5 Steps to Getting Your Foot in the Door in Clinical Research

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There's no denying it, you will not get a job as a Clinical Research Associate without any relevant experience.  Sorry to say, but there is no easy way, there is no trick!  BUT, it's not to say that it can't be done, in let's say, two years!  If I can do it so can you, and probably even faster since I'll be providing you with the tools and advise to get you there! 

I gotcha, don't worry!  But this is what you have to do: Don't let the naysayers get you down, just keep your goals and intentions in mind and keep doing you!

Forget the naysayers, you do YOU!
 

I tried to summarize into 5 steps what I did to get my foot in the door in Clinical Research and ultimately achieve a CRA role.   I've tried to elaborate my experiences in the My Story sections as it relates to each step, but had to keep it short since the post was getting to be massive!  So please leave me a comment below if there are any topics/areas you would like me to go deeper in a separate post.  I am looking forward to your feedback and collaboration!

 

So now on with the post~

 

We've all been there, when you're reading through the bullet points of a job description and you feel confident that you can rock the position.  You feel your experiences and education are well in line with what the job entails.  So you're excited and continue reading, and then you get to the Minimum Qualifications section, and BAM!  Those infamous words: "1-2 years clinical research experience in a pharmaceutical/biotech, CRO setting preferred/required".  😳   And then you scream, "How can I land a position without experience, when I can't get the experience without getting a job?!"  

This was exactly me, over and over again, about 4 years ago!

As clique as it sounds, it was so hard for me to get my foot in the door. Recruiters completely discredited my experiences in oncology bench research since they were blind to see the transferable skills to Clinical Operations.

This then brings me to Step 1 of how I got my foot in the door.

Step 1: Leverage your current skill set

Show them what you already got and how you’ll use it!

Take the job description and work backwards.  I mean, take the time to really understand what they are looking for in a candidate, in terms of experience, education and soft skills.  I used to just scavenge through countless listings to see what the requirements were, but I realized I was reading them wrong - learn to read between the lines.

Once you understand what they're looking for, make a list (I absolutely LOVE lists! Does anyone else love making lists?!).  On the left, list the skills and experiences required; and on the right, list the skills and experiences you already have that are relatable.

Doesn't matter if you're coming from an entirely different field (let's say, retail sales or finance) or from a related field (such as a clinical research coordinator or a data manager), there are always transferable skills that you can and should highlight in your resume.  Resume writing can be an entirely different blog post, but the focus here is to:

Leverage the skills you already have and make it relatable to the position you are seeking.

My Story

I was fresh out of graduate school where the past 6 years of my life were filled with bench research trying to not only land my first "real job", but my first real job in a new field.  I practically lived on all the job boards (like Monster, CareerBuilder, indeed, LinkedIn Jobs, etc.).  I reviewed countless job postings, but I focused on studying what the employers were looking for, and then of course, I made my list of the common keywords, experience and skills to make sure they were incorporated into my resume. 

By no means am I saying to fabricate your resume (I've heard many "horror stories" about this…), what I'm saying is that you need to create a picture for the employer/recruiter of how you are indeed a great fit for the position even though you may not have the exact experience/qualifications.  Plus, this should be done in a concise and "straight up" manner since the average reviewer only takes ~ 6 seconds to skim through your resume!  I know, what the?!  But I kid you not, here's an interesting article on Time |Business

How about some examples?

So, if they were looking for someone with multitasking skills, I made sure to illustrate in my resume how I managed multiple projects in the lab with competing priorities.  For positions that were looking for someone with oncology experience, but in the clinical research setting - although I didn't have the "clinical setting" experience - I made sure to highlight that I had over 6 years of oncology bench research experience AND I made sure to point out that my familiarity with the concepts of oncology would be an asset to the team.  Or for a position that required communication and presentation skills, I highlighted my experiences as a Teaching Assistant for an undergraduate Immunology course AND I threw in that I received the TA of the Year Award.

Just a quick resume tip: When highlighting your past experiences, be sure to use the keywords in your resume.  As in, if the job description calls for "multitasking", "oncology", "communication/presentation" skills, be sure to use these exact words in your bulleted descriptions.  Often times the reviewer (or in many cases computer algorithms) skims for just the keywords, and if they're not there, your resume won't even pass the initial screening! 

See how you don't have to be in the same field to have transferable skills?  Now you give it a shot!  So then, how do you find the right position to apply for?  Keep reading on~


Step 2: Get an Entry-Level Position - Be Willing to Start from the Bottom

Especially if you're trying to enter a new field, you have to be willing to get an entry-level position as a starting point.  The keyword here is that it's a starting point - a stepping stone.

The key is to find a position that will give you opportunities where you can cultivate and develop the skills you need for when you do move on to the ultimate position you are seeking.

I said earlier not to expect to get a CRA position without any prior relevant experience.  How am I so sure? The Clinical Research industry is a highly regulated industry, as it should be.  That means the employers (be it Sponsors, CROs, or Clinical Sites) are bound by the regulations when it comes to hiring.  For example, ICH GCP E6 (R2) Section 5.5.1 states that, "The sponsor should utilize appropriately qualified individuals to supervise the overall conduct of the trial, to handle the data, to verify the data, to conduct the statistical analyses, and to prepare the trial reports."  The keyword is "qualified individuals", and it is ultimately up to the Sponsor on how they define this.  This is exactly why the job postings require the dreadful, "1-2 years clinical research experience in a pharmaceutical/biotech, CRO setting preferred/required" verbiage!  Though the duration and type of required experience may vary, they are bound by regulations to have it!

With all that said, there are entry-level positions that you can get to become that "qualified individual" to work your way up to a CRA position.   I'd be happy to write a post designated to entry-level positions, just let me know!


My Story

My entry-level position within clinical research was at the University of California San Francisco as a Clinical Research Coordinator (CRC) for the Oncology Phase I Unit.  When I applied to the position I was a Project Coordinator at a biotech company in South San Francisco without any clinical research experience.  I learned about the CRC role during an information interview (more on this in Step 4) I had with a colleague since she knew I wanted to get into Clinical Operations.   I remember reading in the qualification section, "Bachelor's degree in an appropriate area and two years of relevant experience; or an equivalent combination of education and experience."  And I still remember thinking, 1) "I am way over-qualified for this with my graduate degree!  What am I thinking?!"  and 2) "Two years of 'relevant experience'? I don't have that!"

I kicked my ego and doubts aside and I applied for the CRC role because I knew I had to start somewhere and make sacrifices to get to where I ultimately wanted to be!  I used the tips in Step 1 to leverage my oncology experience from my research days, and also my project management and soft skills from the Project Coordinator position to land me the CRC role.  And like that, I got my foot in!

I highly recommend the CRC role not only for its invaluable experiences, but because it allows you to learn more about the Clinical Research Associate role since chances are you will be interacting directly with them.  Which leads me to the next step…


Step 3: Be a Sponge!

Now that you're at your entry-level position, take this opportunity to learn everything you can - be a sponge!  Remember that this position is a stepping stone and you should be "sponging" the skills to get you to your ultimate position.  This means to not only do a kick-ass job at your core responsibilities, but seek stretch opportunities to branch out further to develop your skills. 

Let folks know that you are a team player, ready to take on more responsibility.

I do this by expressing to my manager/team, that while I understand my core responsibilities are mine to handle, I would like opportunities to be of any additional help to the study team.  By doing this you're letting your team know that:

  1. You are a go-getter!

  2. You are a team player.

  3. You are willing to learn new tasks.

  4. (And most importantly) You are looking to promote up!


My Story

At every workplace I've been known to volunteer to cover for someone, or to take on more responsibilities, and this has helped me excel tremendously.  I'd say that I am where I am today because of it. 

Below are examples of tasks you can ask to perform, assuming they are not already a core responsibility:

As a CRC:

  • Ask to help with data entry/query resolution in the EDC
  • Ask to interact with the CRA during site monitoring visits
  • Ask to review new clinical study protocols

As a CTA/in-house CRA:

  • Ask to go on observation monitoring trip visits and draft visit reports
  • Ask to review monitoring visit reports
  • Ask to take on more site management responsibilities
  • Ask to conduct trainings for new CRAs

The key is to get exposure to the work you ultimately want to be doing... Also, don't be afraid of letting people know your next step.  There is nothing wrong with having a clear direction of where you want to be, if anything, I think it looks better than not having a clue of what you want to do!  

So be open and let others know that you want to go into clinical monitoring... advertise it enough, and there may be a day someone has an opening, and remembers how much of a hard worker you are and will push your name along... this lead to my next point…


Step 4: Network, network, network!

With networking now easier than ever, there is no excuse not to network!  Whether you're on the hunt for a new position, or you're looking to learn more about a new field, networking is key! 

Why, you ask?

Networking may give you access to the "hidden job market".  It's been estimated that about 70% of openings are not advertised to the public.  That's a huge percentage!  This means that rather than spending all your time on the job boards, better use of time is to get out there and mingle. 

How?

Let your friends, acquaintances and maybe even colleagues in on what you are looking for.  Who knows, your friend may be working at a company with a position that you want, which only employees of that company have access to, and by you voicing that you are looking they could put in a referral for you.  This is key, since most jobs are filled by referrals as opposed to direct applications.  This means that unless you are a "perfect match" for the position, you most likely will not get past the "gatekeepers".  Instead, candidates who are referred, bypass the gatekeepers and are judged more on their past performances and future potential rather than on their level of skills and experiences.  Which is a huge plus for us newbies!


My Story

Go ahead, be a stalker!

 

At my first job I made it a point to go on as many informational interviews as I could with folks in Clinical Operations at my present company.  How'd I find such folks?  It was a bit "stalker" of me, but I either search my company's directory for "Clinical Operations Associates" (may be termed something else at other companies, such as "Clinical Trial/Study Associates") or I searched the same term in LinkedIn and looked for folks with current positions at my company.  (Interesting read on LinkedIn Stalking!)

I then drafted a short, cut-to-the-chase email to ask them for an informational interview.  Almost all of them replied back, some faster than others, and were gladly open to the meeting.  Folks love talking about themselves, and chances are, they were once in the same position and are returning the favor!

Informational interviews are great because you not only learn about the positions you want from someone who is actually doing it, but you also get your name out that you are interested in making the transitions.  Double whammy!  Who knows, there may be an entry-level position open in their department and they may refer you to apply!  Remember, applying through referrals trump applying directly - almost every time!

So, get out there and network, network, NETWORK!


Step 5: Keep Developing your Skills

Whether you've landed a job or are still on the hunt, keep developing your skill set to stay on top of the game!  Always stay hungry and never stop growing and learning - you can never be too knowledgeable!

Keeping motivated and excited about your job can be tricky at times, especially if you know it's a stepping stone.  Instead, try viewing it as your "training ground", and feel empowered and excited to do more since you are actually working towards your next career step!

Once you stop learning, you start dying.
— Einstein

My Story

When I was a Clinical Trial Associate at my current company, I made it clear from the start that I ultimately wanted to be a CRA with clinical monitoring responsibilities.  With that said, I took every opportunity I could to find trainings/workshops/seminars offered by my company.  These were usually in the form of Webinars, which is great, but for me I prefer learning in a live classroom setting, especially when it’s a new field so that I can network with fellow classmates.  I asked colleagues and Google about introductory courses to Clinical Monitoring, or CRA training courses, and I found Barnett International to be highly recommended and reputable.  There are a ton of training courses/academies out there, but I'm pretty skeptical and think many are just a "money-making schemes".  But I've taken a couple live Barnett International courses and I highly recommend them.  (Let me know if there are any others you recommend!)

Yes, it's awesome to take training on your company's dime (who doesn't love free?!), but if you are unemployed, or you have a company with strict policies (some companies will only allow you to attend if the training is directly related to your current job description), then don't be weary of using your own dime!

Investing in yourself is one of the best return on investments you can have!

 

I hope you enjoyed these 5 steps and use them to your advantage!  These aren't tricks or guarantees.  These are just the actual steps I took to get me to where I am today -  a bench researcher turned in-house Clinical Research Associate III!

Please comment below if you have any questions, or have suggestions on new topics or topics you'd like me to dig deeper into.

If you enjoyed the post, please hit that like button and feel free to share with someone you think can also benefit.  Let's get more people aware of clinical research and the immense opportunities!

Thanks for reading, now go take action! 😘

Cheers~

Jenny

PS: Is there a step you'd like to share? Leave it in the comment below~