Many of today’s college and graduate students are setting their sights on the career of Clinical Research Associate (CRA). Who could blame them?  Not only do CRAs change patient’s lives with new treatments and devices, they enjoy traveling regularly and meeting new people, and they are well paid to do so. However, becoming a CRA isn’t always easy.   Many job seekers desiring to break into the CRA role Why is experience so hard to come by in the early career path of a CRA?

There are hundreds of reasons why CROs and Sponsors are looking for experienced CRAs, as the CRA’s role to monitor the clinical trial on behalf of the pharmaceutical company or CRO is critical when it comes to ensuring patient safety and clean data for regulatory submissions.  Sponsors spend millions of dollars to get to the point where the CRA steps in to monitor the sponsors’ studies and most reputable companies are not willing to risk hiring entry level candidates.

Not only does a foundational experience in Clinical Research enable the monitor to better understand regulatory / GCP / ICH, the monitor with experience has a concrete view of how trying these environments can be and, through experience, has been able to maneuver them.  “Mean girls” and “bullies” are weeded out of the pool quickly, and those who can’t handle the speed to market stress don’t last long.  Angela Roberts, ACRP member and guest speaker, adds, “People can take classes on how to monitor (and even “learn” how to deal with stressful situations or conflict), but experiencing it in real time is what shapes a CRA’s ability to navigate these stressful situations.”

And then there’s the travel… Roberts talks about the elephant in the room.  “Sounds silly, but many individuals believe that traveling will be glamorous and fun, but underestimate the planning that has to take place to make sure deliverables are still met in such a high paced environment. We look for individuals who understand the travel burden because they have experienced it…we call it being “travel fit” and we even ask past supervisors how the individual handled the high volume of travel.”

As frustrating as it is, there is no education or degree that allows for an individual to graduate and gracefully step directly into the CRA role.  Experience in the Clinical Research field is an important requirement that cannot be bypassed or superseded by education.  That being said, we believe knowledge and competency are more important than # of years of experience.

In terms of providing advice on how to break into the role, we would tell the prospective CRA to obtain a Life Sciences or Medical degree, look for an entry level job as a Clinical Resource Assistant, Clinical Trial Assistant, or Clinical Data Manager with a well-known CRO that has a good reputation for hiring entry level employees and training them.  Alternatively, use the medical degree to obtain a position at a clinic, doctor’s office, hospital or academic setting that conducts studies and progress to a Clinical Research Coordinator role.  Whatever you do, keep working at obtaining your goal.  Don’t give up.  With three or more years of experience and classical training, you should be extremely competitive for an entry level CRA position with a Sponsor or CRO.