How to Become a Clinical Research Associate
If you like to travel, the life of a Clinical Research Associate (CRA) is a blur of airports, frequent flyer miles, taxis and hotel rooms. This career requires so much travel that living near a major airport can help you land the plum jobs.
The work of a CRA requires concentration and attention to detail. It involves combing through reams of technical medical data, looking for any potential problems. At any given time, pharmaceutical and medical device companies are holding more than 100,000 clinical trials throughout the U.S., and CRAs are the ones monitoring and overseeing them.
Because of the good pay, the travel and the rewarding work, these jobs are highly sought after.
"It's a highly coveted role that's pretty hard to break into," said Kate Keller, a strategic delivery executive who has spent seven years recruiting thousands of CRAs for positions all over the country. "It's a really high-paying job. Some people really want to travel. And the clinical research industry is pretty cool, for lack of a better word — because you can change people's lives."
How can you become a CRA? Here's what Keller had to say.
How does one get into this line of work?
Well, it's not easy.
Employers prefer job candidates who have a background in nursing or another medical field, since they're already familiar with working with patient charts and clinical health records. "They understand the data. They understand what's happening to the patient," Keller said.
One way to get into the industry is to start out as a clinical research coordinator. CRCs recruit patients for clinical trials, and they conduct the clinical trials at local hospitals and doctor's offices. In contrast, CRAs are the ones who fly in and review how the clinical trial is going.
A good CRC who does his or her job well can get a reference from the CRA they're working with. That's a good way to get an entry-level CRA job.
How's the job market for CRAs looking?
Great! "CRAs have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country," said Keller, who now manages Strategic Recruiting Center in New Jersey.
She added that, from year to year, CRAs and the clinical research organizations that hire them take turns having the upper hand in the job marketplace.
"The CRAs are definitely more in control right now in terms of the pay rates, the travel they're willing to do, and the type of company they're willing to work for," she said. "But it changes a lot. It probably flips every other year."
Which is more important for a CRA: education or experience?
There are master's degrees and certification programs for clinical research, but experience in the field is more important for these jobs, Keller said.
"If we had a candidate who had a master's degree but no field experience, we wouldn't be able to place them anywhere," she said.
To gain that necessary field experience, it might be more realistic to start out as a clinical research coordinator who's responsible for managing one clinical trial. If you excel at that, it can be a good stepping-stone to an entry-level CRA job.
What other factors help a CRA get good job opportunities?
It's a little like the No. 1 rule in real estate sales: "Location, location, location."
"Since there's so much travel, clients typically want the CRA to be based within 30 minutes of a major airport," Keller said. "The bigger the airport, the more marketable that candidate is" — because the employer can pay less for travel costs if they can avoid connecting flights.
What skills are required in a good CRA?
Communication skills: "The ability to work with different types of people and have difficult conversations with them," Keller said.
Administrative skills: Time management is extremely important for a CRA. You can't fall behind in submitting field reports to your employer.
Technical skills: Mastering different electronic data capture (EDC) systems is crucial. You'll use these data systems to avoid leafing through thousands of pieces of paper. The industry uses a handful of prominent EDC databases with names like Medidata Rave, IMPACT Harmony or DataLabs to capture research data at clinical trial sites. A CRA who's proficient with multiple EDC systems will have a leg up on the competition.