Careers in clinical research can be financially rewarding and offer solid stability in the job market. An Indeed.com found the average salary for clinical research associates (CRAs) in the US was $95,000, though some earn over $125,000. Glassdoor finds a lower number for the US (lower yet for the UK, though with limited data), but the range of roles can make it hard to quantify.
However, your years of laboratory experience, or even your newly awarded PhD, may not be sufficient to get you an interview. Applications frequently go unanswered and employers are most always looking for someone with prior clinical research experience. Like many jobs, there’s the classic conundrum of how to get a job without experience and how to get experience without a job.
Getting your foot in the door in the world of clinical research, especially as a basic scientist, can be tricky and exhausting. But with proper planning and wise use of your extra time can make your entry into this career go more smoothly.
This article will give you some tips on how to expand your knowledge to make the transition into clinical research easier.
Invest in Additional Learning
As a minimum, you will typically need a bachelor’s degree in life sciences, nursing, biotechnology, or a relevant clinical science to be eligible to work in the clinical research sector. These degrees will provide the foundation you need to understand the work that is conducted. An honor’s degree or PhD is not essential; but the knowledge and skill set gained from the additional of years of research can only be a further benefit.
Unfortunately, none of these degrees completely prepare you for the world of clinical research. The best way to gain a deeper understanding and set yourself apart from other applicants is to have some extra learning on your CV.
Investing in additional learning is a guaranteed way to show potential employers that you are serious about transitioning into clinical research. Many universities now provide diplomas and graduate certificates in clinical research. These courses provide an opportunity for graduates with medical, biomedical, nursing and allied health backgrounds to advance their clinical research skills and capabilities.
If an extra year or two of study isn’t for you, then there are other avenues of learning you can undertake to increase your knowledge in clinical research. There are some excellent books that you can read to prepare for your new career pathway. Fundamentals of Clinical Trials by Friedman et al., for instance, provides a great introduction to the world clinical trials. The authors cover essential topics such as study design, blindness, randomization, monitoring and reporting of results. The book also contains some real-life examples and statistics to highlight the key elements of a clinical trial.
You can also read regulatory guidance documents on various topics related to clinical research. These documents can be found on the websites of a number of world agencies. For example, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have published information sheets on obtaining informed consent from participants.
Clinical research, by its very nature, must adhere to some strict regulations. Every site, region and country has different rules and documentation that is required before a research trial can be initiated. For example, countries such as the US, Australia, Japan, and the UK require all clinical research projects to be reviewed by an independent ethical review board, even if a project has been approved internationally. An understanding of the regulations in the region or country you want to work is indispensable when applying for a clinical research position.
Another source of information is the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) trial registry. All current trials are registered on this website, and you can gain an understanding on the topics that need to be considered before a trial can be initiated, such as the inclusion and exclusion criteria of participants for a study.
Additionally, anyone working in clinical research also needs to have specific training, such as Good Clinical Practice certification. You can be ahead of the game and complete courses online to get accreditation prior to starting work.
Volunteer at a Hospital or Research Institute
Hospitals and research institutes conducting clinical trials are always looking for volunteers. Your role as a volunteer could include helping get things ready for a study visit, helping with online data entry or working with the trials manager on a project.
Each of these roles will provide you with valuable insight into different aspects of clinical research. Helping with study visits, you can get experience in the day-to-day tasks of running a trial. Assisting with data entry will allow you to learn about the types of data collected during a clinical trial and the online programs used to collate data. This will be valuable for a trial monitoring position. Working with a trials manager on a project will give you direct experience on what it takes to get a clinical research project underway at a hospital or research institute.
You can apply for these positions by emailing clinical trial managers or hospital research administration and asking if they need volunteers to help with any research projects. If you are still studying, talk to your supervisors about getting some practical experience in clinical research. They may have connections that will help you get that first introduction.
Remember, all experience is good experience and take your volunteering position seriously. Work to a schedule, make sure to ask questions and take the time to read and understand the various documents associated with the project. A few months of volunteering will provide you with valuable experience to apply for clinical research positions.
Start Small While Aiming High
There are two sides of clinical research that you can work in. You can work for a pharmaceutical company or clinical research organization (CRO), or you can work for the hospitals or clinics conducting the clinical trials.
While your role will be different depending on which side you work, the best place to start is by working as a clinical research assistant. Research assistants are generally in charge of administrative tasks and little experience is needed for these positions. CROs and hospitals are often looking for research assistants to aide with enrollment of patients and clinical data entry. Trial monitoring or administrator positions are also an excellent stepping stone into clinical research. One year as research assistant or clinical trial monitor/administrator will give you a deeper understanding of clinical research.
Most people start by applying to big pharmaceutical companies, or even well-known CROs. This is generally because these are the companies that you might have heard of. However, the large companies often have their own HR departments, or dedicated recruiters, that are in charge of hiring. They also have strict criteria to sort through applicants, such as you must have at least two years of prior experience. If you do not meet these criteria, your application will not be selected from the hundreds of other applications passing through the office.
There are smaller companies that don’t use recruiters and have less strict selection criteria. Starting at a smaller company will also allow you to gain experience with a wide variety of tasks and get more responsibility quicker. Therefore, it is better to start at a smaller company and work your way up to the bigger companies and roles.
Clinical research does provide scope for career progression. A few years as a research assistant or trial monitor/administrator will allow you to move on to a CRA position. CRAs are in charge of verifying the safety, rights and wellbeing of patients enrolled in a trial, as well as checking that all the reported clinical data is accurate and verifiable. CRAs manage a trial at a number of sites around a state or country and are the main point of contact for any site conducting a trial. You can eventually move up the ladder to managerial positions within a company or other organization.
Highlight What You Can Bring to the Position
Always highlight the skills that you bring to a role when applying for a clinical research position. Make sure you read the job description very carefully. While this might seem obvious, it is common for people to use a generic cover letter when applying for similar positions. This is a guaranteed way to get your application sent straight to the rejection pile.
Highlight keywords and tasks within the job description and make sure you target both your CV and cover letter to these criteria. Read up on the company and determine their research focus and goals and target your cover letter appropriately to the company. Ensure that your cover letter showcases exactly what skills and expertise you will bring to the position and why you are the best fit both for the job and for the company.
It may often feel like you don’t have much to offer, especially when at least 1–2 years of clinical research experience is one of the main selection criterion. This is when you need to convey an understanding of what the job entails and make sure to highlight any volunteering or professional development you have done in relation to the position.
For example, “I am excited about joining PSI as a Clinical Research Assistant. I have long held an interest in joining a core clinical research facility and have worked on a number of projects by volunteering at clinics and hospital research groups. These trials primarily focused on oncology and infectious diseases, which align with PSI’s research focus. Through my volunteer roles I have gained significant experience with many aspects of clinical trials and research such as study design, patient consent and data management.”
It is also important to remember that a degree in basic science will have provided you with a lot of transferable skills. While you may not be able to talk about your research and laboratory technique skills, focus on the other keywords within the selection criteria. This where you can highlight how your skill set can be adapted to the position. The main ones include problem-solving skills, organization and interpersonal skills, and the ability to work within a team, but also independently.
Make sure you provide specific examples to each of your responses. For example, your interpersonal skills can be highlighted through collaborations you made with colleagues during your research or through networking at conferences. For the criterion regarding your ability to work within a team, a possible response could be: “Currently I am a member of a large laboratory team where I interact well with people at a variety of levels, from placement and honours students to senior postdoctoral scientists. My ability to work effectively with academic, administrative and support staff can be demonstrated by my role as a tutor for undergraduate B.Sc students.”
As with most things in life, planning is key. And as with most careers, there's going to be more to it than just posting a couple of CVs. Clinical research is an exciting and sustainable career. It's never too soon to start plotting your course toward a career in this area.
Sumudu Narayana currently works as a clinical trials coordinator in Adelaide, South Australia. She has a PhD in Biological Sciences from the University of Adelaide and transitioned into clinical research to help bring research from the laboratory to patients.