Many people applying for entry-level clinical research jobs may begin their journey by enrolling in a certificate program. They invest months or years, not to mention thousands of dollars, toward earning a certificate, yet upon finishing and hitting the job markets, are likely to still be dealing with unresponsive hiring managers who are looking for individuals with two years of experience. (It is important to note here that having a “certificate” in clinical research from some source is not the same as holding “certification” in clinical research—an achievement based on mastery of job roles and solid experience in the field.)
How does one get around such a situation to get that first dream job in clinical research with less hassle, less expense, and more reliable prospects for employment at the end of the process? Presented here are some strategies that can work extremely well for individuals with foreign medical degrees, backgrounds in life sciences or allied health, or experience working in a regulated environment.
1—Gain clarity on your career goals.
When most people apply for clinical research jobs, they fire up their computer and start applying for open positions. Before applying you should begin your journey by answering the following questions:
- Do you want a paid job or a volunteer opportunity? Is the experience you’ll gain more important, or do you really need a paycheck right away?
- Who do you want to work for? Clinical research is a vast field with different types of companies offering different kinds of job opportunities. You can work for a contract research organization, a sponsor such as pharmaceutical or device company, a clinical research vendor, a regulatory authority such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, a nonprofit organization such as a patient advocacy group, an institutional review board, or a study site, to name some of the options.
- What job role are you most interested in? Is there a specific one you’d enjoy more than others? There are many other clinical research opportunities in addition to the clinical research associate (CRA) or clinical research coordinator (CRC) roles. For example, you can work as a data manager, safety monitor, patient recruiter, medical writer, biostatistician, project manager, regulatory compliance manager, or research billing expert.
- Would you enjoy working in the field (traveling or remote work) or in an office environment? Some people enjoy being on the road (and earning frequent flyer points). Others get more energy interacting with people at the office. Most clinical research roles offer the ability to work remotely or in an office setting.
- Are you open to relocating to a different city, state, or country? Entry-level positions may not offer the best pay, so you’ll need to decide if you’d be open to relocating, even if the pay was low.
- Are you looking for full-time, part-time, or contract employment? Depending on your personal circumstances, you may be more interested in a full-time position for the medical benefits or in a part-time role for a better work-life balance. Alternatively, you may be interested to contract opportunities at first and then transition into full-time employment once you have experience under your belt.
Answering these six questions honestly will give you the necessary clarity on which opportunities you should pursue and which ones you shouldn’t.
2—Invest in your clinical research education.
At a minimum, I encourage everyone to become familiar with the tenets of Good Clinical Practice (GCP) early in their job quest. Depending on the type of clinical research organization you decide to work at, your training beyond GCP will differ significantly. For example, training for an oncology pharmaceutical company will be different than training for a cardiology medical device company.
You can watch hundreds of YouTube videos on clinical trials or medical technologies, attend conferences or seminars, and get in-depth software training, but still not have a job in clinical research. Here is what you can do to narrow down your clinical research education priorities:
- Identify the dream role (career opportunity) you’re interested in applying for.
- Read through the job description—specifically, the job requirements.
- Highlight the skills you have little or no knowledge or experience with.
- Look up webinars, YouTube videos, and literature to develop those specific skills (i.e., fill the skill gap).
The above plan won’t make you an expert in those skills, but you will have built confidence in yourself and your ability to speak to these topics during interviews. If you feel you need more training, I encourage you to sign-up for membership with nonprofit professional organizations such as ACRP or SOCRA. Membership gives you access to many training resources; a lot of information is available to you for no additional cost aside from the basic membership fee.
Additionally, with your membership, you end up surrounding yourself with other experienced clinical research professionals via networking with their virtual communities and by attending educational events. You can then reach out to your fellow members for career guidance and make them aware of your interest in working in clinical research.
3—Fix your resume.
Your resume must not read like a job description. Most employers rely on a resume to screen applicants. Unfortunately, if your resume reads like a job description, the hiring manager does not get a clear understanding of your contributions in your current and previous roles. Instead, your resume should reflect your own professional achievements. You want to clearly state the results you achieved in your previous roles and, when possible, you should quantify the results. For example, instead of stating, “Worked in a research lab analyzing preclinical data,” you might want to state, “Analyzed data from two preclinical studies in mice for an Alzheimer’s drug.”
If you feel like your clinical or medical-oriented experiences are limited, focus on transferable skills for the research position you seek. Transferable skills such as financial management, project management, writing, and informational systems management are applicable to clinical research as well.
4—Focus on 10 job opportunities and always follow up.
Focus on only 10 job applications at a given time. Many applicants apply for multiple jobs every week during their searches. Over the course of a couple of months, they have applied for dozens of jobs, but probably haven’t had a formal interview for any position. Instead of applying for every possible clinical research job as soon as they appear on the radar, I have found that applying for 10 at a given time gives applicants the time and energy to personalize their approach for each position.
Following up with employers is absolutely necessary. Even though hiring is a top priority for many organizations, hiring managers get busy with their day-to-day activities and hiring can take the back seat. By following up with the hiring manager, you’re demonstrating your continued interest in working for the company.
5—Write and speak clearly.
Aside from strong technical skills for many jobs, you may also need to demonstrate above-average written and verbal skills. This is important because clinical research is a cross-functional, team-oriented field. For most roles, you’ll be working in a team environment. When the job description states, “candidate must have excellent communication skills,” the employer wants to ensure you can write and speak clearly.
Many candidates will create a page-long, generic cover letter that repeats everything that can be found in their resume. Such a cover letter fails to show the employer why you’re the right fit for the role. Instead, I recommend applicants write a cover letter with three to five bulleted points that outline the benefits of hiring him or her for the job. The more personalized your cover letter is to a given employer and role, the greater chance you have for being invited for an interview.
Personalized cover letters might make reference to a specific clinical trial the hiring company is running, the company’s therapeutic area(s), and other details that show you’ve done your homework and are engaged in the opportunity to work there.
When it comes to verbal communication, the easiest way to have clarity in your message is to write down the key points you want to discuss on the phone. This forces you to be clear about why the company should hire you and not some other candidate with equivalent credentials.
6—Prepare for your interview.
Once you’ve landed with an interview date, it is time to prepare for the interview, using the following tips:
- Read the “About” and “News” section of the company website. Learn about the company’s clinical and regulatory leadership team. The news section will provide insights from the latest press releases from the company. This will give you an idea of what is on the company’s “mind.” You can also visit ClinicalTrials.gov for more information on the company’s trials, and to get a better understanding of the medical treatments being developed and their targeted patient populations.
- The biggest unknown in any interview is that you do not know what questions the interviewer will ask you. To help focus your answers, I recommend that you come up with a list of five to eight examples from your education or professional experiences that you’re proud of or that taught you something valuable. When possible, limit these to experiences that are medical or clinical in nature. Next you want to create a story around each of these examples that will become a valuable answer to an appropriate question. The best way to create a story is using the STAR format (Situation, Task, Action, and Results). For each of these examples, you want to write down the situation, the task in front of you, the action you took, and the results achieved as a result of your actions.
Once you’ve completed these steps, you’re almost ready for the interview. The last thing you need to do is to appear and sound professional during and after the interview. Be sure you write a personalized “thank you” note after each interview.
7—Have the courage to hear “No.” Remember that you will eventually hear “Yes.”
Many entry-level clinical research applicants lack the courage to hear that, “No, we cannot hire you for this job” from potential employers. It is painful to hear a “No” and rightfully so. Furthermore, most employers do a poor job of providing constructive feedback to applicants they don’t want to hire. Employers don’t want to say “No” to the not-so-great candidates because they fear not finding the “right” candidate for the job; they prefer to have a backup list of candidates in case their preferred candidate doesn’t work out.
This makes it even more important for candidates to encourage employers to make a decision, whether it’s a “Yes” or a “No.” This not only helps the candidate, it also helps employers to move on to other candidates who might be a better fit for the organization.
You don’t need to sign up for an expensive and time-intensive clinical research certificate program to secure an entry-level job in clinical research. Instead, you need to gain clarity around your clinical research career ambitions, learn GCP, invest in your continued education through nonprofits such as ACRP and SOCRA, fix your resume so that it doesn’t read like a job description, focus on 10 open opportunities at a given time, write and speak clearly in all your communications with the potential employer, plan for your interview using the Situation, Task, Action, Results (STAR) format, and embrace rejection if you’re not hired for the role. These strategies, collectively, will increase the odds of your success tremendously and you’ll be on your way to experiencing the joys of working in clinical research and clinical trial management.
by Guest Contributor Kunal Sampat, MNA, ACRP-CP, Host of the Clinical Trial Podcast