How to Get Clinical Research Experience

We’ve all been there. You want the job, but the employer—hiring for an entry-level position—only wants candidates with experience. But how do you get experience without getting a job first? That’s the paradox, and nowhere is it more prevalent than in the field of clinical research. 

If you’re interested in getting clinical research experience and wondering how to get started, then you’ve come to the right place. In this article, we’ll provide the roadmap for you to get the clinical research experience you need. 

With this information, it will be easier than ever to get your start in the exciting and rewarding clinical research industry.

What Is a Clinical Research Associate?

Entry-level positions in clinical research are usually called clinical research associates, or CRAs. From there, many go on to become clinical research assistants, coordinators, and managers. Here are just some of the tasks commonly performed by a CRA:

  • Preparing the site or location of the trial.
  • Identifying tools, equipment, and other material required to conduct the trial, while also ensuring they’re in sufficient quantity to conduct the research.
  • Helping prepare and provide the instruction necessary to those conducting the trial.
  • Monitoring the progress of the trial.
  • Collecting and organizing data developed during the trial, using the principles of ALCOA.
  • Playing a part in reporting findings to managers, clients, and other interested parties.

Clinical research associates are often employed by pharmaceutical companies, clinical contract agencies (sometimes called clinical contract houses), or science and healthcare-related academic departments at a college or university.

Thankfully, there are tons of clinical research associate jobs out there. That said, employers usually want CRAs with previous experience — and as much as two years experience, at that!

It’s natural that prospective clinical research associates could find this situation pretty discouraging. But there’s hope! More on that later, but for now, we’ll say that if you can meet the following qualifications, then you’ve already made significant headway toward accomplishing your goal of working in clinical research:

There are some CRA courses out there that will also help you accomplish your goal of working in the clinical research industry. It’s important, though, to make sure the course is recommended by the Association of Clinical Research Professionals (ACRP) or the Society of Clinical Research Associates (SoCRA)

It’s also important that coursework follows guidelines for good clinical practice, as outlined by the ICH-GCP. The ICH-GCP is the bible of sorts for good practices, policies, and procedures in clinical research, and familiarity with the ICH-GCP is a must for any prospective clinical research professional

How to Get Started in Clinical Research Associate Expirience

But even with all that on your resume, it still might not be enough. At the beginning of this article, we said we’d tell you how to get your foot in the door as a clinical research associate.

Volunteer

Yes, like many other careers, in clinical research you may end up paying a bunch of money to earn your degree and still end up working for free as a volunteer in order to get a start in your career. 

You may find volunteer opportunities related to clinical research at your college or university. If not, most hospitals accept volunteers to assist in hospital operations. Traditional hospital volunteers perform tasks such as changing bed sheets or helping transport patients from one part of the hospital to the other. These duties have nothing to do with clinical research, but they’re a place to start — especially if your education and prior work experience aren’t related to science and health care. 

Here’s the thing, though. Hospitals and research clinics also accept clinical research volunteers. Just identify the kind of clinical research you’re most interested in, target a clinical research site performing that kind of research, prepare your resume and cover letter, and simply ask if they’re accepting volunteers. 

If there aren’t any clinical research sites in your area, it may even be worthwhile asking a local doctor if there are any research-related tasks you could volunteer to assist them with. You never know what might happen!

Internships

Next to volunteering, applying for an internship is the next most common method of securing a CRA position with no prior experience. It’s a good idea to seek internships with a big-name company in the pharmaceutical or health care industry, such as:

  • Johnson & Johnson
  • Ei-Lilly 
  • Pfizer
  • Merck

Among many others!

Having an internship with a company of this stature will look good on your resume, and, luckily for you, all these companies have internship and student-recruitment departments. Best of all, companies of this size usually pay their interns! However, one drawback is that these internships are highly competitive and usually only offered to students enrolled in college.

For these reasons, consider seeking an internship or even a job opportunity at a health care startup.

Apply at a Startup

Applying for an internship or even an opening position at a health care startup has many advantages. The companies at this point may be willing to accept interns who are not currently enrolled in school, and their internship and job opportunities may be less competitive than those available at well-known Fortune 500 companies.

To find a healthcare startup in your area, try a simple Google search, or instead, consult the following websites:

Both of these sites offer comprehensive lists of companies in the health care, biotech, medical, and pharmaceutical industries. Companies at this level may not advertise or list open internship job opportunities on their websites, so get ready to cold-email your resume and cover letter. Many people get a long way in their career just by asking and by being at the right place at the right time.

Other Tips to Get Experience as a Clinical Research Associate:

So let’s review. To get your first job as a clinical research associate, it’s important to complete your four-year degree in a science or healthcare-related major, ideally clinical research if possible.

Gaining credentials and certification will also help you get your foot in the door in clinical research. It’s crucial that all coursework, credentials, and certification follow the ICH-GCP.

Next, you may need to volunteer. Any volunteer position at a doctor’s office, hospital, or clinic can be helpful, but there may be volunteer opportunities at your college or university as well.

Many prospective CRAs also apply for internships, either at well-known companies or at health care, biotech, or medical device startups. Each path offers a different set of pros and cons. Internships at established companies will look good on a resume, may lead to a full-time position, and often pay at least a little bit. But they’re competitive and usually only open to currently enrolled students.

Internships at a startup, on the other hand, will be less competitive and may be available to non-students or students who have recently graduated. They also likely won’t pay, but you never know how much getting involved on the ground floor of a company might pay off in the long run.

Here are some additional tips when securing your first job in clinical research:

  • Have a clear idea of the kind of research that interests you the most.
  • Take relevant coursework (even if you’re done with school, going back to pick up a few classes can really help).
  • Don’t just rely on job and internship listings. You may have to cold-email a company with your resume to find opportunities you even didn’t know existed.

Clinical research can be an exciting and lucrative career. It may seem a little tricky to get started at first, but follow these simple guidelines and you should find your way.