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So you want to be a medical illustrator?

A postdoc takes a look at what you need to know before embarking upon a career in medical illustration

by Nicole Arbour

So you want to be a medical illustrator

If you’re the type of person who keeps a sketchpad and charcoal pencil stuffed between the lab reports in your carry-on luggage, you might want to consider a career in medical illustration.

Do you enjoy creative work that lets you interact with a variety of people? Are you an extroverted, detail-oriented person? If so, a career in medical illustration may be just what you’ve been looking for.

If not, click here to learn about another science career path.

Where there’s science, there’s art

Medical illustration is about helping people visualize medicine and science in a way that is simple to understand, interactive and interesting. Medical illustrators have traditionally done this through illustrations, graphics and diagrams, so learning basic artistic techniques is a requirement of the job.

But medical illustrators are increasingly using new technologies -- such as flash programming, web design, layout applications and animation software -- to convey their art in multimedia.

Although not required, previous science training is a definite asset for a medical illustrator. Desmond Ballance is a recent graduate of the University of Toronto’s Biomedical Communications Program. She is now a medical illustrator working for Lifelearn in Guelph, Ontario, a company that produces continuing education and reference programs in interactive multimedia formats for veterinary science.

A science background “provides you with the scientific understanding necessary to give your projects context, and helps to set a reference point from which to start researching your subjects,” explained Ms. Ballance, who obtained a master’s degree in animal science at the University of Manitoba before beginning her training as a medical illustrator. “Experience at a graduate level also provides you with better knowledge of how to do that research,” she added.

Jobs, jobs, jobs…

Where do medical illustrators work and how much do they make?

Jobs available to medical illustrators are diverse and geographically widespread. There are many companies and organizations, like Lifelearn, that specialize in multimedia learning tools. Other companies, like Hybrid Medical Animations, develop high-end, 3-D medical and scientific animations and illustrations.

Larger scientific research and medical institutions, such as The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia, and the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, have teams of medical illustrators on staff.

At the Mayo Clinic, for example, medical illustrators were called in to help surgeons better visualize the complex anomalies of their patients’ bodies as they planned a surgery to separate conjoined twins.

Most companies that hire medical illustrators offer nine-to-five working days and standard 40-hour weeks with associated benefits packages. Starting salaries for a trained medical illustrator range between $37,000 and $45,000 per year.

As a medical illustrator, however, you have the added bonus of being able to develop a freelance career, or even start your own company. In this way, you can work from home and arrange your work hours to suit your schedule, a definite advantage for anyone wanting to have children and raise a family.

A meaningful profession that marries science and art; a steady income and the possibility of a freelance sideline: if you like what you’ve heard so far, let’s find out how to land your first job.

Getting your foot in the door

The first step to getting a job as a medical illustrator is to find the appropriate training program. There are five Association of Medical Illustrators-accredited graduate programs.

Four of them are in the United States, including:

Medical College of Georgia, Department of Medical Illustration;
University of Illinois at Chicago, Department of Biomedical and Health Information Science, College of Applied Health Science;
The John Hopkins University School of Medicine, Department of Art as Applied to Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland; and;
Southwestern Medical Center Biomedical Communications Graduate Program in Dallas, Texas.

One is in Canada:

University of Toronto Biomedical Communications (BMC) Program.

All five of these programs are two-year graduate programs, resulting in an MS, an MA or an MSc.

“The program at U of T is more technology focused,” explained Ms. Ballance, noting that although there is a heavy emphasis on learning the basic biology and anatomy, as well as applied courses on artistic technique, there is also a focus on media-based tools for teaching and learning, as well as 2- and 3-D animation using computational analysis and software tools.

“The programs in the U.S. tend to be more art-heavy, teaching more traditional technique than technology.” She added: “While you can make it in the field without the formal training through an Association of Medical Illustrators-accredited program, it’s a lot more difficult.”

Once you’ve finished your training, it’s all about networking.

Conferences are excellent venues to meet people, discover new and emerging technologies and see how these are being used in the field. The Association of Medical Illustrators has annual meetings, and several other conferences and workshops in related fields, such as Slice of Life, the International Association of Medical Science Educators and FITC , are also worth checking out.

“Some companies have budgets to send their employees to conferences,” noted Ms. Ballance, suggesting you keep this in mind when doing interviews with prospective employers, “with others it has to be negotiated into your contract.”

The Canadian Science Writers’ Association and the National Association of Science Writers annual conferences are also good places to network and hand out cards; after all, a picture says a thousand words and your website can say even more.

If you’ve made it this far, medical illustration might be the career for you. But if you’re still looking for great science career ideas, check out some of our other science career profiles here and here.

Dr. Nicole Arbour is a recent graduate from the biochemistry graduate program at the University of Ottawa and currently works as a research scientist with Spartan Bioscience in Ottawa.

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