Put your nursing, life sciences or medical sciences degree to good use in the 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'll work on new and 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.

Responsibilities

Your tasks will vary depending on the employer and your level of experience. However, you'll typically need to:

  • develop and write trial protocols (outlining purpose and methodology)
  • present trial protocols to a steering committee
  • design data collection forms, known as case report forms (CRFs)
  • coordinate with the ethics committee, which safeguards the rights, safety and wellbeing of all trial subjects
  • manage regulatory authority applications and approvals that oversee the research and marketing of new and existing drugs
  • identify and assess the suitability of facilities to use as the clinical trial site
  • identify/select an investigator who will be responsible for conducting the trial at the trial site
  • liaise with doctors, consultants or investigators on conducting the trial
  • set up the trial sites - ensuring each centre has the trial materials, including the trial drug often known as the investigational medicinal product (IMP)
  • train the site staff to trial-specific industry standards
  • monitor the trial throughout its duration, which involves visiting the trial sites on a regular basis
  • verify that data entered on to the CRFs is consistent with patient clinical notes, known as source data/document verification (SDV)
  • collect completed CRFs from hospitals and general practices
  • write visit reports and file and collate trial documentation and reports
  • ensure all unused trial supplies are accounted for
  • close down trial sites on completion of the trial
  • discuss results with a medical statistician, who writes technical trial reports
  • archive study documentation and correspondence
  • prepare final reports and occasionally manuscripts for publication.

Salary

  • Starting salaries for CRAs are in the region of £23,000 to £30,000. It's likely these posts will require some experience in a related area.
  • As a senior CRA (SCRA), also known as a CRA II, you can earn a salary of around £30,000 to £48,000.
  • In some senior roles, salaries of in excess of £55,000 can be achieved.

Salaries vary from company to company. Additional benefits, such as a car allowance and bonus and pension, are typically offered.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

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.

What to expect

  • If you're field-based you will mainly be on the road, dealing with doctors and research nurses in trial centres, GP practices or hospitals. Some companies have in-house, office-based CRA roles with virtually no site visit responsibilities. In these cases, the focus in this role is on document review and management. There are also a number of home-based jobs available. Work may be done in teams or individually.
  • Most UK pharmaceutical companies are located in the south of England. Field-based positions are generally found in key locations throughout the UK. Some jobs, for example in a company laboratory, can be found locally, while others are regionally based.
  • Self-employment or freelance work is possible once you've become experienced.
  • The job can involve a lot of travelling, especially if working in a field-based role. You may be out of the office three or four days a week, possibly including overnight stays. Some companies operate a system whereby the CRA specialises in a specific disease area and covers the whole of the UK. Others operate their CRAs on a regional basis.
  • Working for an international company may involve coordinating trials abroad.

Qualifications

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:

  • anatomy
  • biochemistry
  • biology
  • biomedical science
  • chemistry
  • immunology
  • microbiology
  • molecular biology
  • pharmacology or pharmacy
  • physiology
  • toxicology.

Entry without a degree or with a HND only is unlikely. You might occasionally be able 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 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, who may consider it as highly-relevant work experience counting towards gaining promotion to senior positions or moving into protocol development.

Search for postgraduate courses in clinical research.

Skills

You'll need to have:

  • excellent communication, both written and verbal, and interpersonal skills
  • the ability to build effective relationships with trial centre staff and colleagues
  • the ability to motivate others
  • strong customer focus
  • an excellent grasp of numeracy and a keen eye for detail
  • presentation skills
  • the ability to multitask and think on your feet
  • project management skills
  • a flexible and adaptable approach to work
  • organisational, IT and administrative skills - the job involves a lot of documenting and recording information through computerised processes, such as clinical trial management systems and electronic data capture
  • an understanding of the importance of good clinical practice (GCP), which is a legal requirement for all CRAs.

You'll usually need a clean driving licence for travel between trial sites and your office.

Skills in an additional language, such as Dutch, French, Italian or Russian, may also be useful for roles abroad.

Work experience

Without relevant experience, you're likely to start work at a lower level, as a clinical data coordinator or clinical trials administrator, where you won't be involved in initiating or designing the trials. Once you've gained experience, you will then move on to a full CRA position.

A small number of companies may recruit graduates without experience if they have the necessary personal skills, but it's a good idea to get some pre-entry experience if possible. This can include any work that uses scientific and analytical skills, for example:

  • academic or pharmaceutical research
  • clinical data work
  • clinical laboratory work
  • medical sales
  • nursing
  • pharmacy.

Competition for jobs is strong and work experience in a clinically-relevant field will considerably improve your chances.

Employers

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 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.

Professional development

Training takes place mainly in-house and on the job. The nature of the training can vary from company to company, with some employers providing a structured system.

Some companies will pay for relevant external training courses through organisations such as the Institute of Clinical Research (ICR). They provide training in areas such as:

  • effective clinical trial project management
  • risk-based monitoring
  • skills and competencies of a clinical trials manager
  • the principles of GCP.

You can also complete the ICR Certificate and Diploma to provide evidence of your clinical research knowledge and skills. To progress through the ICR membership levels, you'll need to undertake a certain amount of continuing professional development (CPD) each year.

If you don't already have a postgraduate qualification, you can take a postgraduate certificate, diploma or Masters in areas such as:

  • clinical pharmacology
  • clinical pharmacy
  • clinical research
  • pharmaceutical medicine.

It's also possible to do a PhD. These courses can facilitate professional development and career advancement.

Career prospects

Career structures vary from company to company. How quickly you move up the grades depends on a range of factors including motivation, the opportunities available for training and development, ability and previous experience.

Before becoming a CRA, you may begin at a lower level such as a clinical trial administrator or junior CRA. As a CRA (also known as a CRA I), you'll work on pre-trial procedures, setting up and organising clinical trial sites (with some supervision), archiving documents and correspondence.

With the right combination of skills and experience you can move into the role of senior CRA (SCRA), also known as a CRA II. Work will include selecting investigators, coordinating ethics committee and regulatory authority applications, supervising trial supplies and attending investigator meetings.

As you progress further you'll also be responsible for supervising, training and mentoring junior staff, project management of whole trials (possibly on an international scale), protocol development and design of case report forms (CRFs).

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 employed on a freelance basis by certain companies. This should usually only be considered when you have developed experience, contacts and clients.