How to Become a CRA

Want to know how to become a CRA?

We understand that being a job seeker can be stressful; however, trying to break into a new role can cause even more stress when you have no idea where to begin. So let’s discuss how to become a CRA. 

Many of today’s college and graduate students are setting their sights on a career as a Clinical Research Associate (CRA). And who could blame them?  Not only do CRAs contribute to an industry that changes patients’ lives with new treatments and devices, but they also enjoy traveling regularly and meeting new people. All while being well paid to do so. 

However, our industry is extremely competitive and we are often asked how to become a CRA without experience, or if we are aware of entry-level CRA jobs with training. While industry leaders are still defining a clear, single, straight path into the role, we have some tips for you. 

After all, every seasoned Clinical Research Associate started in an entry-level CRA position at some point. 

First Things First

Here are some basics every aspiring Clinical Research Associate candidate should consider. 

High Travel, Mean Girls, and Bullies

I traveled extensively when I worked with IBM, and I once showed up at a Delta counter not remembering where I was supposed to go. It sounds silly, but many folks believe that traveling will always be glamorous and fun. I did too…for the first 6 years. 

While one of the resulting side effects of the pandemic has been a reduction in some of our industry’s travel expectations, understanding the ‘travel fitness’ required to handle an industry CRA role is still extremely important. The reality is that our industry is high-paced; therefore, a lot of planning has to take place for you to coordinate your travel while also ensuring your deliverables are met.

In addition, the most successful CRAs know how trying the clinical research environment can be. Through experience, seasoned CRAs have learned how to maneuver high-touch sites, missing-in-action key stakeholders, and demanding sponsors.  Even great CRAs with strong site relationships have to have very difficult discussions; therefore, being able to articulate how you have effectively handled past conflicts is key. 

Do your homework

I often have folks ask how to become a CRA when they aren’t clear on what the role entails. This means I am looking for aspiring CRAs to be able to accurately articulate a day in the life of a CRA. 

Prepare for these discussions by interviewing CRA colleagues. Be well rounded too, asking the pros and cons of the role. Knowing what that ‘day in the life’ looks like will enable you to intelligently speak to why you want to be in the role. And most importantly, this ‘day in the life’ understanding will provide you an opportunity to explain how you will embrace the challenges involved in performing the role effectively.

Consider certification or accreditation

I will first state that there are a lot of fake certification and accreditation programs available. There are also several that seem valid but are not recognized in the industry. 

So if you are planning on obtaining a certification or accreditation, be careful! 

With that being said, we do recommend that you consider becoming a certified clinical research professional through the ACRP and/or SOCRA. Alternatively, consider obtaining accreditation from a well-reputed organization like the IAOCR

Are you weighing if becoming certified is worth it?  We have a blog post outlining the pros and cons of holding a CRA certification, but you should also visit ACRP and SOCRA for more information.

Ensure you have a buttoned-up LinkedIn profile

Not just any profile. A buttoned-up profile. LinkedIn is powerful and can make or break your professional brand. While a great CRA coach can provide additional tips on how to properly leverage LinkedIn to land your dream job, what I will say is to keep it clean and provide details. 

Include your full name. Add a professional picture. Include the same details as are on your resume. If you want to change roles, you have to be found, and building a quality LinkedIn Profile is a great first step.

Network with other CRAs, CRA coaches, and niched Recruiters

If you are currently working at a research site, you have valuable insider knowledge of what CRAs are specifically looking for when they come to your site. Be sure to network with the CRAs who monitor your clinical studies so you can leverage who and what they know.

Additionally, consider working with a CRA coach. There are some exceptional coaches in our industry who are to provide invaluable information on how you can better brand yourself. Niched recruiters can also help because recruiters who live in the world of ‘CRA hiring processes’ will be able to provide outstanding information on how to become a CRA. Why? Because they have their finger on the industry’s pulse. 

Engage with companies and groups on LinkedIn

There are hundreds of targeted Clinical Research LinkedIn groups as well as groups for CROs, Pharma, Medical Device, and Biotech companies.  All of these groups have active discussions and many have job boards.  

Join these groups and participate!  

But be careful; if you aren’t perfectly professional in every interaction, the bad impression you leave will cost you. Meaning, you can never completely erase your reactions and statements so always think of the point of your post…which is to show the world how professional and qualified you are. 

How to Compete for Entry-Level CRA Positions

Entry-level CRAs are typically light when it comes to work history, which can make it very difficult for Hiring Managers to determine future performance. So, as an entry-level candidate, how do you sell your potential without tangible proof?

There are more ways than you may think

To us, there are two pools of entry-level candidates: Those with some clinical research foundational experience, and those with none. Having any type of experience in clinical research does help candidates when it comes to competing for entry-level CRA positions. But…you can be taught how to monitor and you can learn regulations.  Being an effective CRA is much more than understanding GCP and ICH guidelines.  

How to map to non-industry but still relevant experience 

While you may not have the same professional experience as more seasoned CRAs, you do have relevant experience. For example, describing a class project shows teamwork and how you manage others. Discussing your volunteer work can show evidence of desirable traits such as motivation, innovation, and problem-solving skills. Discussing an internship will show that you have real hands-on experience and possess incredible initiative since internships are often experiential only (i.e. – not paid). 

Lastly, and one of my favorites, describing how you were able to balance a job while going to school shows independence, as well as incredible time management and organizational skills. Every hiring manager can relate to these types of experiences and will be impressed with your work ethic.

Top CRA Qualifications Required at Any Experience Level

While we have already briefly touched on important key qualifications any CRA candidate should possess, I would like to dig deeper. In order to compete with more seasoned CRA candidates, you, as an entry-level candidate, should be highlighting these job skills during your interviews. 

Time Management & Organizational Skills

Having strong time management and organizational skills is critical in every role, but is particularly crucial when it comes to being an effective Clinical Research Associate.  When preparing for an entry-level CRA interview, consider this question: “Tell me about a time when you had a big project and how you structured it to complete it on time.” 

Even if you are fresh out of college, you should be able to come up with a scenario to describe your time management and organizational capabilities. Hiring Managers will learn a lot by just listening to how you were able to break down a large project into manageable tasks. Your future manager will also be interested in how you were able to prioritize those tasks so that you could perform the duties needed to meet your timeline.

Critical Thinking & Problem-Solving Skills

CRAs need to be able to ask probing questions, analyze the responses, and then make important decisions based on the data. To be effective as a Clinical Research Associate, you must exhibit critical thinking and problem-solving skills. 

Even candidates with limited work experience can provide evidence of being critical thinkers and problem solvers. To exhibit this important skill, consider this question when preparing for your interview: “Tell me about a time when you were working on a project and an unexpected problem occurred. How did you initially react, proceed to handle it, and what was the outcome?

I love this question. Even if the hiring manager doesn’t ask this question, preparing for it will make you a much stronger interviewer because it will enable you to be prepared to articulate the following skills:

    • How you handle difficult situations.
    • How you prioritize or reprioritize on the fly.
    • How you solve problems despite the situation.
    • How you communicate and escalate. 
    • How you delegate or ask for help. 
    • And in some cases, how you learn. Meaning, is there anything you will be able to proactively do on future projects to avoid a similar situation? 

Communication Skills

The Hiring Manager’s perception of your communication skills can be determined by how well you listen and respond throughout the interview.  However, a question that can directly address your communication skills without using work experience is, “Tell me about a time you disagreed with a friend or colleague on an important topic. How did you approach this person and resolve the dispute?”

And no…the correct answer isn’t that you tattled. Not only will the answer to this question exhibit how you handle difficult situations, but it will also show your natural leadership abilities. Also importantly, this response will show how you communicated your concerns.  Were you too passive?  Too aggressive?  Too passive/aggressive (ha)? As a side note, this will also show the hiring manager your critical thinking and problem-solving skills! 

Be you

An interview shouldn’t be a dog-and-pony show.  Every hiring manager we work with cares about their team members. They care about their company’s mission. They care about this industry. 

And don’t you care too?  Your mission is to show how much you care as well as your passion during the interview. 

Competing with seasoned professionals can be a daunting task, but make sure you are selling that you are hungry, you’ve got passion and ambition, and in this day and age, you are tech-savvy. Use all these attributes to your advantage by being ready to articulate why the hiring manager needs someone with those traits on their team.

Engage a CRA Career Coach

Aspiring CRAs consistently ask us how to become a CRA. As frustrating as it is, we have yet to find a single educational path or degree that allows for an individual to graduate and gracefully step directly into the CRA role. There are hundreds of reasons why CROs and Sponsors are looking for experienced CRAs. After all, sponsors spend millions of dollars to get to the point where the CRA steps in to monitor the sponsors’ studies. And because of that investment, a lot of reputable companies are not willing to risk hiring entry-level candidates. 

But we can help point you to resources that will assist you in obtaining your goals of entering the field. In terms of providing advice on how to break into the role, we would tell prospective CRAs to obtain a Life Sciences or Medical degree. Look for an entry-level job as a Clinical Trial Assistant, Document Control, TMF specialist, or Clinical Data Analyst with a well-known CRO that has a strong reputation for hiring entry-level employees and training them.  

Alternatively, consider using your medical degree to obtain a position at a clinic, doctor’s office, hospital, or academic setting that conducts studies. This will enable you to progress into a Clinical Research Coordinator role, making you even more competitive for those coveted CRA positions.  

Whatever you do, keep working at obtaining your goal. Don’t give up. Consider contacting us – we would love to help. 

In the meantime, we have sources for you. Need to prepare for an interview? Check out our interview prep posts and podcasts. Not sure what your compensation should be or why references are important? We can help with that too.

We look forward to working with you soon.