Learning to write

It’s terrible to admit: I didn’t learn to write until I was in college. My freshman year at a liberal arts school was brutal – but by the end of four years, this science major managed to catch up. (Look at me now, Ma!) The difficult memories of writing tutors and tears resurfaced when I read an article in The Atlantic on teaching analytical writing in high school. Oh, how I wish I had been taught to write in high school!! All I remember is stacks of note cards I was supposed to assemble into paragraphs for English class essays. Despite my embarrassing beginnings, though, I decided to become a professional writer/editor.

Today, even though I consider myself somewhat experienced, I constantly seek out professional development opportunities–taking seminars, reading the literature, going to professional meetings–not only to stay current on the issues within my field, but also to make me a better writer. I recently took an online science writing course from Stanford that was offered through Coursera (along with many of my medical writing and editing peers). It would be an understatement to say it was a great experience.  I consider the notes I took during the class to be priceless, and I am amazed at how often I go back and refer to them in my everyday work. It reminded me of how important it is to return to the basics, even when I consider myself to be a veteran writer. I would recommend the first few weeks of the class to anyone who writes – not just those who write in the sciences.

Reasoning, arguing, and biomedical writing

Now that I’ve completed the Writing in the Sciences course on Coursera (and received my official certificate, yay me!), I decided to take a course called Think Again: How to Argue – along with 72,000 other people around the world. I originally signed up to learn how to argue politics more civilly with my family-who-supports-the-other-party. But as the class moves through week 2, I’m realizing how much the concepts taught in this class also apply to my professional life as a biomedical writer/editor.

For example, take “the problem of infinite regress” and “authoritarian assurances.” These concepts are the basis for some of our universally accepted writing practices, such as why it’s better to cite the primary reference rather than a review. But they also explain the larger value of skepticism, why all research results should be questioned and tested, and at what point the transition is made from experimental results to accepted fact. “When can I be assured that what has been reported is true?” “What is the standard for trusting the source enough to be assured that something is true? Is it enough that the person who is saying it is considered an authority or is citing an authority? Or is it the institution where the work was done? Or the journal that published it? Or the number of other studies that produce the same results?” The upshot — I am more aware of instances when assurances (research results) suddenly turn into givens (facts). And when this happens, why it is critical to look deeper into the literature before citing it in my writing.

If you’re not bored yet, I have one more thought: one concept that caught my professional writer’s attention this week was “guarding the premise” – making your premise weaker so that it is more likely to be true and less likely to raise objections. I think this might be the reason why scientists (including me) are taught to use the word “may” in their writing (and why the Writing for the Sciences instructor tried to beat that out of me with strong verbs and active voice).

Needless to say, this class has gotten my mind going on the anatomy of an argument and how humans reason. I guess I should have taken more philosophy classes when I had the chance as an undergraduate?

Addicted to learning

Am I crazy? Don’t I have enough on my plate already? Thanks to my AMWA colleagues (I’m looking at you KOKedit!), I was introduced to the world of free online courses at Coursera. Essentially, Coursera has enabled my addiction to school. Since graduating, I’ve often mentioned that it would be nice to go back to school – and now I can for free. I’m a little more than halfway through a science writing course from Stanford and in week 3 of a genomics course from U Penn, and as much extra work as it is, I am having a blast.

The writing course in particular has been a priceless experience. Great tips, great exercises, just an overall great refresher on how to write better.

The genomics class is making me work hard – it’s poking that part of my brain that has been dormant for a decade – the part that remembers homework and writing papers. But I love it. I might even be a better student now than I was back then – but maybe that’s because the stress level is a little lower. I get a certificate if I complete the course with a decent grade, but the most valuable part of all this is the access to the class content. It’s learning for learning’s sake, and that’s just enjoyable.

Now I just have to make sure I don’t sign up for too many at a time…

Grantwriting for biotech? Sign me up!

Earlier this month I attended an excellent workshop on SBIR/STTR grants that was hosted by the Illinois Biotechnology Industry Association (iBio) PROPEL program, and was led by Lisa Kurek from Biotechnology Business Consultants. I decided to attend because I’ve touched just about every research and training grant mechanism from the NIH, but haven’t done much in the SBIR/STTR realm. The workshop was intense, to say the least.

I came into the workshop with a combined perspective of bench science and pharma advertising/marketing, which helped me switch gears. We’re no longer asking for funding for research to improve health and medicine, we’re asking for funding to translate and commercialize research discoveries (ultimately to improve health and medicine). I learned a great deal in two days, from the very broadest concepts of the differences between SBIRs and STTRs, what happens in phase I/II proposals, and what goes in a commercialization plan, to the details of grantsmanship, organization of the proposal, and what’s required in the various sections. There is some overlap with research grants, but the mindset and purpose behind these two funding mechanisms are very, very different.

I don’t know if I will ever work on one of these grants, but just going to the workshop helped expand my perspective of federally funded research – it goes beyond research and training for university- and med school-based scientists. These grants essentially fill in the funding gap for researchers who have a potential product as a result of their independent research but have not yet reached the point where private investors will step in. Funding the embryonic stages of a biotech company. These awards support essential STE innovation in the US, something I can really get behind as a communicator (which is important if you want to be convincing in a grant proposal!).

I hope I will have an opportunity to contribute to the efforts of these scientist-entrepreneurs – helping them put together SBIR/STTR grant proposals that communicate their passion and plans.

Training grants: I had no idea…

I just finished working on an NIH training grant (T32) for the very first time, and I have to say, I had no idea.

First off, a definition: the NIH T32 grant mechanism is “the primary means of supporting predoctoral and postdoctoral research training to help ensure that a diverse and highly trained workforce is available to assume leadership roles related to the Nation’s biomedical, behavioral and clinical research agenda.” Okay, so NIH is putting funds toward training tomorrow’s scientists. I can understand that.

So what was I floored by? Not just how involved the preparation of a training grant is, how many tables there are, and how much information is requested from the NIH (and it is truly immense), but that NIH-funded training programs at academic institutions rely on the success of their graduates and fellows. And that “success” is very precisely defined and quantified. From the T32 parent FOA, here are the scored review criteria for the program’s training record:

  • How successful are the trainees in completing the program?
  • How productive are trainees in terms of research accomplishments and publications?
  • How successful are trainees in obtaining further training appointments, fellowships, and career development awards?
  • How successful are the trainees in achieving productive scientific careers, as evidenced by successful competition for research grants, receipt of honors or awards, high-impact publications, receipt of patents, promotion to scientific leadership positions, and/or other such measures of success?

As a grantwriter, none of this should have surprised me. But my first reaction was, “Wow, I bet my institution’s program directors cringe when they have to add my information to their tables.” My second reaction was, “At least I am nearing the 10-year mark, so they won’t have to put my information in their tables for much longer.” I published 3 papers and several reviews and textbook chapters and completed the PhD program, so that’s at least something, but I promptly left academia to be a biomedical writer. Oops. At least now I know one of the reasons why professors shake their heads sadly when they watch their graduate students leave academia…but that’s being cynical, so anyway…

After getting over my initial emotional and somewhat defensive reaction, I started wondering how much (or how little) graduate students on training grants really know about where their stipends and tuition come from. I knew I was on a training grant at two different points during my time in graduate school, but other than that, nada. Like all students, I knew I had to publish, present my work at meetings, and participate in journal clubs and seminar series in order to graduate. But I had no idea that these performance expectations were specifically associated with training grant funding or that my personal success would have an impact on future training grant funding for the institution. I didn’t know that my recruitment and enrollment in the program were just as crucial for me and my career as they were for the institution and its future in graduate training.

I wonder how much of this information is ever shared with trainees. Are trainees curious about this, or did they, like me, have their nose down at the bench, blinders on, just working towards the next paper, meeting abstract, and eventually, their degree? Of course, graduate trainees are encouraged to “succeed,” but I wonder if they realize just how much the institution depends on them to succeed and to do so in very specific ways (see list above). I think that even though it might not change how hard a graduate trainee works, it is surely helpful to let them take a look inside the machine and understand the importance of their own training success on the program as a whole.

In the end, working on a T32 helped me appreciate how graduate programs are judged by the NIH, the criteria that are used to measure success, and why graduate trainees are encouraged to stay in research. Which is good for a me to know as a grantwriter, even if I had no idea during graduate school.

On becoming an expert

I had a great afternoon and evening with my fellow Chicago-area AMWA colleagues last week. We don’t meet often, and probably recognize each other more by our listserv postings than by sight. Naturally, we all must introduce ourselves, share our backgrounds, and add our two cents on a particular topic within the biz. I’m not sure when this happened, and I don’t particularly see myself as one, but somewhere along the way, I became an expert. I was actually asked for my opinion more than once about my work, my business, and current controversies and topics within our field. But I’m still learning! How can I be an expert?

Maybe it’s my accumulated writing experience, in academic writing, continuing med ed, healthcare comm, and now as a freelance business owner?But experience doesn’t necessarily make me an expert. Experience makes me a veteran–what makes an expert is the ability to learn from past/present experience, apply new knowledge, and continue to seek out new experiences.

And expertise is relative, isn’t it? There are certainly more expert-y experts than I (I was sitting next to one at dinner), and I might be considered an expert in certain areas and a complete novice in others. I lie somewhere on the continuum for any number of skills within medical writing and editing. And anyway, can someone become the absolute expert of anything? Isn’t there always room for improvement? I think so.

Which brings me back to the idea of my very first post – time debting (Happy blogiversary to me!). Really, it’s investing in myself and my development as a professional medical writer/editor, beyond the experience of writing and editing that I get paid to do. There are always areas where I need improvement, and it is essential that I stay plugged into the conversations and topics of the day within my field. In a nutshell: my professional development is as important as my background and experience. No matter how many years of experience I have within medical writing/editing, there will always be a need to continue learning, hone my skills, and accumulate and apply new knowledge.

So, even though it’s non-billable, I try to spend at least an hour a day keeping up with the latest news and topics in medical writing and interacting with my peers online. There are many free resources online, but I will pay for certain types of continuing education as long as I can justify the expense with some tangible benefit to me as a writer/editor or business owner. Here are a few of the resources I tap into:

LinkedIn groups – Sometimes there are really good discussions (though you might have to wade through some spammy posts), and they are a great place to hear about new topics and ask your colleagues for advice or opinions. You can sign up for the once-a-week digest, rather than getting your inbox inundated with updates all day long.

Twitter – Even if you just lurk, you can still learn a lot. (Though I highly recommend tweeting as well.) I (and the accounts I follow) use Twitter to share interesting articles and resources, and I tend to post about my love of science maps and art.

AMWA listservs – These are truly invaluable resources for AMWA members. Enough said.

Blogs – I read a few blogs posts a day, and follow blogs from researchers, doctors, other bioscience and medical writers and editors, journals, and professional associations. The posts usually lead me to other interesting blogs, articles, or links that I can share with my peers.

Journals – specifically, the AMWA Journal and Science Editor from the Council of Science Editors.

Meetings – AMWA of course. I can’t say enough about how much you can absorb by attending the annual meeting. There are also other meetings out there, both national and regional, where you can meet and learn from your professional peers.

Training – this fall, I am taking a grantwriting course at Northwestern, and next spring, I’m planning to attend the NIH Regional seminar.

In which my career path becomes a little bit clearer…

As I had hoped, attending AMWA 2010 last week solidified some of the thoughts I touched on in my post on officially branching out into grant writing. And I’ve come to the realization that I may actually be on the right track here, career-wise. Actually, this post brings together some thoughts from older posts on marketing science and storytelling in academic writing. Not sure why it took me so long to connect the dots, but I finally did. I’ll chalk it up to lack of sleep.

So let’s take a look at my career path thus far. Seven years in grad school (and 2 summers in undergraduate research programs), where I wrote oodles–yes, oodles–of abstracts, posters, manuscripts, grants, textbook chapters, etc, etc. Then 3 years in continuing medical education, writing physician and nurse education programs and learning how to craft a complete story, insert fair balance, and meet specific educational needs of a clearly identified target audience. Now, with 4 or so years in healthcare communications/advertising, I can add the skills of marketing, messaging, identifying target audiences, developing tactics, and strategic planning to my resume. And through all of this, I have been a freelance business owner, stumbling through financial planning, business planning, tax law, and return on investment.

And where has that led me? I know you just…can’t…wait… To becoming a professional grant writer and editor! Ta Da!

No, seriously. I suppose this epiphany might be a little more exciting to me than to others. But I realized that grantwriting draws on my academic background in life sciences and my ad hoc post-graduate clinical education and combines it with the skills I have developed in crafting educational narratives (from CME) and using persuasive, targeted language (from healthcare communications). So here I am, with a background and skill set that seem to fit well with grantwriting and editing.

So what’s the next step? There is a certification for grant professionals out there, but I think that’s at least a few years off. I recognize that I still have a lot to learn, particularly about the inner workings of the funding agencies and the review process, and I will make good use of the recommended reading list we were given at the NIH grant writing workshop at AMWA 2010.

Of course, if anyone wants to share their tips or send me some resources, that would be great. Now, I’ve gotta figure out how to retool my tagline…but that’s a whole ‘nother post!

Finding a niche, and then branching out

It’s been a while – sorry for that. I’ve been pretty busy, which, for a freelancer, is a very good thing to be. Not so good for keeping up with my blog, though, since it naturally falls to the bottom of the to-do list.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I offer–as a writer, as an editor, as a former bench scientist, as someone who has some experience in pretty much all types of science and medical communications–and the pros and cons of carving out my own niche in medical communications versus offering a little bit of everything. Over the years, I have gravitated towards certain projects more than others, and I have ended up carving out a really nice little niche for myself as an academic author’s editor, helping write and refine research manuscripts and grant submissions.

Most of my grant experience has been with planning, writing, and editing the research strategy section of NIH grants – the introduction, the abstract, the specific aims, the research design, etc. In the past year, I have had the opportunity to write (and rewrite) a couple of NSF grant proposals. Now I am helping to plan out federal and private grant submissions from the ground up. While I’ve really enjoyed getting into all these projects, and they still lie within my cozy niche of academic writing and draw upon my strengths as a strategic planner and storyteller, grant writing and grantsmanship are really skills in and of themselves. There are a huge number of courses and books out there on how to write and submit an NIH grant alone!

Even though I know I am fully capable of becoming a professional grant writer, the question is, do I officially branch out? I guess it becomes more of a business strategy question than anything else. Do I add grant writing to my repertoire, to my services card, to my marketing materials? Is this an area in which I want to continue to develop expertise over the long-term?

I am heading to the American Medical Writers Association annual meeting this week, and I am taking a couple of courses that may help me with this. One is on the business aspects of a freelance career and the other is on preparing NIH grants. I am hoping that it will become clear to me that developing my grantsmanship skills is a good fit for my freelance career and business, and that this is an area where I can successfully branch out–just a little bit–from my little niche.

Did I sell out? Nope, but thanks for asking.

Okay, so this is as close to a rant that you are going to get from me, and it’s more of just a setting-the-record-straight type of rant, since I don’t rant. Okay, so I don’t rant often. It rarely happens that I rant. Oh, never mind.

This pseudo-rant was touched off by a series of posts on the overproduction of PhDs here, here, and here. Granted, the authors come from various scientific fields, each of which has its own issues in terms of the prospective job market, but even so, I thought I would tell my story, since I appear to be one of those out-of-luck PhDs that might have been overproduced.

First, a little context for my non-rant. I decided to get a BS in biology because I fell in love with biology in 7th grade and I never looked back. As an undergraduate, I was a bio major, chemistry minor. I was NOT a pre-med. I started as a freshman with no intention of taking the MCATs, and I never did. I graduated magna cum laude, did well enough on my GREs to get into 3 pretty decent grad schools, and was on my way to a PhD. Again, for the record, grad school was NOT my plan B if I didn’t get into med school. I CHOSE to become a scientist because I love science. Not because there is anything wrong with a career in medicine or because I wouldn’t have cut it in med school. It just didn’t inspire me like scientific research did.

Defending my path to grad school actually continued through grad school: right before my thesis defense, I happened to be at a doctor’s appointment when the doctor asked me, “Why didn’t you just go get an MD rather than a PhD?” “Because I didn’t want one,” I said. He just shook his head sadly. I gave up trying to justify it. I also get it at the communications agency. A few years ago, one coworker came to me with a medical question, and after insisting that I’m not that kind of doctor, he said something like, “But you’re so smart, why didn’t you just get your MD?” Arrrrgh.

Then came my decision to pursue a career in writing after grad school. Like I said in a previous post, it became clear to me very early into grad school that I did not want to stay in academia. Not because I stopped loving science and research, or because I couldn’t hack it at the bench, or because my advisors couldn’t persuade me otherwise, but because I realized that running a lab; writing grants; managing post-docs, grad students, undergrads, and staff; handling teaching responsibilities and committee commitments; etc, etc, would NOT make me happy. (I went to a liberal arts school for undergrad, where science majors are required to take core courses like philosophy and ethics, and Aristotle’s concept of happiness and the good life was one of those ideas that struck a chord and has been with me ever since.) Honestly, I just didn’t have the passion that it takes to pursue a career as an academic researcher.

But I was trained to think and communicate like one! Writing about science, thinking about science, planning and designing experiments, yes, those were things that I truly enjoyed and could do well. So when I was finishing up the last few experiments for my final paper and writing my dissertation, I also started learning as much as I could about the types of writing careers that were out there. Pharma, no. Advertising, no. Journalism, no. Education, yes. Academic writing, yes. And there you have it. I continued toward my CHOSEN career path in science and medical writing.

But I didn’t make the transition unscathed. I felt like I had to defend myself to my fellow grad students, post-docs, even some faculty (but not my advisor, and I am forever grateful for her unwavering support of my writing career). Like my own personal career gauntlet that I had to run through on the way out of the lab. One (well-intentioned) assistant professor even said he would hire me as a post doc, just to get me back in the lab, even though it was in a completely different field and I would have no clue what I was doing. It felt like he was trying to save me from my bad career decision. To this day I hear from academics: “Why did you leave? You seem pretty smart.” And from the communications agency side I get: “Why are you here? You seem pretty smart.” Again, arrrgh.

So yes, there probably is an overproduction of PhDs…if the only career path open to them is academia. Many students may enter grad school unaware of how bad the job market is in their particular field, and end up disappointed and defeated. But then there are those who get their PhD because they want to, because they love science and research, regardless of where they go after they graduate.

It is unfortunate that grad students are not aware of the low odds of getting an academic position after they graduate. But I think it’s even more unfortunate that grad students are not told about the many other ways they can apply the knowledge and experience that come with a PhD (and not because of a lack of interest in alternative careers: go here for a recent post on this and then here for a pretty comprehensive list of alternative careers for PhDs in the life sciences). Grad students and post-docs need to be made aware that these non-academic career paths are legitimate, challenging, and fulfilling, and they must not be made to feel as if they are selling out or not good enough if they take these paths.

Okay, no more ranting, I promise.

Write Young Grasshopper! Write.

I know I said my next post was going to be about marketing and writing, but I got sidetracked (things get busier as the school year begins) and then a few recent blog posts got me thinking back to my own experience with writing while in graduate school.

In this post, Dr. O explains why grad students shouldn’t feel like they need permission to write their dissertation (or to write in general, in fact):

“On the contrary, grad students should be continually writing throughout their thesis work, one results section at a time. For papers, if possible. If not, then for practice. Writing is an art, and it takes lots of practice. You understand your data and results better when you have time to write and reflect on them. Speaking on those results is important too, but unless you can convey your message on paper, you’re doomed.”

This advice was seconded here:

“Grad students, [writing]’s a great habit to get into RIGHT NOW–write a bit every day (or every week, if you’re like me and prefer to vomit papers up in  larger chunks)–just get into the habit of doing it regularly and you’ll be way ahead of the game when it comes to your thesis or dissertation.”

I wish I had received advice like this a little earlier in my grad school training, maybe even in year one. It actually took me a few years to cop on that one paper equals one chapter of my dissertation (I know, duh!).

So I’ll throw in my two cents here – I recommend that first-year grad students be required to write up what they accomplished after each lab rotation (even if it was very little), as if it were going to be submitted to a journal. I ended up developing my writing chops despite being clueless about how crucial writing and communication skills really are to being a successful scientist, because I actively sought out opportunities to write for my own reasons. But I don’t think this is true for most grad students, who are already completely overwhelmed with their experiments, lab meetings, journal clubs, departmental seminars, conferences, abstract submissions, self-doubt, sleeplessness, etc, etc, to be worried with whether or not they can or need to practice writing. For the grad students I knew, writing the paper often seemed like an afterthought at best, and at worst, like drudgery and punishment that required time away from the bench. So I think Dr. O has it right – writing should be happening all the time, not shoved aside until it absolutely must be done to meet an abstract deadline or submit a paper. More than that, I think all graduate students would benefit from formal training in manuscript writing and grantsmanship. Just a single quarter’s worth, one class.

Expanding on this theme in another post, Dr. O lamented the fact that grad student training tends to be a little light in the grantsmanship department. She went on to explain why grant writing seems like (is) such a Herculean task and why putting it off to the last minute is not a wise strategy.

When I joined the lab, my research project R01 funding had just been renewed for another 5 years, so I was able to pretty much keep my nose to the bench, and produce data, abstracts, and papers…until around my 4th year when it was time to start working on the competitive renewal. Wait…wha? I look back and picture myself coming up for air and then looking around to find myself on Mars. I had to learn pretty quickly about what goes into a grant submission. Blood, sweat, and a lot of tears, as it turned out. And I think some brain cells were sacrificed as well.

So I’ll add another three cents to make it an even nickel – immediately upon joining their thesis lab, grad students should be handed a copy of the grant(s) that is funding their research. It should be required reading. Students should have an understanding of where their research fits into the aims of the grant, how their data will support future grant applications and inform the direction of the next 5 years of research, as well as how the grant fits into the overall research goals of the lab. (In defense of my advisor, she excelled at sharing her vision with us in yearly State-of-the-Lab addresses.) While reading the grant will help grad students appreciate what grant writing entails, I would further suggest that every graduate student, whether or not they intend to pursue a career in academia, needs to help prepare a grant submission before they are allowed to graduate. (Sorry guys, it’s for your own good, I promise.)

In my post-graduate career as a freelance academic writer and editor, I have had plenty of experience preparing and consulting on grant applications. But I think I would have benefited from more formal training in writing and grantsmanship when l was a grad student.