Twitter can be a great platform for learning about careers outside of academia as a graduate student. I have been fortunate to follow the journey of several professionals in the tri-state area as they completed their graduate degrees and opted for careers that took them outside of the lab. Sarah Ahlbrand (@seahlbrand) is one of these fantastic professionals. She currently works as a medical writer for Technical Resources International, Inc. where she supports clinical trials in oncology. She received her PhD from University of Maryland College Park studying tuberculosis pathogenesis. When not tweeting about #scicomm or #lifebeyondthebench, she connects with her audience by sharing her love of puppies and tea. I had the opportunity of connecting with Dr. Ahlbrand to ask her about her career path and what it means to work as a medical writer.
- Tell me a little bit about your educational background and how you got to this point?
I obtained my B.S. in Biology from Roanoke College in 2012 and started my PhD in Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Maryland (UMD). While I was in graduate school, there were certain aspects of lab work and research that I enjoyed, but I also felt very bogged down by failed experiments, troubleshooting, and the “politics” of academia. Since UMD is near to Washington DC, I decided to take advantage of the opportunities in the area as a way to boost myself up when grad school became difficult. I started attending networking events and workshops to learn more about non-academic careers in the biomedical field and found that I was really interested in jobs focusing on medical affairs. I completed my PhD in August 2017 and was fortunate enough to start a job in medical writing about two weeks later.
- What experiences during your graduate education helped prepare you for your current career?
The ability to multitask and manage different projects at the same time! At my current job it’s very rare to work on just one project at a time, which is fairly similar to my lab experiences. Being able to prioritize tasks and juggle different responsibilities is a huge skill.
Also, being able to look at a publication and quickly abstract key information. During my PhD I rarely had the time to sit and read papers from beginning to end. A valuable skill that I learned was being able to skim a paper and quickly locate the information I needed. Same thing for medical writing—I often need to quickly read publications describing the results from clinical trials and summarize the results from those publications in documents that will go to the FDA.
- What does an average day look like for you?
It really depends! Some of my main responsibilities are writing up reports summarizing key findings/adverse events from investigational cancer drug clinical trials and reviewing clinical trial protocols for compliance. However, a lot of what I do on a day-to-day basis is dependent on what is requested from the medical officers we work with at the National Cancer Institute.
- Do you find it hard to find work-life balance in your current career?
I find I have a much better work/life balance now than I did during graduate school. I work from 8:00-4:30, and after that put my work down and typically don’t worry about it until the next day. Having the weekends free is also a nice perk! Of course, there are times where deadlines can be demanding and you need to put in a bit more time, but that hasn’t been typical from my experience thus far.
- What do you think is currently lacking in graduate education that students need to focus on to reach their goals after graduation, specifically with regards to careers outside of academia?
Students need to realize that if they want a career outside of academia they need to develop and showcase their “soft skills”. Being able to pipette into fifteen 96-well plates in under 2 minutes is impressive, but employers often look for candidates with communication, leadership, and project management skills. This often means that students need to get involved in activities outside of the lab to hone these skills.
That being said, my biggest advice to graduate students is to start planning early for your career. Look up job ads for potential jobs you might be interested in, write down the qualifications they’re looking for, and work toward obtaining those skills. Conduct informational interviews with people in potential fields that you’re interested in—it’s very rare that people will say “no” if you ask to talk to them for 30 minutes! The biggest mistake I see people make is waiting until the middle of their 5th or 6th years to start career planning—it’s never too early to start thinking about what’s next! It might seem scary and burdensome, but you will be much better off as you’re finishing up your graduate work.
- Any thoughts on where you might be 5 years from now?
Not 100% sure, but I’d like to delve more into project management or medical science liaison-type work. Right now, I’m soaking up as much information about drug development and pharmaceutical fields as I can, and from there we’ll see!
- What are best and worst features of your current job?
The best part of my job is the fact that I’m still working on the forefront of scientific discovery and drug development but I don’t have to do the science itself. It’s also a great feeling to know that the work I’m doing is helping to support the discovery and development of new cancer therapeutics that will hopefully go toward prolonging patients’ lives.
I wouldn’t call it the “worst” thing ever, but the hardest part of my current job is sitting all day as opposed to constantly running around the lab doing experiments. Most of my work also consists of staring at a computer, so sometimes it can also be a strain on the eyes. I make sure to take occasional breaks to walk around outside or around the office—it really helps!