Friday, May 20, 2011

What Do YOU Make?

Salary is usually a taboo topic. No one wants to let others know what he or she makes. But admit it, you want to know what other people make, don't you? Well, you have to give a little to get a little, so open up and participate in the 2011 AMWA Salary Survey. In the end, you'll know what your colleagues make, yet your information will remain anonymous. It's a win-win, if you ask me.

How exactly do you benefit by participating in AMWA's effort to collect data on salaries? In a nutshell, AMWA is the largest organization of medical writers, which makes the results of our survey the best representation of what medical writers and editors actually earn.

Having an accurate account of what medical communicators earn is important no matter where you are in your career. If you are looking for a job, knowing the true industry standard will arm you with the ammunition to negotiate a fair salary. The same goes for those of you preparing for an annual review as well as freelances deciding whether to accept a client's offer. If you're thinking about jumping ship to try another, less stressful career, you can compare the industry standards for medical writing and quiltmaking (for example). If you're a hiring manager, you can use salary survey data for salary benchmarking to make sure you're paying your employees fairly. If you're solidly employed, you should know your market value. So, every one of us has a reason to take part in the survey!

If you need further evidence for participating, you should know that other sources of salary data can't compete with the AMWA Salary Survey in terms of value. Often, the discrepancy is related to the lack of an appropriate job definition. For example, the US Department of Labor doesn't have "medical writing" as a job classification; the closest job is "technical writer." It seems as though medical writers could be found in the sub-industries of "Management, Scientific and Technical Consulting Services" or "Scientific Research and Development," which happen to be two of the four sub-industries with the highest levels of employment of technical writers. According to US Labor statistics from 2010, the mean annual wages for these two sub-industries were $67,400 and $66,140, respectively. These wages are far lower than the majority of wages reported 3 years ago in the 2007 AMWA Salary Survey. The lowest AMWA survey-reported mean salary was $68,769, which was for women with no more than an associate's degree. (Don't get me started on the gender differences in salary!) Most of us have more education than this, and reported wages ranged from $73,522 to $101,872 for bachelor's degree up to advanced degree.

Are other sources of salary data better than the US Department of Labor? There's, but that name seems to be a misnomer, given that the site reports US national averages for "medical technical writer" in 10 states, with a range of $34,208 (Phoenix, AZ) to $52,148 (New York, NY). What??

You'll find higher salaries at, where you can search salaries according to state. There is a listing for "medical writer" with levels of I, II, and III, and the description indicates a position in the pharma/biotech industry. The median salaries (for a Boston location) listed on the site are $62,475; $65,410; and $82,663 for the three levels. These compare with medians of $93,000 (pharma) and $94,500 (biotech) reported in the 2007 AMWA survey. Not only that, but the pharma/biotech industry typically offers the highest wages, which means salaries in other medical communication settings would be lower than those reported on Only one of the 14 settings in the 2007 AMWA survey had a mean salary lower than $62,475 (publishing, including journalism: $58,692).

Then there is, which bills itself as a "leader in online compensation information." On that site, the "typical" salary for a "medical writer" is $81,602, which is a bit closer to many of the AMWA survey-reported wages in 2007. But the "high" salary ($96,494) is lower than most salaries in the 90th percentile in the 2007 AMWA survey.

Only one of our sister organizations provides data on salaries, and that's the Society for Technical Communication (STC). The findings of the STC surveys are not publicly available (you must purchase the STC salary database). The Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) offers guidelines on hourly rates for a range of editorial services but no data on annual salaries. This information is of limited benefit; although you can easily multiply the hourly rate of $50-$100 to get a annual salary of $104,000-$208,000, that salary does not take into account nonbillable hours and overhead and applies only to freelance writers and editors (in all specialty areas). You can, however, compare the rate with the mean hourly rate for full-time freelances in the 2007 AMWA survey: $90. At last, a match! (The topic of hourly vs. project-based rates is one for another blog post.)

It should be clear to you by now that other sources offer poor representations of what we really earn. Would you want the information from one of these sources if you were seeking a new job, preparing to ask for a raise, or just wanting to feel good about your work? Without a doubt, the AMWA Survey paints a brighter picture of our worth.

The AMWA Salary Survey also paints a more detailed picture, with salaries broken down by many variables (geographic area, employment level, years of experience, employment setting, job category [writing, editing, supervising] etc.). Plus, a nifty formula lets you start with a base salary and then add specific dollar amounts according to your employment setting, years of experience, educational level, and gender. (Do you know that if you're a man, you get to add nearly $9,000 to the base salary?? I told you not to get me started!) So, in addition to all the other benefits already mentioned, the AMWA survey data can help you decide if the money really is greener in a medical education company than in an association/professional society (about 8,500 shades greener) or if an advanced degree is worth the investment (you can add nearly $28,000 to your base annual salary according to the 2007 formula—take that, men!).

I don't need to tell you that the more of you who participate in the survey, the more representative the data are of our field. In 2007, just under one third of AMWA's members participated, but 47% of members answered the 1994 survey, so let's think big and try to break that record. This means I'm counting on around 2,600 of you to take the survey. Don't let me down.

The survey is easy and takes about 10 minutes to complete. So grab last year's tax form and log onto the survey. Act fast—the last day of the survey is Wednesday, May 25. If you still need motivation, participants can enter a drawing to win one of three great prizes. But the real prize is the survey results, which will bring you a wealth of information about your worth.

Note: The results of the 2011 Salary Survey will be published in an upcoming issue of the AMWA Journal.


  1. Excellent information, Lori. Thanks. A 50% response rate would be fabulous.

  2. A great commentary! I think this will be helpful to all who work in our field, and especially to freelance workers - it's difficult knowing where to pitch your fee as you start out in freelance work, so having results of such surveys can be incredibly useful. Thanks for sharing!

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  4. Thank You, Lori, for sharing this information. As a PhD looking to transition from bench science into this field, I know that I have transferable skills. What I don't know is what I would be considered worth by future employers when it comes to salary negotiations. Thanks again!

  5. Hi!

    Thanks for an excellent blog. Since you are very experienced would you care to comment on something?

    I'm a PhD w/ 0 years experience in medical writing looking for an entry level position in a biopharmaceutical company. I used the salary calculator and got a figure of over $90k/year as a salary I should look for. This seems very unrealistic to me for someone with no experience despite my education level. What is the actual expected salary in the real world for a PhD, 0 yrs experience, in a biopharm company? Thanks!