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This post was written by Rebecca Tadokera, PhD MPH.

What do you do when your well-laid-out plans do not pan out, and everything comes crashing down? How do you react when the dream you have always thought you were building turns into a nightmare? How do you reposition yourself to move forward when you feel like your plans have been derailed? This was the situation I found myself in two years ago.

My inflection point

Some people call it an inflection point. But looking back, I realize this was the end of one journey and the beginning of another. I had applied for all the research grants and fellowships I could find. Deep in my heart, I still had a burning passion for continuing the fight against one of the oldest infectious diseases, tuberculosis (TB). But as the year progressed, it became evident that without securing a research grant, my research career was ending. I was at a career crossroads.

After committing 12 years of my career to TB research, the decision to hang my lab coat was both challenging and painful. I felt like I had failed.

It is almost impossible to work in TB research without being passionate about the subject. I mourned the research I could have done, the career I could have built, and everything this path could have been.

Among infectious disease researchers, TB is often jokingly referred to as “HIV’s poor cousin.” This is because, traditionally, TB has erroneously been considered a disease of the poor and is grossly underfunded. Funding for TB research is notoriously difficult to win, especially in developing countries. The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic did not help matters. TB became one of the biggest casualties. Funding that had initially been targeted for TB work was quickly diverted to COVID-19 research.

Coincidentally, during this time, I was applying for funding extensions to continue my research into TB. I submitted numerous grant funding applications and responded to every funding call for which I was eligible. But there was no funding available. As a foreign national, the changes in the academic landscape in South Africa made it nearly impossible to get a faculty appointment. Eventually, I realised that I only had two options.

I either had to pivot to a new field of research and follow the money or find a new career path. I had reached the end of the road. Knowing this, I decided to shift to an entirely new career path. 

Breaking new ground

Leaving the academy is not something that academics discuss openly – at least, not until recently. By pursuing (or even thinking about) a non-academic pathway, people consider that you have failed as an academic. Anyone who has tried to move out of academia will also know that information scarcity is one of the reasons why many PhDs do not even think about leaving the academy. You don’t know what you don’t know. For this reason, many a PhD student are unaware of career options outside academia. But I had to leave if I was going to survive.

But how would I start? My network was comprised of academic researchers. I knew only a handful of people who had left academia after their PhDs. I did not know any alternative careers that would allow me to use my science training and provide intellectual stimulation outside academia. So I started hunting for opportunities online. During one of these searches, I stumbled across medical writing job adverts on LinkedIn. This was the first time I had heard of such a career path, for the first time. I was curious. 

The power of networking

While medical writing is an established field in the Western world, becoming a medical writer in Africa is in its infancy. That marked the beginning of my self-education journey into medical writing.

For the benefit of the uninitiated, medical writing, or medical communications (medcomms for short), is a profession that involves the development of scientific clinical documents that comply with regulatory, journal or other guidelines, both in content and structure.

Historically, medical writing originated in the pharmaceutical industry. This was because of the need for specialized skills to produce well-structured documents that present clinical information clearly and concisely. Today, medical writing is a vast profession that continues to grow exponentially globally.

I devoured all the information on medcomms that I could find. I connected with a few people I knew who worked in medcomms and requested informational interviews. During these interactions, I made sure to ask my contacts if they knew of companies that were hiring on the African continent. I learned of a medcomms agency that had just started recruiting in South Africa. I landed my first medical writer interview with this company.

Keep trying

Entry into medical writing is notoriously difficult. The recruitment process is rigorous and can entail a series of both written and oral interviews. My first attempt at a medical writing test was a flop! I had little knowledge about the expectations, required writing standards, or assessment criteria during the written assessments. I must be honest and say that this experience left me a little scarred. With so much academic writing experience under my belt, a dozen internationally published manuscripts, several grants won, and a colossal ego, how was it possible that I could fail a test? My immediate reaction was just to let it go and move on.

A few months later, I regrouped and found myself on the offensive. Once again, I dug up all the information I could find about medcomms, the types of writing tests, and expectations of the writing tests, among other details. I networked aggressively, connecting with people via LinkedIn to learn more about the field. At this time, I learnt, through one of my mentors, that an ex-colleague had recently transitioned into medcomms. I linked up with her and was delighted to learn that her company was on a recruitment drive in South Africa. This time, I went all out in preparing for the recruitment process. I went through three written and two oral interviews before I was hired! That marked the start of my journey in medcomms.

What I learned on my journey to becoming a medical writer in South Africa

I’ve been working in medical communications for over a year now. Here are two key lessons I’ve learned in that time.

  1. Embrace ambiguity and be agile. Things move extremely fast here. That is a big ask for any scientist who is used to structure and predictability.
  2. Embrace a growth mindset and saying, “I do not know how to do that yet, but I will figure it out.” Because as a medical writer, there is not a day that goes by that I do not learn something new.