How to Become a Clinical Research Associate

Written by Coursera • Updated on

A clinical research associate acts as a liaison between research sponsors and the clinics conducting research. Here’s how you can become one.

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Every pill, vaccine, procedure, therapy, or medical device that might be prescribed or used on you to improve your physical or mental health undergoes clinical research trials. During these trials, a drug might get approved for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or a medical device approved for consumer or hospital use. 

Clinical research associates (CRA) play a critical role in the health care industry. They act as liaisons between those who sponsor research and those who facilitate clinical research, which can be a long and arduous process. Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, rising population density and international travel have increased the spread of new and existing diseases. Clinical research is necessary to gain evidence-based insights on how well a drug or vaccine does.

A career as a clinical research associate can be rewarding for individuals who are excited by the prospect of a dynamic role overseeing many different kinds of clinical trials. Here’s how to get started.

What is a clinical research associate?

Clinical research associates, also called “monitors,” are individuals who act as liaisons between the institutions that sponsor and fund the clinical research trials, and the clinics that conduct the research. They are in charge of making sure the clinical trials run smoothly, monitoring all the procedures, processes, and results, ensuring the researchers are following established guidelines and protocols every step of the way. 

A clinical research associate works on behalf of the sponsor (pharmaceutical company, university, or health organization) or for a contract research organization (CRO). The CRO typically funds the research. Clinical trials are the long, scientific process of ensuring that certain drugs, therapies, and devices are safe and effective for public consumption and use. CRAs guide the trials forward in accordance with regulations for ethics and safety.

Clinical research associates work on a team of research professionals. Here is the hierarchy:

  • Contract research organization (CRO) or sponsor (university, pharmaceutical company)

  • Principal investigator (PI)

  • Clinical research associate (CRA)

  • Clinical research coordinator (CRC)

Clinical research associate job description

As a clinical research associate, these are the typical tasks and responsibilities:

  • Monitor the clinical research process, including managing supplies and coordination

  • Oversee data collection and documentation, and inputting data into systems databases

  • Outline the trial objectives and present the trial protocols to a committee

  • Coordinate with an ethics committee that protects trial subject confidentiality

  • Prepare post-trial reports and manage creating the publications

Field-based CRAs travel to different locations to deal with medical professionals in clinics or hospitals. Some CROs hire in-house CRAs to focus only on document review and management, making only occasional site visits.

Where you’ll work

Field-based CRAs travel to different locations to deal with medical professionals in clinics or hospitals. Some CROs hire in-house CRAs to focus only on document review and management, making only occasional site visits.

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Skills needed

Clinical research associates need to have certain skills to get hired and be successful in their roles. Whether or not you currently possess these skills, it is possible to learn and acquire them through taking online courses or on the job. Some important skills you’ll need include: 

  • Administrative skills, including the ability to document important information accurately

  • IT and computer skills, such as databases and systems management

  • Written and oral communication skills

  • Keen attention to detail and organization

  • Ability to manage and coordinate with several stakeholders

  • Strong understanding of the clinical research trials and health care space, along with the terminology 

Clinical research associate salary and job outlook

The salary for a clinical research associate can vary depending on your organization and experience level. Clinical research associates can earn a median salary of $57,800 per year, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics [1]. On Glassdoor, the average annual salary is $64,061 [2].

Clinical research associate was ranked fourth on CNN Money’s Best Jobs in America in 2012, however, which listed the median pay as $90,800 with a top pay of $129,000 [3]. That number is much higher than those observed in more recent salary reports, indicating that the role’s salary can vary greatly. 

How to become a clinical research associate.

A career as a CRA can be fulfilling because you are essentially a part-translator, part-project manager, and part administrator for trials that have the potential to save lives. Here’s how to get started as a clinical research associate.

1. Earn a degree

To become a CRA, you’ll want to earn a bachelor’s degree in a health-related field. Consider a major in health sciences, nursing, medical technology, or biological sciences. Degrees in the humanities or social sciences, such as sociology or psychology, can also be helpful in providing a strong framework for research insights as a CRA. The degree should provide the foundation you’ll need to pursue clinical research associate and technician roles. 

2. Get certified

While you do not need a certification to become a clinical research associate, having one can differentiate you from other candidates when it comes to being hired or promoted in this role. You can choose from certifications offered by two different organizations. 

The Association of Clinical Research Professionals (ACRP)

The ACRP offers the Certified Clinical Research Associate credential. To earn this certification, you must have one of the following:

  • A bachelor’s degree and at least 3,000 hours of experience as a CRA

  • A current CCRC, CPI or ACRP-CP certification and be able to substitute 1,500 hours of work experience

  • Completed a clinical research degree program and be able to substitute 1,500 hours of work experience

CCRA applicants must submit proof of their current job description and resume, and pass the CCRA exam. They must also complete 24 hours of continuing education, and be recertified every two years in order to maintain their certification. Through the ACRP, you can also become certified as a research coordinator, principal investigator, and clinical professional.

The Society of Clinical Research Associates (SOCRA)

The SOCRA offers the Certified Clinical Research Professional (CCRP) credential. To earn this certification, you must have one of the following:

  • At least two years of clinical research experience or 3,500 hours of part-time experience in the past five years

  • A degree in clinical research and at least one year of full-time experience

  • A certificate in clinical research, a bachelor’s or associate degree in health science, science, or a related field, and at least one year of full-time work experience

SOCRA applicants must pass the CCRP exam, and be recertified every three years. To become recertified, you’ll need to complete 45 hours of continuing education. 

The main difference between the certifications offered by SOCRA and ACRP is that ACRP only certifies clinical research associates, but SOCRA’s CCRP certification applies to other types of clinical research professionals.

3. Apply for jobs

When you have the necessary qualifications to become a CRA, you can start applying for jobs. Visit job sites such as Indeed or LinkedIn and type in “clinical research associate” to search for entry or junior level positions.

Looking for your first job? Read this: How to Get Your First Job: A Guide

Make sure to enhance your resume with any health care-related experiences you may have, including volunteer activities and internships. You’ll want to quantify your accomplishments with statements such as: “I managed clinical trials in seven different states in 2020.”

Prepare for interviews by researching the company and preparing your best answers. Don’t forget to write up a list of questions to ask your interviewer. 

4. Continue learning

Going on to earn a master’s degree can help you land a managerial position or salary boost as a CRA. Clinical research associates are needed in many different types of organizations, so there are plenty of opportunities to achieve more interesting and dynamic job opportunities when you pursue higher education. 

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Article sources

1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Occupational Outlook Handbook: Medical Scientists, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/medical-scientists.htm." Accessed June 7, 2022.

2. Glassdoor. "Clinical Research Associate Salaries, https://www.glassdoor.com/Salaries/clinical-research-associate-salary-SRCH_KO0,27.htm." Accessed June 7, 2022.

3. CNN Money. "Best Jobs in America, 4. Clinical Research Associate, https://money.cnn.com/pf/best-jobs/2012/snapshots/4.html." Accessed June 7, 2022.

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