Have A PhD? You Can Get Hired As A Clinical Research Associate If You Know These 3 Things

Are you in your final year of PhD or just graduated and wanting to transition into a high paying clinical research job?

But, are you constantly told you cannot get into clinical research roles without any prior experience in clinical research?

Well, I ‘ve got news for you…. PhDs are in high demand for clinical research roles.

One of our Cheeky Scientist Associates was employed as a Clinical Research Associate with MCT – CRO right before finishing his PhD. And, we have several Cheeky Scientist Associates who have successfully transitioned as a CRA into several Contract Research Organizations worldwide. So, how did they all manage to do that, with no previous clinical experience? 

It all came down to following the right job search strategy – a well-crafted resume, good networking skills and professionalism. Most importantly, it came down to NOT doing these 3 things…

You CANNOT simply piecemeal together a job search strategy that involves uploading your resumes one day a week and doing nothing for your job search the rest of the week!

You CANNOT just read how to answer the common interview questions online or from books, without practicing it!

You CANNOT simply browse for information on the web and reach out to random people for free advice!

What you need to have is a correct job search strategy, discipline, and dedication. Without which you are not going to get a high paying job a PhD deserves. Instead, you would end up frustrated with all the rejections that would steer you into taking up the low-paying postdoctoral fellowship or even an entry level job at companies that know how to manipulate the valuable skills and knowledge you gained in your PhD.

PhDs Are In High Demand In Clinical Research (Even Those Without Clinical Experience)

We have all learned that in 2020 things can change quickly (BBC). 

With change arises a demand for newer strategies and plans. One of the biggest demands has been in the clinical research sector – where global clinical trials market size that was estimated at 44.3 billion in 2020 is expected to grow up to $64.4 Billion by 2027

And, because of this huge expansion in the clinical research sector, there is an explosion of opportunities for roles like Clinical Research Associates or CRA, for short, in the current market.

This is one of the reasons we developed our advanced program, the Clinical Research Coalition

Monika Vinish, PhD, CRA at Biorasi co-founded the CRC program for Cheeky Scientists. She testifies that until about a couple of years ago, a PhD was overqualified for the role of a CRA. However, now the number of PhDs who transition into a CRA is very high and this demand is only going to increase with time. According to her, the prime reasons for a high demand for PhDs in this role is because of the knowledge and valuable skills in communication, research, and the ability to cope under stress. 

The training that PhDs receive in their graduate study qualifies them to get hired as a CRA, easily! 

So, how can you land yourself in this role with no previous clinical research experience?

The key lies in understanding the clinic research and functioning of a Contract Research Organisations (CRO). 

PhDs Who Understand These 3 Things Can Get Hired As A Clinical Research Associate 

To understand the role of a CRA better, we first need to understand how the clinical research industry functions.

A Biopharma company, also known as the sponsor, brings a molecule/clinical product to the market. So, they would first want to check for the molecule’s efficacy and safety over different phases of clinical trials.

A Clinical Research Scientist works at the sponsor side and is responsible for developing the protocols for implementing the clinical trials to test the efficacy of the molecules/clinical products.

In a majority of the cases, sponsors would hand over the clinical trials to a CRA – to conduct the clinical trials, by managing the projects involved from start to finish. A CRA, thus, is the subject expert and visits the sites of trials. They go to the site, they train the site personnel, look at all the documentation and their capabilities to conduct that trial. Thus, also serving as a regulatory coordinator to help control and coordinate the sites and all the stakeholders.

1. Why And How To Ace The Interview For A CRA role?

In order to show that you understand the clinical research area without any prior practical experience or know-how, the best thing for any PhD is to be aware of all the terminologies used in this field. 

Research and research well about the sponsors and the trials they are planning to carry out or of their previous trials from the past.

The advanced program, the Clinical Research Coalition (CRC) is a great resource for you to gain this industry knowledge and sharpen your skills.

Once you have armed yourself with the technical jargons, you need to start speaking this lingo in each step of your hiring process. Starting with your resume!

To be able to deliver a crisp and precise elevator pitch to the Hiring Manager would be the first step to ace your interview to get hired as a CRA in any CRO. A short message (60-90 s) that directly communicates who you are, where you are currently and where you want to be would hit the nail. 

Professionalism is key, here!

Can you articulate and communicate professionally? Are you dressed professionally? Are you also able to think a step ahead while planning?

The next step in your hiring process would be an interview with the Director of Clinical Operations. Here, a greater part of your interview would focus on regulation, and then all the way to offer negotiations, and planning your career progression with them.

These are some of the greatest skills that would qualify you as a CRA without having to start at an entry level position to learn the industry of clinical research.

2. What Do You Do As A CRA In The Clinical Research Industry?

If you ask a CRA what they did that particular week, they would say they had site visits and met with the stakeholders etc.

So, what is a site, what is a site visit and who are the different stakeholders in a clinical industry? 

An investigative site is usually the site set-up for clinical research with the principal investigators (PIs), study coordinators, and study nurses to enrol patients and control subjects.  

Then comes the medical monitor, who takes care of the safety queries and concerns at the investigative site. Then there is the grants and contracts, that takes care of managing the finances. The project management section manages the projects involved in each trail. The legal department takes care of all the documentation of confidentiality and the agreements between the subjects. 

As a CRA, you are kept in loop with all these stakeholders for ensuring the proper running of the clinical trials. A CRA is also responsible for providing the results of the samples collected from the trial recruits to the investigative sites; thereby deciding if the recruits would go further in the study or not.

A CRA is a field-heavy role, where you are required to spend a quality amount of your time visiting the sites. So, depending on the number of protocols/projects you are managing, a CRA would be handling as many as 12-15 investigative sites at a time. 

Do you love solving problems? Are you a good listener? Can you communicate both orally and in writing well? Do you love travelling (more so virtually at this time, sadly!)? Then, CRA might be a role you want to pursue as your career. Successful CRAs need to have a thorough understanding of the requirements specified by the regulatory agencies as well as the sponsor.

CRA is a fast-paced and a dynamic role. While the first two-thirds of your week is spent visiting the sites and meeting the stakeholders, the last one-third of your week is spent finishing up the reporting (reports based on your findings during your trial visits and letters to the personnel on the trial site informing them about the visit) and other regulatory duties. 

As a CRA you will play several roles within a clinical trial and manage several trials at the same time. Therefore, you will spend a large chunk of time doing administrative tasks, such as planning site visits, allocating travel time, and managing budgets.

CRAs visit a trial site at four different instances: 1) site assessment, 2) site initiation, 3) routine monitoring, and 4) closing out of the trial site. The exact number of trial visits depends on the length of the trial, the stage at which the trial is at a given point, and the amount of time you want to invest in a specific visit. Most visits last one to two days and you get to meet the PI or the study nurse at the site.

3. What Is The Career Progression Of PhDs In CRA Roles? 

A proper career progression plan ensures that you are engaged and excited about your work.

Depending on the companies and the region, the Clinical Research Associate position has at least two levels of progression within the title – CRA I and CRA II. 

The CRA I is the junior-most level and is involved in pre-trial procedures, organizing trials, and archiving documentations under the supervision of a CRA II or Senior CRA. CRA II are responsible for site qualification, site initiation, attending investigator meetings, and overseeing the work of the CRA I. CRA I often progress to CRA II positions after 1-2 years.

Keep in mind that the specific job titles will change depending on the country and the company. So, research your target companies to identify the specific job titles. 

Senior positions generally have more responsibilities in terms of the number and complexity of the trials, supervisory or training components, project management aspects, and business development. The job titles include: Senior Clinical Research Associate (also known as CRA III), Clinical Trial Lead, and Senior Clinical Trial Manager, to name a few.

The executive positions include the Clinical Study Directors, who are responsible for the complete oversight of trials and provide strategic leadership. They help build the best teams to carry out the clinical trials (i.e. they are involved in strategically planning the organization and structure of the team), manage talent, resources, budgets, and they oversee the clinical operations for different countries.

While CRA is in clinical operations, another area of Clinical research is development, where you work as a Clinical Research Scientist (CRS); and is a good starting place for PhDs who wish to transition to the clinical development side of clinical research.

As Sarah Smith, PhD said “Once you get your bearings and really thrive in the CRA position for a few years, your value as a candidate in the medical science field becomes incredibly strong.” You could easily progress into clinical trials Project Manager or Medical Science Liaison.

Concluding Remarks

By equipping yourself with a detailed understanding of the regulatory laws of the FDA or other regulatory body in your region, technical knowledge in life sciences and a discovery mindset, you are set for the high-in-demand CRA role in the clinical industry. The article here has provided you with a broader understanding of a CRA, and joining the Cheeky Scientist advanced program CRC would give you a deeper dive into each of the roles that are in high demand in the clinical research sector currently. Show you understand the industry, tailor your resume specifically for the role of a CRA, be professional and do your research. Always remember your value as a PhD.

If you’re ready to start your transition into industry, you can apply to book a free Transition Call with our founder Isaiah Hankel, PhD or one of our Transition Specialists. Apply to book a Transition Call here.

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Isaiah Hankel, PhD is the Founder and CEO of the largest career training platform for PhDs in the world - Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by 3 million PhDs in 152 different countries. He has helped PhDs transition into top companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, Intel, DOW Chemical, BASF, Merck, Genentech, Home Depot, Nestle, Hilton, SpaceX, Tesla, Syngenta, the CDC, UN and Ford Foundation.

Dr. Isaiah Hankel received his doctorate in Anatomy & Cell Biology with a focus in immunology and is an expert on biotechnology recruitment and career development.

Isaiah has published two bestselling books with Wiley and his methods for getting PhDs hired have been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Nature, Forbes, The Guardian, Fast Company, Entrepreneur Magazine and Success Magazine.

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