PhD Careers: 10 Ways You Can Become a Successful Biotech/Science Freelance Writer

Do you like writing, and especially writing about biotechnology and science? Then you might be ready for a career as a professional biotech and/or science freelance writer. There are plenty of “alternative” science careers that focus solely on writing, including the following:

  • Copywriter/copyeditor
  • Science journalist/newspaper reporter
  • Science blogger
  • Magazine writer/editor
  • Grant writer/consultant
  • Scientific publication editor

You may be wondering how a graduate student or postdoc such as yourself can break into the field of writing. Well, it is possible and I am living proof of that: Since 2011, I have been a professional full-time biotech freelance writer, having left my science postdoc in 2006 and having resigned from my (non-writing) biotech job in 2011.

However, I didn’t become a writer overnight. In 2007, I started writing for all kinds of websites and clients. Initially, I did this just for fun and to see my name “ up in lights”, so to speak. However, as the years passed and my client list grew, writing became my second job. Until 2011, I was not confident enough to resign from my “real” biotech job as a technical scientist. But at some point in my writing career, when I had acquired sufficient confidence as well as clients, I knew the time had come to say goodbye to my corporate job and move full steam ahead into freelance writing.

Currently, I work as a part-time technical writer for a large biotech, a featured blogger for I’ve Tried That (a work-at-home blog and online scam review site), as well as a newspaper reporter. I’ve also been published on my old biotech company blog. And I’m moving ahead with my sci-fi novel, which will hopefully be completed by early next year.

What can you do right now to get started on becoming a successful biotech/science freelance writer? Here are 10 ways in which you can gain experience, credibility, confidence as well some valuable clips (what’s a clip? Read on) to move ahead with your freelance writing career.

1. Improve your writing. You might think you write good; however, if you can’t spot the grammatical issue with this sentence, then you need some training. Take a few writing and journalism classes at your school. If that’s not possible, look up online learning sites like Udemy and Khan Academy and sign up for their writing courses. If you have a friend or colleague who is a published writer, ask him or her to critique your work. Don’t downplay this part of the process because all the networking and degrees in the world won’t help you out if you send a sloppy and/or grammatically incorrect resume to a newspaper editor or corporate headhunter.

2. Practice your writing. I’m continually amazed at how many budding freelance writers approach me and say “I’d like to become a freelance writer”; yet, when I ask them for their clips (published content pieces), they tell me that they have not submitted anything just yet. You don’t need to be hired as a staff writer at Scientific American or Sigma-Aldrich in order to start publishing. There are plenty of online science and biotech blogs that you can query (i.e., inquire about writing for and provide with a few content ideas). These blogs may not pay money for your content, but they will certainly feature you.

If you are employed by a university or company, find out if the institution has a blog and ask if you can contribute to it. Such blogs carry significant weight with clients; personally, I landed several biotech clients when I mentioned my posts on Promega Connections (a corporate blog).

You can also start your own science blog and publish there. Doing so gets your name out and shows potential clients that you have the skills necessary to write (and write continuously). The best part about maintaining your own science blog is that, as your writing improves, you can edit the content pieces you’re not too proud of. Nothing that you write for a blog site is “set in stone”, as is the case for print media such as magazines and newspapers.

3. Take practice shots with “content mills”. A common writing outlet for the aspiring freelance writer is the so-called “content mill”. Third party sites like Textbroker and Constant Content pay their freelance writers to create content for specific clients. These writing “gigs” don’t generate a lot of cash- but they will help you develop into a writer who can take criticism, edit content quickly and work on a deadline. Just keep in mind that most of these content mills will not feature you or your clips, so they are not ideal for long-term work.

Other content mills such as HubPages and the Yahoo! Content Network offer writers exposure and reader feedback as well as a miniscule paycheck via generated page views. These sites are ideal for gauging your audience and for creating content that grabs reader attention. They also allow you to practice SEO and traffic-generating techniques. However, don’t count on these sites over the long-term because they will not provide you with any respectable clips (or a decent paycheck).

4.   Complete a science journalism internship. If you are serious about becoming a journalist with the likes of the Chicago Tribune, New York Times, Discover, etc., then consider doing a science journalism internship. Many of these aforementioned publications already offer journalism internships to scientists but, if you’re not sure where to start, apply to the AAAS Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellows Program. Just keep in mind that many journalism internships will require that you move away for at least six months, thus forcing you to interrupt your current work or study program. In my opinion, though, journalism internships are worth their weight in gold in terms of the people you get to meet and network with. And speaking of which…

5.   Always be networking. As with any other profession, your freelance writing success is largely dependent on not just what you know but who you know. However, it’s not enough to simply go to a writers’ or biotech happy hour and hand out your business cards to everyone you meet. Rather, it’s imperative that you focus on meeting and actually getting to know those two or three (and no more) individuals at the networking events you attend. Finding out what your contacts do, what difficulties they are having, and what exactly they wish to accomplish in their professional lives is essential to productive networking. What do you do with all the information that you gather from your networking contacts? Read on…

6.   Add value to everyone in your network. Dale Carnegie stated that, “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you”. In light of this saying, make it your professional (and personal) mission to always think of at least one or two ways in which everyone you network with can be helped by utilizing your skills or resources. Let service become your underlying motto, regardless of whether (you think) that person will be able to help further your career. Then, tell that person how you might be able to help him or her. Trust me, your dedication to being of service will not be forgotten.

As a personal case study, I became a newspaper reporter not because I applied for the job (in fact, the position was never listed), but because I offered to write free news releases for a non-profit in order to relieve the club president of some of her duties. I would then send these news releases to several newspaper editors in my area. One of those newspaper editors needed a reporter and asked the club president if she could recommend someone for the position. The club president recommended me- and I was offered the job.

7.   Don’t worry about taking a job that’s not exactly in your field. Many biotech and science freelance writers worry that, if they don’t take a position that is strictly in the biotechnology or science field, they’ll never be offered work in their area of expertise. However, you can never be too sure what your potential client is looking for. For example, I once was hired to write a white paper for a biotech firm not because I had a Ph.D. in genetics or because I’d worked at a biotech but because the president of the company located my Motley Fool posts. The president and his team were tickled pink that an “uninformed” scientist had actually taken the time to delve into the world of stock investment and actually analyze the business models of publicly traded companies. This helped me tremendously with a biotech company that didn’t hold a particularly high opinion of scientists.

8.   Learn some marketing. If you take a look at where major corporations hide their technical writers, it’s usually in the marketing department. In fact, I myself am employed in a marketing department. Why is this? Because companies know that all the copywriting and copyediting you do for them isn’t worth diddly-squat if it doesn’t generate product sales. Thus, if you’re even remotely considering working for a company as a technical writer, take a few marketing courses and learn e-commerce words/acronyms like SEO, SEM, squeeze page, call-to-action, etc. Identify what factors generate site traffic and page clicks. Design a website- or three- and start selling your own product. If you have no product to sell, engage in affiliate marketing. But don’t walk into any corporate interview without at least having some idea of why that business is online and on social media and what e-commerce strategies it is using to improve its bottom line. You need to push your freelance writing ROI (another acronym you need to know) because no one else will.

9.   Query- and query again. All freelance writers, unless they spend their entire lives working for a corporate outfit, must eventually query a magazine/newspaper/blog about publishing an article idea they have in mind. This is also true for biotech and science freelance writers. If you don’t know how to write a query letter to a magazine, blog or other publication, never fear: There are literally thousands upon thousands of books on the topic. Also, various freelance writers discuss the process and even offer courses on the subject for a fairly low fee; Linda Formichelli’s $30 Write for Magazines e-course immediately comes to mind. If you don’t learn about the query process and become comfortable with pitching (and re-pitching) content ideas to strangers, you’ll miss out on a big chunk of the freelance writing (money) pie.

10. Don’t get discouraged. “No one can make you feel inferior without you giving them permission” (Go Eleanor!) is another motto you must learn to live by as you progress in your alternative science career. Your mentor, your colleagues and even your friends may try to dissuade you from becoming a biotech/science freelance writer. Your parents or relatives may wonder why you are throwing away decades of education to sit at home and blog (“I thought you were going to cure cancer!”). But if you let these doubts rule your life, you’ll never become a freelance writer- or just about anything else you aspire to in this life. Live your passion and let no one –not even you- put your ambitions down.


About the Author

Halina Zakowicz earned her PhD in 2004 from George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. She is currently a full-time freelance writer with niche expertise in biotechnology, e-commerce and investments. In addition to content creation, she focuses on content marketing including SEO, social media promotion, backlink creation (e.g., guest posts, articles, white papers), back-end product generation and strategic interviewing.

You may contact her through LinkedIn or email in regards to how to take your business to the top of the Google search page, improve your brand image, generate additional sales, etc.