Name: Amber Salomons
Did PhD at: Utrecht University
Current position: Medical writer at Factory CRO, the Netherlands
Interviewed by: Joanne Bakker
“As a child, I wanted to become a veterinarian, but I was not great at physics. Yet, on the last skiing trip with my colleagues, I was giving a presentation about the heart and explaining how the blood flows using the laws of physics.. So I am still learning new things in my job as a medical writer.”
Instead of becoming a veterinarian, Amber Salomons studied Biology at the University of Groningen. “It was a logical choice for me. Life, animals, nature, they attracted me. It was a fantastic topic and a fantastic study, I still think that. But people always said that you can do anything when you have studied biology, but no one was very clear about what you could actually do. So when I was finished studying, I did not really know what biologists did.”
Amber, not exactly sure what she wanted to do, investigated her options for a few months. She eventually applied for a PhD position at the department of Animals in Science and Society at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at Utrecht University. During her PhD studies, she worked on animal models of anxiety. “I really liked my group and doing research itself, and my professor was doing a good job too, but I started to get some ethical objections against my type of research, seeing what was gained from it. It was disappointing that I did not have so much impact to change things.”
She worked as a postdoc in the same lab for one year finishing up her thesis work, but also having to teach many hours for the department. “It was maybe 40% teaching and 60% research, and I am not a teacher, I wanted to do research. I never had the ambition to become a group leader, I would have gone abroad in that case. Ideally, I would be working as a staff scientist without having to teach. Unfortunately, these positions are really rare.”
A whole new world
Amber started to look for other jobs and talked to people to find out what they were doing. A former PhD colleague from Utrecht University told her about Factory, the Contract Research Organization (CRO) specialized in medical devices that she currently works at. She got hired there but in a different position than what she does now. “I started as a Clinical Research Associate (CRA), which I never even heard about. I did preclinical research, not clinical research, so it was a whole new world for me.”
Being a CRA helped to get into clinical research. “My work was fast-paced, and involved switching all the time. I liked to communicate with hospitals and doctors. You have to arrange and communicate continuously: nothing ever goes as it should.” She did miss working more in-depth and having tangible results. The frequent travelling was not very practical either and reading through heaps of medical files to monitor hospitals was not her favorite thing to do.
She quickly found assignments that suited her more. “Quite soon after I started working as a CRA, I took on tasks as a medical writer.” At that time, there was not so much work to do within the company, but now she works as a full-time medical writer. “It is much more needed now, because the regulation of medical devices is changing a lot.” After some scandals (for example with the leaking PIP breast implants), new rules and regulations are being implemented by the EU, demanding much more documentation about safety and performance from the producers of medical devices for each product. “I think it is only a good thing, the products will be more safe, we have more work to do, and it gives our work more impact too.”
Not only making reports
Amber´s job as a medical writer at Factory is very diverse. She writes, reviews and edits protocols for medical studies, clinical study reports and clinical evaluation reports, but also does some consulting. She helps the client (“sponsor”) think about the study design and statistics, especially now that the regulations are changing so much. “Real writing is an important part of my job, but it is not only making reports.”
Having no real technical background made it challenging at first, but Amber learned a lot over the years. The skills acquired during her PhD studies helped: she already knew how to write, do literature research and plan and could think analytically and learn fast. “There are a lot of different kinds of devices, every time there is another therapeutic field, from orthopedic knee implants to heart valves and dermal fillers.”
After some years at Factory, Amber felt ready for a new challenge and took a job as a medical writer at a different company called Author. She hoped to learn more skills from the very experienced medical writers working there. The company specialized in medical writing for the pharmaceutical industry, which she found less interesting: the assignments were much more straightforward and structured, and there were more rules and less interesting topics. “Often it is about some chemical that is in phase 1 of a clinical study, so that is always more or less the same.”
Fortunately, after a few months she was recruited back to Factory and is now thriving again there. “The best thing about my job? My colleagues. It is a combination: the people with whom you do the work.” She could negotiate some benefits too upon returning: she now only works one day per week at the office and the rest from home, which helps to combine working life with her family of two young children.
No two days are the same
Given that she loved the freedom in academia, she still has quite a lot of freedom in the day-to-day planning of her work now. “The planning is pretty free. No two days are the same.” Nevertheless, she does have to work according to Standard Operating Protocols (SOPs), and sometimes has less interesting projects or tough clients to deal with.
In the future, she could see herself working at a different company as a medical writer or consultant. “Right now, things at Factory are still changing a lot, and the regulation of medical devices is changing too. If I would get stuck in a rut, I might want to switch jobs. But this does not depend on my position, but more on the actual daily work I do.”
This career portrait was originally written for the PhD course “Career skills for scientists”, organized every spring by KI Career Service. As explained in the introduction post, all participants in the course interviewed PhD holders with an academic or a non-academic career. Keep an eye on the tag #CareerPortrait for a selection of these portraits. Get inspired and learn more about your options for your post-PhD career!