How to Become a CRA

Want to know how to become a CRA? We understand that being a job seeker can be stressful; however being a newbie to the job force can cause even more stress.  

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

However, becoming a CRA isn’t always easy. 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 there isn’t necessarily a single, straight path into the role, we do have some tips for you. After all, every seasoned CRA has started out in an entry level CRA position at some point. It is important to know that it is not the hiring manager who determines if you get that awesome entry level CRA job. It is you!

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.  

While you may not have the same professional experience as more seasoned CRAs, you DO have relevant experience. For example, describing a relevant 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 that you possess incredible initiative, since internships are often experiential only (i.e. – not paid). 

Lastly, and one of my favorites, describing how you balanced 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 particularly crucial when it comes to being an effective CRA.  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 in order 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 prioritized those tasks so that you could perform the duties needed in order to meet your timeline.

Critical Thinking & Problem Solving Skills

It is important for CRAs to be able to ask probing questions, analyze the responses, and then make strong 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 a critical thinker and problem solver. 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 final 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 able to articulate the following skills:

  • How you handle difficult situations.
  • How you prioritize or reprioritize on the fly.
  • How you solve problems in spite of 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 & 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?”

Not only will the answer to this question exhibit how you handle difficult situations, 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 exhibit your critical thinking and problem solving skills! 

High Travel, Mean Girls, and Bullies

I once showed up at the Delta counter in Atlanta not remembering where I was supposed to go. It sounds silly, but many folks believe that traveling will be glamorous and fun while underestimating the planning that has to take place to ensure deliverables are still met in such a high paced environment.  

While the pandemic has released some of our industry’s travel expectations, understanding the ‘travel fitness’ required to handle an industry CRA role is still extremely important.  

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 handled conflict in the past is key.   

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, 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

We frequently are asked “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 Resource Assistant, Clinical Trial Assistant, Document Control or Clinical Data Manager 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 prep 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.