Joanna Owens

Dr-Joanna-Owens-(1).jpgCareer progression

1. Microbiology BSc

2.Biochemical Pharmacology MSc

3. Toxicology PhD

4. Scientific Journal Editor

5. Science Communication

6.Freelance writer and editor


Joanna is a freelance science writer and editor.

What is your career pathway to date (including your education)?

I always loved biology and chemistry at school, and after a first degree in Microbiology I decided to move into a more clinical area. I took a Masters in Biochemical Pharmacology at Imperial College London and there began my fascination with drug discovery. I nurtured this interest with a PhD in Toxicology at Surrey University, including a placement at AstraZeneca.

Although I loved pharmacology, I didn’t enjoy the lab bench as much as anticipated. I was better at writing about my research than actually doing it! After my PhD I started looking at different options and successfully applied for an Assistant Editor role on the journal Drug Discovery Today. This turned out to be the perfect fit. I could stay close to the science but play to my strengths as a writer. I stayed with DDT for four years and then moved to Nature Reviews Drug Discovery as a commissioning editor.

I’d never considered other types of science communication careers, but a friend contacted me about a role at Cancer Research UK writing their scientific yearbook. I spent ten years there in various science communications roles, writing for fundraising and press, developing skills I use as a freelance writer today.

What do you do? What does a typical week look like to you?

There really is no typical week as a freelance writer, and that’s one of the aspects I enjoy most about it. I write for both scientific and public audiences, which means my clients range from scientific publishers to biomedical charities and societies. I have regular discrete pieces of writing that I do every month for the same clients, such as plain language summaries of grants and papers, and larger projects such as charity impact reports, online courses for scientists, or writing new copy for web sites. The variety of different projects and the range of different teams I get to work with is one of the highlights of my job.

My working week is usually a mixture of carrying out work I’ve already committed to, while also making time to plan and discuss the next projects in the pipeline. I spend most of my time reading or copywriting, but there’s always some business admin to do!

I tend to work normal office hours from my home, but being my own boss means that I can change the rules and work the hours I want to, as long as the work gets done. People often ask me if working freelance means you feel isolated if you are used to being in an office, but I have phone or video calls with clients on most days and if I am craving human company I’ll go and work in a cafĂ© to recreate the office buzz! I also have a great network of fellow freelance writers and our equivalent of the ‘water cooler’ catch-up is regular Whatsapp chats and video calls. Every few months we’ll catch up in person to talk through challenges and share successes (a good excuse for lunch), and we even organize our own freelancers’ Christmas party.

What do you like and dislike the most about your current position?

I love the variety and flexibility of my job. You never know what fascinating project someone is going to approach you about next, and there is always something new to learn. This is both an opportunity and a challenge though, because one of the toughest aspects of my job is time management. Without the ability to see exactly what work is coming down the pipeline, it can be hard to plan your time effectively. I work for multiple clients, so if their timelines change, I often have extremely busy periods where I’m juggling several different projects.

How do you see your career further progressing in the future?

I can’t imagine changing my freelance working life, but I think the types of work I do will expand. As well as science writing, I also now do different types of charity copywriting that is focused on other areas I am passionate about, such as education and social care. Producing content for interactive online training tools is also an area I would like to do more of. The joy of working freelance is that you can dip your toe in the water and see what you enjoy.  

What three pieces of advice would you give someone keen on developing a career in your area of work?

  1. If interested in science communications, I would try to gain as much experience as possible through offering to write for websites, blogs or newsletters or volunteering at public engagement events at your school or university, or for charities or societies you are interested in.  
  2. Talk to plenty of people working in science communications to find out what specific aspects/roles you are interested in. There is a difference between general public engagement in science and writing about science for specific audiences (e.g. packaging up science into fundraising proposals or writing plain language summaries for patients). STEMPRA or the Association of British Science Writers are good places to start.  
  3. If interested in a freelance career, invest time and energy in establishing good networks. Most of my work has come through networks of past colleagues and clients – so make sure people know you are there, and what you can offer.

Published: 25 Aug 2020 in Industry