Surgery to Slide Decks:
Navigating a Career Change in Your 30's
The workplace has changed in recent years and it seems that the concept of staying in one job, or even one career for an entire working life is being rejected in favour of less linear career paths. Expectations of work happiness have increased and, like many people during the COVID pandemic, I had the time and space to consider what I really wanted from my job.
In my mid-30's and feeling burnt out by 10 years in local veterinary practice, I was lucky to be offered a position at Alchemy where I was able to jump head first into the world of medical writing. With increasingly poor retention rates among veterinary surgeons, I am certainly not the first to make a career change. However, the sideways leap from vet to medical writer is not a well-trodden path and while this has been a very worthwhile change, it has been accompanied by a very steep learning curve and a myriad of emotions along the way.
Not only was there a vast number of new things to learn, but there was a lot of long-forgotten information that had to somehow be accessed from the depths of my brain. After many years in the same job there is a tendency to rely on pattern recognition and handy go-to sources of information, but now these were no use to me. Like all veterinary and science graduates I had been through a period of intense learning at university, but that was over a decade ago when my synapses were in the prime of their life. The bad news is that our cognitive abilities peak in our twenties then start to decline thereafter. This might come as a surprise to some, but not to me – I could definitely feel the cogs turning at a slower pace.
When learning the ins and outs of a new job, it can feel like there is a mountain to climb but one thing that undeniably helps is having a team of supportive and knowledgeable colleagues on hand, which was certainly the case at Alchemy. One of the most fun things about changing career is that you get to meet new and interesting people who have different backgrounds and life experiences to you. Before starting, I had read up on the job as much as I could, watched webinars, and sought the advice of those already working in medical writing. This was all very helpful, and I would advise anyone thinking of transitioning to medical writing to do the same. However, I don’t think you can ever be fully prepared – there are lots of new things to get to grips with, some major and some minor.
Learning about a new therapy area can be a challenge for any medical writer, but I think that learning about it in a new species provides an added layer of complexity. Veterinary medicine is noticeably less advanced than human medicine. For example, immunomodulatory therapies are not as widely used and were not something I learned about at vet school (not that I can remember anyway!). Medical writing also has its own jargon and a vast array of mysterious acronyms. I must admit that in the early days there were some conversations that went right over my head, and there were many briefs that took an age to de-code. Getting to grips with the IT side of things was also a bit of a mission for a borderline technophobe like me. It was alarming when several boxes of shiny new IT equipment turned up at my house and I somehow had to figure out how it was all supposed to connect together. Fortunately, my personal one-man IT department in the shape of my husband was there to help, highlighting the importance of having the practical and emotional support of family and friends when trying to settle into a new line of work.
During my search for a medical writing position, I had tried to emphasise the transferable skills that I felt would help me cross over from one profession to the other, for example medical knowledge, good attention to detail, and client communication skills. This was for the purpose of making me seem more employable, but in truth it was also to help me convince myself that this big change was something I could actually make happen. I’ve come to realise that it’s true that crossover exists, but in reality there are also many differences between the two jobs. Learning ‘on the job’ was new for me and contrasted with the 5 years of formal learning and practical experience I had undertaken before I was let loose on any patients.
Veterinary surgeries are noisy, fast-paced environments which is very different to working from home where it’s just me, my laptop and my brief for most of the day. I felt like I was asking my rusty old brain to work in a completely different way. The nature of the work requires more focused thought and scientific understanding, which took a while to adjust to despite the fact that I loved the peace and quiet and the way the days passed quickly when I became absorbed in a piece of work. It sounds ridiculous to say, but one thing that surprised me was just how difficult it is to sit still all day. On a busy day in practice, I would have sold my soul to sit down for just 5 minutes, and I had assumed that a whole day would be blissful!
I found the work really enjoyable and have always got a kick out of learning and discovering new things. However, not all of the necessary skills came naturally, and I spent a while feeling like a square peg in a round hole. It’s a tricky dynamic going from a senior role in a well-established career path to being the most junior again. I imagine it’s common for people starting afresh to have times of self-doubt, and imposter syndrome can easily creep in. I would continually question myself – Am I too slow? Am I meeting the client’s expectations? What will I do if this doesn’t work out?
It took a while for me to believe that I did have what it takes to become a medical writer, but confidence comes with experience, and it was nice to discover some attributes that I didn’t even know I possessed. I’m still here nearly 2 years later so must be doing something right!
Aside from dealing with the intricacies of learning a new job, I also experienced conflicting emotions about leaving the old job behind. I was relieved to be leaving and elated that I had found a great new opportunity at Alchemy. However, I thought of the veterinary community as ‘my tribe’ and I felt guilty for leaving, particularly as the recruitment and retention crisis makes life increasingly stressful for vets working in practice. In reality, I’ve had a lot of support from my veterinary peers and I frequently get asked for advice on getting into medical writing (once I’ve explained what it actually is!).
There was also guilt and sadness about leaving behind the clients and patients I had been looking after for several years. A small-town vet serves the community and can become a well-known face locally. Personally, I was glad to leave this responsibility behind, but I can imagine this change in status could be difficult for some, especially moving to a career like medical writing where you are comparatively anonymous and could risk feeling like just small cog in the large pharma machine. I found moving to a small company where everyone is valued and appreciated to be a big advantage in this respect.
There are also practicalities to consider when changing career. Most people in their 30's will have accrued some financial and family responsibilities. Job security and uncertainty around that can be a worry, and I think it is important not to burn any bridges with previous employers if you think that there is any possibility that the new career path might not work out. Crawling back with egg on your face is not a good look! Starting from the bottom rung of a new career will usually come with some financial drawbacks and planning for this is a good idea. I was able to do this, but not everyone is so lucky. A survey conducted by London School for Business and Finance found that worries over financial insecurity was the main barrier to career change, especially among Millennials.
Considering that 2 years ago I had never heard of medical writing, I’ve come a long way in my journey from vet to medical writer. Although the initial leap was scary, and there have been some ups and down along the way, my career change has turned out to be rewarding. It has been empowering to see my skills increase and confidence grow, and there has even been a promotion along the way. I’ve discovered that it’s possible to be part of two ‘tribes’ and that your job is not your whole identity. To successfully move into a new industry, it is critical to keep asking questions and be receptive to constructive feedback, but it can be easy to succumb to self-doubt and imposter syndrome.
So, remember to be kind to yourself - the pieces will fall into place eventually.