Professional Pathways Boost Staff Retention in Clinical Research Settings

Denise Snyder, MS, RD, LDN, Associate Dean for Clinical Research, Duke Office of Clinical Research

Nearly three years in, Duke University’s School of Medicine has enjoyed the positive impact of an innovative program to professionalize its clinical research workforce. For starters, it’s become an important retention tool in a competitive job market.

“It’s so important to establish a professional pathway for people,” says Denise Snyder, MS, RD, LDN, associate dean for clinical research with the Duke Office of Clinical Research (DOCR). “All I ever heard from our research managers and other staff was ‘there’s nowhere for us to go, we don’t even know what our path is’’ within Duke.

For Snyder and her team, a big part of the talent chase challenge was finding ways to hold on to staff who could make a higher salary elsewhere. Another challenge was operating in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park. “There are so many other opportunities here” tempting top employees to look around, Snyder says. “We have some rock-solid people who have been with us a long time,” but DOCR was also ending up with “whatever was left and whoever didn’t want to leave for whatever reason.”

This large academic medical center took several steps to ensure staff roles are well articulated, based on competency, appropriately matched to experience and educational level, and include descriptions that are updated frequently to keep pace with the shifting clinical research landscape. In many cases, job descriptions hadn’t been reexamined since the 1960s, Snyder says: “They read like they were out of Mad Men.”

DOCR mapped 700 staff members by pulling in representation from a wide range of professionals, including human resources personnel from various parts of Duke. “We worked very closely with people in the trenches to take part in testing positioning and career ladders,” Snyder explains.

For example, staff made it clear they were interested in tiers within a job title where there was a clear path to advancement. “You could work toward competency [in your area as] approved by your manager to move up within a job title” without moving a whole level into another position, Snyder says, adding that updating those job descriptions will be a critical component of attracting and retaining top-tier talent.

While competencies are in place, DOCR is still “in the throes” of how to measure movement between tiers and how to train managers to help promote that movement. “There are a lot of pieces we’re still fleshing out, but we’re very close to firming up the details on that and handling our first wave of folks that will submit [applications] for tier advancement this summer,” Snyder says.

Author: Michael Causey