Chris Kahlberg, 61, is officially retired. But when he’s not exploring a new part of the world from the saddle of his bike, he has a lucrative side hustle — medical writing. 

Kahlberg earns $170 an hour summarizing medical safety studies, writing reports and drug safety analyses. Although he earns a relatively high hourly rate, the industry standard runs from $93 to more than $113 per hour, according to the American Medical Writers Association. Kahlberg thinks medical writing is an ideal side hustle for good communicators with a science background or medical experience. 

“There is such a need,” he says. “I think you’d need to have some medical knowledge, but there are a lot of opportunities out there.”

Lucrative field

Indeed, LinkedIn lists more than 2,400 open medical writing jobs. And many of them pay handsomely. A clinical editor position at Merck, for instance, has an estimated salary range of $96,000 to -$165,000. Another medical writing management position has a $156,000 – $224,000 salary range.

Salary.com says that the median income for a medical writer in New York is more than $87,000. Other sites estimate that even beginning medical writers can earn upwards of $50,000 annually. And the American Medical Writer’s Association notes that most medical writers work at home at least part of the time. 

What is medical writing?

Medical writing covers a broad range of communication. This can include research reports, study summaries,  and articles about clinical studies. It can involve professional communication by doctors to doctors about scientific break-throughs and new treatment options; vendor to doctor communication about new drugs, dosages and treatments; as well as patient brochures that explain treatment options and side effects. There’s also a broad regulatory side of this business that involves penning grant proposals and reports for the Food & Drug Administration. And, of course, there’s a substantial sales, marketing and advertising side of the profession.

In other words, medical writing ranges from highly technical and heavily scientific to far more accessible consumer-oriented stories. But what all medical writing has in common is a focus on clarity, accuracy and compliance with FDA rules. 

Who can do it

Theoretically, the only requirements for medical writers is excellent communication skills combined with a passion for science. However, because the required material can be highly technical, some companies prefer writers with advanced scientific degrees or experience in the medical field. 

If you have both, you’re golden. Kahlberg, for instance, has a PhD and worked in pharmaceutical development for Glaxo Smith Kline before he retired. But, that level of experience is not necessarily required, particularly for consumer-facing communication, such as brochures about treatment options. 

The American Medical Writers Association also offers an “essential skills” certificate program. In addition to basic grammar and punctuation, the essential skills program delves into medical terminology, reporting on statistics and medical ethics. The course costs $850 for members and $1,235 for non-members and usually takes about 6 months to complete. (Membership costs $199 annually, so if you’re considering the course, it makes sense to join beforehand for the discount.)

Where to find work

Kahlberg maintains there are so many recruiters looking for medical writers on Linkedin that your best bet is to simply revise your resume there to emphasize your scientific writing chops. If you have the background and clips, jobs will come to you, he says.

A blogger that calls himself the CheekyScientist suggests that prospective medical writers join the American Medical Writers Association to get access to the site’s membership directory and local chapters, where you can network.

Job boards such as Indeed and Glassdoor also have copious medical writing positions listed. And sites such as ServiceScape, Skyword and Contently also have medical writing assignments that you can tap, if you have the right background and credentials. 

The toughest part is getting the first few assignments, according to the CheekyScientist. But, he maintains that if you do a good job, word-of-mouth is likely to bring in a constant stream of work.