Name: John Essex
College & Majors/Minors: Wabash College, Major: Biology, Minor: English (plus 2 years of medical school)
Current Location: Indianapolis, IN
Current Form of Employment: Owner, Editor at Peak Medical Editing, LLC
Where do you work and what is your current position?
I work at Peak Medical Editing, the company I started and own. I’m happy to report that my boss is a super great guy—very lax with the dress code policy. I’m a medical editor, which means I help scientific authors improve the clarity of their writing for peer-reviewed journals. I also edit various other medically focused projects, including textbooks, which are more fun than you might think.
Tell us about how you found your first job, and how you found your current job (if different).
Back in college, when people would hear I had a biology major with an English minor, they would ask, “What the heck are you going to do with that combination?” I would say, “I don’t know, something.” I doubled-down on the science and went to medical school. After completing the basic medical science courses (not without a lot of prayer and struggle), I left. I knew I wanted to find something that would combine my love of writing and English (thanks to my mom, a retired English teacher) with my medical background. That’s when I became very familiar with job search websites. The programmers at those search companies must have thought it hilarious that when a user input “science” and “writer,” the output would be “TV EXTRAS WANTED!”
Most of the jobs I was looking for required 3 to 5 years of experience. Yahoo! let me apply a search filter based on years of experience. I had 0 years of experience, so I checked the experience filter marked “0-1,” and all jobs but one fell away: a report writer for a contract research facility in Ohio. That’s not actually true—all science writing jobs fell away but the report writing job, followed by several pages of TV acting work (which, to my surprise, was in mysteriously high demand in the Midwest).
I interviewed and got the job, moved to another state and worked there for 5 years. The job involved taking research findings and writing toxicology reports that would eventually go into FDA files for new drugs. I gained plenty from that first professional job: humility, discipline, and how to work in a corporate environment. I also met my wife there, a stunning chemist who introduced me to Harry Potter.
Fast forward through a job as a medical writer (the details of which I’m saving for the next question), and I became the Editor in Chief of two scientific publications: American Pharmaceutical Review and Pharmaceutical Outsourcing. It was there where I realized many scientific researchers sometimes need help conveying their ideas in English. My favorite part of my job as Editor in Chief was helping authors revise and sharpen their work, getting the best out of their manuscripts. I was not as enthused about the part of the job where I had to fend off influence from sponsors and do extensive traveling. My wife and I had just had a baby boy and I wasn’t keen on being away from them as often as the job was asking.
I started looking at working for some of the editing companies out there, but I realized I had enough clout and experience under my belt to work for myself, so I started my own company and finally figured out what I could do with that strange combination of a major in biology with a minor in English.
What was another writing-related job that was important in your career?
Before my Editor in Chief days, I was a medical writer back in my hometown of Indianapolis. There I learned how to take complex medical information and tell a compelling story for an audience of physicians and scientific leaders. Using published scientific literature, clinical trial data, and advice from researchers, I wrote PowerPoint slide decks that would be presented at medical meetings, scripts for videos, and several journal manuscripts.
I met some of the smartest people I’ve ever known at that job. For 3 years, I worked closely with the senior medical editor, learning all the nuances of the American Medical Association style. As luck would have it, my cubicle was next to hers, so asking questions was super convenient. She graciously answered hundreds of my questions, knowing that the more informed I was as a writer, the easier her job would be editing my work. (Pro Tip: When you get into the professional world, don’t be afraid to ask questions if you don’t know something.) I edit my current clients’ work like she edited mine: constructively and instructively. She provided examples that helped me grasp certain rules, knowing that I could apply that knowledge in my next project. I do that now for my clients: I want to help them become better writers and impart little tips to improve writing beyond what is currently on the page. The world will always benefit from knowledgeable people who can clearly communicate. As an editor, it’s my job to help experts share their knowledge with the world.
What did you do in college to prepare for your post-grad life?
In college, I split my time between science and English courses. I loved the assignments and discussions in my English classes. I had fun with my essays in my junior and senior years, letting some humor slip in where I felt brave enough. There was not as much room for personality in the science classes, although I enjoyed them for other reasons.
What is your advice for students and graduates with an English degree?
Here’s the dirty little secret about an English degree: it’s applicable everywhere. The ability to communicate clearly is the missing ingredient in many professional avenues. Combine your degree with another field like business, marketing, science, or any other professional area that may interest you and you’ve got rock star potential anywhere.
While you’re in school, immersed in your world of literature, grammar, and writing, you can lose sight of the fact that many people are unfamiliar with that world, so you might assume everyone has your abilities. That’s not true. Other people might be experts in math, science, and business, but their knowledge and expertise is useless if they can’t string a useful sentence together to get their messages out. Enter the English Majors: rugged navigators for a world in need of clean writing and proper grammar, come to save the world through clarity of thought.