided that wasn’t the path I wanted to go on.
Rubin: Why did you decide to change your path?
Kim: I was looking around and finding people who were really good at being specialists, who were happy doing the same thing for their entire lives. And then I found people like me who, for the first two years of grad school, were most excited by getting their feet wet in all sorts of different arenas, how people think, what cool new things were happening in people’s labs. I knew being a specialist and studying the same signaling pathway in the hippocampus for the rest of my life was not going to fly.
But learning what other people were doing, and getting the word out on something really cool, that was more my idea of a good time.
Rubin: When did this happen in your grad career?
Kim: After the qualifying exam, when [I was] deep in the throes of the graduate experience, doing the same experiments over and over. I needed a change, so I became involved with the Vanderbilt Editors Club. That was a really great experience.
I worked with the Tennessee Biotechnology Association, now Life Science Tennessee. I did some work when they were just starting their student chapter, writing their newsletter.
I also made a podcast for Disease Models and Mechanisms.
Rubin: How was your PhD helpful for the work you do now?
Kim: I’m not working with scientists every day, I’m working with clinicians and they’re very responsive to my training. They understand what it takes to get a PhD, they speak the same language, and they understand what it takes to do research, so in that essence, doing the PhD has been a huge benefit because it opens so many doors. I wouldn’t have been hired without a PhD. It’s definitely not time wasted. I recently came from the American Medical Writers Conference, and based on my conversations there, the field is becoming 50% liberal arts background and 50% science background.
Rubin: What kinds of associations should graduate students join if they’re interested in medical writing?
Kim: The American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) is excellent. They’re primary mission is education, so their annual conference is almost always talks, workshops, presentations and networking events. They also have online training and self-study. They have certificates that you can get if you have no writing experience, and you can get a certificate saying you have basic skills as a medical writer.
Rubin: How did you find your job? Were you looking at job websites or postings?
Kim: All of the above. It was my full-time job to find a job. I looked for any open positions that had writing and research. I also sent letters to places outside of Nashville, like in the Northeast. [I knew those were] long shots, but writing those letters, lots of which had essays, was good practice even if nothing comes of it.
Rubin: About how many applications did you have to write?
Kim: At least three a week, for about four months between when I finished up and when I got my job. There were weeks when I didn’t write anything and go for a run instead, but you have to just do those exercises. Some of them were useless, some of them were pointless applications, but every little bit helps you understand what you want to do.
Rubin: Did you ever think about freelance work?
Kim: The idea of doing freelance work was very scary to me. But I do have a good friend who I met through the American Medical Writers Association who graduated from Vanderbilt a year after I did. She went straight from graduate school to doing freelance. It was a hard road for her; it’s just as hard as applying for jobs. She went through a program by Emma Hitt. It was an investment, but it got her some early clients and now three years later she’s built a successful business doing mostly continuing medical education work. I know she worked very hard and it was very scary that first year, but now she’s got a very successful business and she really enjoys it.
Rubin: What are different types of medical writing?
Kim: There’s work at universities, at hospitals, places like the Sarah Cannon Research Institute. I know people who do veterinary writing, or if you’re interested in animal models, that’s one way to go.
Another way would be more regulatory, that’s going to be more physicians or big pharma, which we don’t really have here.
Another route would be patient care and patient education, which might be more along the lines of advertising.
If you don’t want to do pure freelance, contract work is another way to go. Regulatory is hard to get into, if you’re interested in that kind of thing. Writing things for the FDA is a very high-paying medical writing field, but it’s very difficult to get into.
Rubin: What is a general salary for medical writers?
Kim: That’s depends on experience. You could probably start in the 60’s. It’s going to vary greatly on what you’re doing. Regulatory makes more. You make more freelance, but it’s less stable.
I think the general range is 70 to 80 once you get established in your career. But if you’re in pharma, you can make six figures.
Rubin: Is there possible advancement?
Kim: Oh yeah. That’s why I really recommend AMWA or the NASW because you’ll see there’s so much more out there then you could have ever conceptualized. There are people who’ve ended up being editors of journals; there are people who do patient education. There’s so much variety in this field once you get out there talking to people.
Rubin: What is a good piece of advice to graduate students who are interested in writing?
Kim: I guess it’s two-fold. One is the advice you give all writers, which is to keep writing. Every piece that you put into your portfolio is going to improve your chances, and it’s going to improve your ability.
The second would be to keep an open mind on what’s really available out there. Not be afraid to go after what you really want to do because it exists and you will find something.