Put your nursing, life sciences or medical sciences degree to good use in competitive but growing field of clinical drug research
A clinical research associate (CRA) runs clinical trials to test drugs for their effectiveness, risks and benefits to ensure that they are safe to allow on to the market. You may work on new, as well as existing drugs and will usually be employed by either a pharmaceutical company or a contract research organisation (CRO), which works on behalf of pharmaceutical companies.
You'll typically be involved in all stages of the clinical trial, including identifying an investigational site and setting up, initiating, monitoring and closing down the trial.
Clinical trials may be carried out at various stages or phases and include trials on healthy humans, trials on patients with a disease, and studies conducted after the launch of a new drug to monitor safety and side effects.
Your tasks will vary depending on the employer but will typically include:
Salaries vary from company to company. Additional benefits, such as a car allowance and bonus are typically offered.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
Working conditions vary between companies, although the hours are usually full-time Monday to Friday. You should expect to work some evenings, although weekend or shift work is uncommon.
Part-time work is possible, as are career breaks. Short term contracts of six to 12 months with a company are common, meaning you may work more like a contractor than a permanent employee.
To become a clinical research associate (CRA) you need to have either a degree or postgraduate qualification in nursing, life sciences or medical sciences.
This could include subjects such as:
Entry without a degree or with a HND only is unlikely. It is occasionally possible to enter from the administration side, for example, you could start as a study-site coordinator in the NHS or as a clinical trials administrator. However, you would need substantial experience and possibly further qualifications to progress.
A postgraduate qualification could give you valuable experience in clinical trials and an advantage against competition when applying for jobs. A relevant PhD can also be advantageous in some companies. It can be considered as highly-relevant work experience and may count towards gaining promotion to senior positions or moving into protocol development.
You will need to show:
In addition, you must understand the importance of good clinical practice (GCP), which is now law throughout Europe. A clean driving licence is usually essential for travel between trial sites and your office.
If you have no relevant prior experience it is likely that you'll enter this area of work at a lower level, as a clinical data coordinator or clinical trials administrator, where you will not be involved in initiating or designing the trials. Once you have gained experience, you will then move on to a full CRA position. A small amount of companies may recruit graduates without experience if they have the necessary personal skills, but it is a good idea to get some pre-entry experience if possible.
This can include any work that uses scientific and analytical skills. It can be work in areas such as:
The ever-tightening government regulations on the licensing of new drugs and re-licensing of existing drugs mean that the need for CRAs is increasing. Competition is strong amongst graduates with no relevant experience and therefore work experience in a clinically-relevant field will considerably improve your chances.
Typical employers include pharmaceutical companies or contract research organisations (CROs), which conduct research on behalf of pharmaceutical companies.
A CRO will organise the placement of a clinical research associate (CRA) on behalf of the sponsor (the pharmaceutical company) and may be involved in planning, organising and conducting the whole study or just part of it. The CRA will report back to the organisation and will feed back to the sponsor.
Large contract organisations are more likely to recruit an inexperienced graduate into a monitoring role and provide the training to progress to the level of a CRA.
Hospital academic departments occasionally employ CRAs in clinical trials units.
Look for job vacancies at:
Contract research organisations and pharmaceutical companies may advertise vacancies on their own websites.
Training for CRAs takes place mainly in-house and on the job. It can vary from company to company with some employers providing a structured system of training.
You may be placed on an external training course, for example the Institute of Clinical Research (ICR) offers various courses in the areas of:
You can also choose to take an ICR exam, which awards a certificate and diploma and provides evidence of your knowledge and experience as a clinical research professional. Find out more at Institute of Clinical Research: Learning.
The ICR has a continuing professional development (CPD) scheme for its members and many of its courses offer CPD.
You can also gain a breadth of experience by working in various therapeutic areas and phases of clinical research.
Some companies offer block or day release so their employees can pursue related courses. Formal academic qualifications include postgraduate diplomas and certificates, as well as Masters in subjects such as:
These courses can facilitate professional development and career advancement.
Career structures vary from company to company. How quickly you move up the grades depends on a range of factors including motivation, ability and previous experience.
Before becoming a CRA, you may begin at a lower level such as a clinical trial administrator or junior CRA.
Once you have progressed to the CRA role there are several different levels you can work at which include:
If you work within a contract research organisation you can build up and widen your experience with a variety of sponsor pharmaceutical companies in different therapeutic areas and in different phases of clinical research. This could allow you to move to a pharmaceutical company.
Self-employment may be possible, as CRAs are often employed on a freelance basis by certain companies. This should usually only be considered when you have developed experience, contacts and clients.