What do you want to become?
Alternate Career Titles: Certified Medical Illustrator, CMI, Scientific Illustrator
Career Overview: Medical Illustrators are artists who specialize in portraying visual elements of health-related concepts.
Career Salary Range: $62,000 to $100,000
Estimated Years of Schooling Required: 6
Required Minimum Degree/License: Master’s Degree in Medical Illustration
Become a Medical Illustrator
A Medical Illustrator is a professional artists who uses art to depict visual translations of complex health information. In this field “art” may refer to a number of techniques, including drawing, painting, graphic design, media techniques and more. To ensure that the imagery they create accurately reflects the appropriate health technique, procedure or reflection of the body, Medical Illustrators work closely with Scientists, Physicians and other complex health specialists.
Most often, their designs are used to advance knowledge in academic settings or to empower health literacy to patients and the public. However, they can also be used for instructional or demonstrative purposes. Therefore, the work of Certified Medical Illustrators (CMIs) can be found in trade and consumer publications, textbooks, exhibits, interactive learning modules, in trade shows, courtroom exhibits, museums and more.
“Medical illustrators are visual storytellers who collaborate with scientists, doctors and researchers to transform complex information into images, animations or any other media to make that information easier to understand,” Joe Samson, a Medical Illustrator practicing in Athens, Ga., said. “I find the profession to be both challenging and rewarding, full of wonderful ‘eureka’ type moments. Finding an unlikely solution to a seemingly impossible problem is really gratifying.”
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Education & Training
To become a Medical Illustrator, learners must first obtain their Bachelor’s Degree in an art or science-related area of study. During this undergraduate degree program, learners will take courses on drawing, art theory, painting, color theory, graphic design, illustration, computer graphics, biology, anatomy, chemistry, etc. After completion of this degree, learners must next apply to accredited medical illustrator Master’s Degree programs.
Admittance into a Medical Illustrator Master’s Degree program can be extremely competitive, so applicants must seek to really stand out through their grades, portfolio of artwork and related experience. Typically, these graduate programs take 2 years to complete.
“Most Medical Illustrators have a Master’s Degree from an accredited graduate program,” Samson confirmed. “These programs are very competitive and include coursework in anatomy, pathology, microanatomy, physiology, embryology and neuroanatomy, along with specialized applied art courses such as surgical illustration. Other classes include color theory, instructional design, photography, interactive media development, 3-D modeling and web design, along with traditional drawing and computer applications.”
Samsona added that he found the coursework to be challenging, and that one of the most challenging aspects was completing a Master’s Degree thesis project during the second year. He explained that often times he felt simultaneously tasked with learning new software techniques, making a viable end product for his thesis advisor and writing a manuscript.
To advance as a Medical Illustrator, some professionals, especially those seeking to work in academic settings, choose to additionally pursue a Doctoral Degree. Others hoping to advance, but who do not wish to commit to a Doctoral Degree program, may choose to take continuing education classes, attend workshops or visit regional meetings sponsored by the Association of Medical Illustrators (AMI). Scientific Illustrators can advance their careers by “climbing the ladder” at their respective workplaces and later assume leadership positions, such as Creative Director or Artistic Supervisor roles. Furthermore, many medical illustrators choose to enhance their careers by becoming board certified.
“I think the people that go the furthest in medical illustration are the ones that have a vision of what they would like to accomplish in their careers,” Samson explained. “Many Medical Illustrators decide to specialize in medical legal, veterinary, cellular / molecular or surgery, and can specialize further in disciplines such as animation, illustration and interactive development.”
Samson added that once a professional decides which avenue they wish to pursue, having a mentor can also be helpful in achieving advancement. Samson further explained that since medical illustration is a diverse field, there are many end goals one can have including being a professor, a researcher, a creative director or even an owner of their own business.
Experience & Skills
To be an effective Medical Illustrator, these professionals should be able to produce art through a wide variety of methods to meet the needs of the health industry. Some of these methods include photography, graphic design, animation, painting, scientific illustration, medical writing, web design, programming and more. Thus, Medical Illustrators must also possess visual translation skills, helping them turn health information into two-dimensional and three-dimensional images. In achieving this, Certified Medical Illustrators may need to enact problem-solving skills as well, determining the most efficient and accurate way to translate information into images.
“Good communication skills are a must in this career, especially since the nature of the work depends on communicating complex ideas in an understandable way,” Samson explained. “I’ve found that having a strong sense of design and layout, as well as a good foundation of using logical reasoning in problem solving, is crucial.”
“I believe Medical Illustrators should be inquisitive, cogent and amicable professionals,” Samson said. “Moreover, being a hard worker doesn’t hurt.”
Also, since many Medical Illustrators work closely with Physicians and other healthcare professionals to ensure the accuracy of their work, these professionals must be able to work with others, perhaps in small teams. They should be strong communicators, able to relay information and messages through conversation, and also through the images they create. Furthermore, Medical Illustrators should be detail-oriented, focused and seek perfection. They are expected to have their illustrations be exact replicas of the content they represent, and therefore there is no room for error.
The lifestyle of a Medical Illustrator can vary greatly depending on the employer and scope of work. These professionals can work anywhere from 30 hours a week to upwards of 60 or 80 hours a week, depending on projects and deadlines. For freelancers, they can largely create their own schedules and work on projects as they wish, meeting delivery deadlines. Often, Scientific Illustrators will work on their image designs in parts, perhaps 20 to 30 percent at a time until the work is completed. Overall, having inspiration and drive are imperative to completing projects in a timely manner.
“A typical day as a Medical Illustrator can often involve 3D modeling, meeting with clients, brainstorming storyboard ideas and research and development for projects,” Samson explained. “I try to ‘chunk’ my work week into specific tasks related to whichever project I’m working on. That way I can keep a somewhat organized workflow even if I have multiple projects going on simultaneously.”
As more people seek to learn about the inner-workings of their bodies, and to explore healthcare trends and practices, the demand and employment outlook for Medical Illustrators will continue to grow. Some say that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” and in this career that is true! Many health-conscious people prefer to learn and retain information from images, rather than by reading text.
As a Medical Illustrator, many of these professionals will gain employment in an academic setting, at a hospital, clinic or research center or through a pharmaceutical company. However, publishing companies, health firms, multimedia companies, advertising agencies and the government are also known to hire Scientific Illustrators. Alternatively, these professionals can choose to be self-employed, and to focus only on a particular facet of healthcare (i.e. surgical specialties, forensic reconstruction, etc.).
“For someone just starting out, I would recommend finding a Medical Illustrator and pick their brain, and go to a professional meeting if possible,” Samson advised. “I would also strongly urge people just starting out to investigate the graduate programs in medical illustration, as they are invaluable stepping stones into the field. I feel like employment as a Medical Illustrator is stronger than ever right now because of advances in imaging technology and the strength of the healthcare industry and biomedical research.”
In this field, earnings tend to vary depending on experience, education, demographic, specialty and artistic ability. The median annual salary for a CMIs approximately $62,000, but can exceed $100,000 depending on their qualifications and experience.
“The earning potential in this career varies,” Samson explained. “For instance, a Medical Illustrator working for a pharmaceutical company will probably make more than a Medical Illustrator working for a start-up company or freelancing.”
Samson added that those in supervisory and creative director positions can earn a median of $85,000 and up to $175,000 annually. He also stated that while the earning potential for self-employed Medical Illustrators varies widely, additional earnings from a salary or freelance projects or royalties from secondary licensing of existing artwork can contribute to one’s overall earnings.
Unions, Groups and Associations
The Association of Medical Illustrators (AMI) is an organization designed to further the use of visual media to advance life sciences and overall healthcare through a worldwide network of specialized interdisciplinary professionals. In doing so, the organization promotes the highest levels of competency, professionalism and ethics among members and throughout a community of industry partners.
The Guild of Natural Science Illustrators (GNSI) is a non-profit organization comprised of illustrators and those interested in science illustration. The organization was founded by illustrators at the Smithsonian Institution in 1968, and is designed to provide Illustrators with opportunities to meet, share ideas and spread the knowledge of visual science techniques.
- Take courses that have a foundation in art and in biology
- Visit a graduate program and ask questions
- Network with Medical Illustrators and pick their brains
All statistics are provided by the Association of Medical Illustrators.
Meet the professional: Joe Samson
Practice: University of Georgia, College of Veterinary Medicine
Location: Athens, GA
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Keep on open mind toward collaboration with people from other disciplines. Some of the most interesting projects come from the melding of different fields, no matter how obtuse the pairing may seem at first.”
What’s the number one mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“I think people tend to believe medical illustration is still just about drawing pictures of anatomy. While that is still a part of the career, a lot of medical illustrators are now animators, creative directors, programmers or are involved in AR/VR game design and teaching.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“How long does it take you to complete an animation? The answer might shock some people.”
Why did you choose to become a Medical Illustrator?
“Medical illustration is a true amalgamation of the sciences and humanities. This career is sort of a weird mixture of my two favorite subjects, and one that I only dreamed of as a possibility when I was young.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would that be?
*Credentialing organization: Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs