There are very few things a PhD student does more than write, so it should not be a surprise that there are many career opportunities for PhDs that involve writing. For those in the humanities, available positions may be more obvious; if your PhD is in Russian literature, there are few people better suited to serve as a translator of Russian literature.
If your degree is in any of the science/engineering fields, opportunities still abound (these writing opportunities go way beyond finally getting around to writing that novel that you’ve been thinking about between experiments).
Regardless of your specific degree program or dissertation topic, nearly all PhD programs instill a general ability to analyze a topic, conduct the appropriate research, and compose a linear and coherent summary or argument, which is the basis for almost all writing assignments across all disciplines.
Your specific or technical expertise further bolsters your credentials as a communicator and translator of knowledge to peers and laymen alike. Depending on your background, your skills are needed in areas that include grant writing, tutoring, journal and magazine editing and publication, and scientific/medical writing.
Table of Contents
If you are having trouble thinking of the appropriate job title for the type of writing you would like to pursue, you are likely trying too hard. Job titles in writing tend to be pretty straightforward and descriptive (e.g., science writer, medical writer, translator, etc.). You should definitely not immediately limit yourself regarding the specific field when starting off since good opportunities can be somewhat difficult to come by. For example, if your PhD is in ecology, that doesn’t necessarily preclude you from writing an article in the field of genomics; your ability to write well is much more important than your dissertation topic.
Who are the Employers?
The obvious employers are newspapers (local or national), radio (any talk radio stations that still exist), television, and scientific journals (Nature, Cell, Journal of the American Chemical Society, etc.). The more prominent the publication, the more difficult you may find trying to break into the industry via this route. Other technical opportunities are available at pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies that may need someone to compose scientific literature and label materials. Your best bet initially may be to seek out any freelance opportunities (that may be unpaid) in order to build up your portfolio of quality written work. In order to gain visibility when you are first starting out, it is also a good idea to start your own blog on the topic that you would like to cover and volunteer to write blog posts for other blogs that are already established and popular in your field of expertise.
In addition to the usual process of searching online job boards, company websites, and utilizing your networking skills, you should look into contacting and joining any pertinent professional organizations. For the case of scientific and medical writing, there is the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA), the Society for Technical Communication (STC), and the Association of American University Presses. The Nature Jobs website can also be a source for writing and editing opportunities. You should be ready with writing samples when you are applying, and MAKE SURE YOUR WRITING SAMPLES ARE NOT FULL OF JARGON. Your purpose as a writer is to communicate, and nothing puts the brakes on successful communication quite like jargon.
If you are in a salaried position and are successful you can find yourself climbing the corporate ladder to more senior positions. If you should choose the freelance route, the tables may begin to turn as you build your writing portfolio and instead of hunting down opportunities, the opportunities may begin to find you.
As a freelance writer, you are basically in complete control of your hours and you really just need to worry about meeting the deadlines of the jobs that you accept. Work hours can also be flexible for many of the salaried positions as many companies will allow you to do at least some work from home. The bottom line is that a career in writing is based on delivering your assignments on a deadline, so if you write well and work efficiently, a 40 hour workweek is possible.
Science, medical, and other technical writers with advanced degrees who find themselves in salaried positions can reasonably expect a salary in the range of $70-100K. Pay for freelancers will depend on the job flow, but they can expect a similar range of pay if they can manage a steady stream of jobs throughout the year.
There are many different exit opportunities for writers, especially for those in technical fields. Written communication skills are especially valued in marketing, investor relations, business development, regulatory affairs, and clinical research.