How to Get Into Clinical Research

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Young black clinical researcher briefing his team on the results of a clinical study.

How do doctors, nurses and other caregivers know the best ways to diagnose, prevent or treat an illness? The answer inevitably circles back to clinical research, a field in which diseases are studied in a systematic and scientific way, with the ultimate goal of combatting the illness and promoting public health.

Clinical research is distinct from other areas of observational study because of its clear focus on promoting the health and well-being of individuals and communities. It is also a rapidly growing field. The clinical trials market is projected to reach $69.8 billion by 2027, according to a report from Grand View Research, Inc. As such, clinical research offers ample career opportunities for those who are passionate about patient care and devoted to the cause of improving public health.

Why Clinical Research Matters

Clinical research seeks to understand, diagnose, prevent and treat diseases. It relies on the participation of volunteers, who may allow researchers to observe their experience with a particular health condition. These volunteers may also be among the first to receive newly developed treatments, including pharmaceutical interventions, to ensure their safety and efficacy before those treatments are brought to market.

Clinical Research and Public Health

According to the National Institutes of Health, clinical research is a “social good.” It’s through clinical research that scientists develop medications, vaccines and other preventive measures for common illnesses, including infectious diseases. Clinical research has also led to improvements in neonatal and maternal care, chronic disease management and more. Most importantly, a rigorous clinical research process allows medical professionals to bring new preventive measures to the general public, and to do so with full knowledge of any potential safety risks or side effects.

Clinical Research and COVID-19

The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the significant role that clinical research can play in our public life. For example, clinical research has provided insight into how the virus spreads, under what conditions it is most contagious and which populations are most at risk. The worldwide campaign to develop an effective vaccine relies on the expertise of clinical researchers, and the participation of volunteers.

Clinical Research vs. Observational Study

While clinical trials and observational study can both be valuable in public health efforts, they are distinct in important ways. In an observational study, a researcher simply evaluates someone who has a particular medical condition, seeking a better understanding of that condition but not offering a therapeutic intervention. In a clinical research trial, the researcher does intervene, and actively tries to help the study participants through a clinical treatment.

How to Get into the Clinical Research Field

The clinical research field offers an exciting combination of scientific inquiry and public health advocacy. Clinical researchers come from a wide range of educational and professional backgrounds. For those who wish to become clinical researchers, it’s important to first seek the necessary education and gain on-the-job experience.

Education

To become a clinical research associate, most employers will require an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree in clinical research, as a minimum. However, to compete for more prestigious and better-paying positions, an advanced degree can be helpful.

One potential path is to get a nursing degree. Because clinical research involves direct intervention with patients, being a qualified registered nurse or licensed practical nurse can provide a foundation in caregiving, diagnostics and basic clinical competencies.

Not all clinical research professionals are required to have a nursing background, but this is a common path into research careers. Others often find their way to clinical research through administrative or technician roles, where they progress into trial management through years of experience working under a researcher.

Another option is to pursue an advanced degree specialized in clinical research, such as the MS in Clinical Research Management, an online degree program offered by Wake Forest University. Through classes such as Data Analysis and Interpretation, Clinical Operations and Project Management, and Clinical Studies Development, students hone the skills required to bring value and leadership to the clinical research field.

Experience

Those who pursue a career in clinical research may find entry-level opportunities to work under the supervision of experienced research coordinators. One to three years of experience, combined with the right educational background, can position you to advance your career, and move into a managerial role more quickly.

Careers in Clinical Research Management

Once you have figured out how to get into clinical research, a number of distinct career tracks are available. Indeed, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that medical and health services manager jobs will grow by 32% between 2019 and 2029. Here are a few career opportunities.

Clinical Research Manager

Clinical research managers are tasked with overseeing an entire clinical research project, which means providing guidance and accountability to a full team of researchers. They are also responsible for ensuring quality control, safety and legal compliance. Team-building, training, communication and data analysis skills are crucial to success. According to PayScale, the median annual salary of clinical research managers is $77,865.

Clinical Research Coordinator

Clinical research coordinators are tasked with overseeing the day-to-day activities of individual researchers, ensuring the project remains viable and that it adheres to its specified budget. Communication skills are essential, as research coordinators often convey the protocols of the test to all the participants and make sure they fully understand them. The median annual salary of clinical research coordinators is $49,066, according to PayScale.

Quality Engineer for Medical Devices

Those who choose the role of quality engineer for medical devices will have responsibility for the safety and quality of medical devices, both in their design and in their production. Adherence to strict quality guidelines is essential, as any lapse can have life-threatening consequences for patients. The median annual salary, according to PayScale, is $72,513.

Technical Project Manager

The responsibilities of the technical project manager include developing and maintaining a plan to innovate new medical technologies. The tasks of those in the role include creating clear definitions and explanations of each step in the process, and a delineation of the roles played by different researchers on the team. Leadership and communication skills are essential for orienting the researchers around a shared framework. According to PayScale, the median annual salary of those in this position is $92,870.

Find Out More About How to Get into Clinical Research

Clinical research offers ample opportunities to conduct exciting scientific investigations, while promoting public health and wellness. A good starting point is to learn more about the educational requirements that the field demands. Wake Forest University’s online Master’s in Clinical Research Management program helps experienced professionals develop leadership and technical skills to advance their careers in the clinical research field. The program offers two tracks, Strategic Leadership/Communications and Operations, which give students the opportunity to focus their education and develop their expertise.

Learn more about the online Master’s in Clinical Research Management program at Wake Forest University.

Sources:

The Association of Clinical Research Professionals, “The Anatomy of a Great Clinical Research Coordinator”

CIO, “What Is a Project Manager? The Lead Role for Project Success”

Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, Clinical Trials Versus Studies: Is There a Difference?

Grand View Research, Inc., Clinical Trials Market Size, Share & Trends Analysis Report By Phase (Phase I, Phase II, Phase III, Phase IV), By Study Design (Interventional, Observational, Expanded Access), By Indication, And Segment Forecasts, 2020 – 2027

Houston Chronicle, “Minimum Education Requirements for a Clinical Research Coordinator”

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIAID COVID-19 Clinical Research

National Institutes of Health, The Need for Awareness of Clinical Research

PayScale, Average Clinical Research Coordinator Salary

PayScale, Average Clinical Research Manager Salary

PayScale, Average Quality Engineer, Medical Devices Salary

PayScale, Average Technical Project Manager Salary

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Medical and Health Services Managers

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Medical Scientists

U.S. National Library of Medicine, COVID-19 Studies from the World Health Organization Database