Clinical research

As the study of health and illness in people, this vast discipline helps to translate laboratory research into treatment outcomes that benefit patients. Clinical research is one of the most exciting life sciences careers around.

With the global clinical research market growing and a host of new opportunities appearing across the world, there’s never been a better time to enter the clinical research profession. 

Whether you’re seeking work as a project manager in the public sector or as a clinical trial administrator at one of the world’s top pharmaceutical industries, clinical research is an exciting career choice with plenty of opportunities for development, progression and travel.

To aid your job search, this quick guide looks at what it’s like to work in this compelling industry.

What’s the difference between clinical research and basic research?

  • Clinical research tests the safety and effectiveness of drugs in a healthcare environment
  • Basic research aims to understand some aspect of biology at a very basic level

In science, “research” is a broad term that can be used to encompass any systematic investigation into materials and sources that seeks to establish facts and reach new, peer-reviewed conclusions.

In medical research, there are three principal areas of research: basic, clinical and translational. 

Basic research 
Basic research represents the crucial, curiosity-driven starting point for scientific inquiry. The aim of basic research is to advance our fundamental understanding of a certain concept by creating, supporting or refuting theories that explain observed phenomena. 

Clinical research 
Clinical research is a branch of healthcare science that explores how safe and effective novel treatments, medications, medical devices and diagnostic techniques are when administered to patients. By running stringent clinical trials, researchers monitor patients’ progress and measure the efficacy and/or benefits of a new drug.

Translational research
Translational research is an interdisciplinary branch of the biomedical field brings together specialists from a number of areas — broaching the divide between basic and clinical research. It builds on the initial findings of basic research to advance the applications of a discovery. 

What is done in clinical research?
Clinical research involves human participants and helps to translate the findings of basic research into new treatments and medications that benefit patients.

The most common type of clinical research study is a controlled clinical trial. 

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), a clinical trial is “any research study that prospectively assigns human participants or groups of humans to one or more health-related interventions to evaluate the effects on health outcomes. Interventions include but are not restricted to drugs, cells and other biological products, surgical procedures, radiological procedures, devices, behavioural treatments, process-of-care changes, preventive care, etc.”

Clinical trials are broken down into different stages, called phases. These increase in size and scope as the study progresses. 

A Phase I trial, for example, may examine the side effects of a new medication and only involve a dozen people. A Phase IV trial, on the other hand, may involve thousands of participants and test whether a new medication is better than existing treatments.

All clinical operations are subject to international ethical, scientific and practical standards. As such, it’s up to clinical research associates to ensure that Good Clinical Practice (GCP) is adhered to when conducting a trial. 

Other therapeutic areas that can fall under clinical research include epidemiology, physiology and pathophysiology, health services, education, and mental health.

Is clinical research a good career?
With competitive salaries and a healthy future outlook, clinical research represents a great career choice. If you’re interested in building on the latest scientific findings and ensuring novel therapeutic treatments and medications are safe and effective, this might just be the career for you. 

The clinical trials industry employs millions of people worldwide, with excellent job opportunities in locations as far afield as North American, Europe, India, Singapore, and Australia. Given that the global clinical trials market is expected to reach USD 68.9 billion by 2026, it’s little wonder that there is rising demand for trained professionals in the field.

How do I start a career in clinical research?
As a minimum requirement, you’ll need a graduate or postgraduate degree in a relevant field. Aside from clinical research, this can include fields as diverse as biochemistry, pharmacology, nursing, epidemiology, physiology, chemistry, and even pre-medical studies. 

While it’s technically possible to find work in clinical research without the relevant qualifications (working up from an administrative role, for example), pursuing this route carries no guarantees of employment.

When studying towards a career in clinical research, it’s also worth gaining as much research experience in a laboratory or clinical trial setting as possible. Clinical research internships are one such way to enhance your skills and employability. 

What’s it like to work in clinical research?
Working in clinical research is hugely rewarding, challenging and varied.

Types of clinical research jobs
There are various job titles in the clinical research field, including:

  • Biostatistician
  • Clinical data manager (CDM)
  • Clinical research associate (CRA)
  • Clinical research coordinator
  • Clinical research scientist
  • Clinical trial manager
  • Clinical trial monitor
  • Pharmacovigilance associate (PVA)
  • Regulatory affairs manager (RAM)

Browse the latest clinical research vacancies

How much do clinical researchers get paid?
The average salary for a clinical research associate in the UK is £32,087. The average salary for a clinical scientist in the UK is £39,183, while the average UK salary for a senior clinical project manager is £59,310. Most entry-level roles in clinical research range from £20,000 to £30,000.

Wages in clinical research are highly competitive and depend on a number of variables, including job title, level of experience, employer and location. 

What is a clinical research associate (CRA) in the medical field?
A clinical research associate (CRA) is a healthcare professional who works in the field of medical research and plays a key role in the drug development process. 

Also known as a clinical monitor or trial monitors, CRAs are involved in the end-to-end duration of a clinical trial. Responsibilities may include:

  • Writing trial protocols
  • Setting up trial sites
  • Monitoring participants
  • Ensuring trials comply with Good Clinical Practice standards
  • Collecting, distributing and storing data

The day-to-day activities and responsibilities of a CRA can vary from company to company, particularly in the private sector. CRAs can typically find work within Clinical Research Organisations (CRO), pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies and, occasionally, in hospital academic departments.

What qualifications do I need to be a clinical research associate (CRA)?
To become a CRA, you’ll need to obtain a graduate or postgraduate degree in one of the following;

  • Clinical research
  • Anatomy
  • Molecular biology
  • Biochemistry
  • Genetics
  • Chemistry
  • Microbiology
  • Toxicology
  • Pharmacology
  • Bioengineering
  • Immunology
  • Physiology. 

Given the level of technical expertise needed, finding a job without a degree is extremely difficult in this profession.

Prior experience with clinical trials is a big bonus, as is a doctoral degree in clinical research or a related discipline. Having a CRA certification will also help when applying for more senior positions.

How do I become CRA certified?
Professional development is key in a crowded jobs market, and clinical research offers plenty of opportunities for L&D. One such avenue is to become CRA certified. 

To obtain CRA certification, you’ll need to join a professional clinical research organisation or network. These include:

  • ACRP – Association of Clinical Research Professional
  • SoCRA – Society of Clinical Research Associates
  • CCRA – Clinical & Contract Research Association
  • ICR – Institute of Clinical Research

These organisations typically provide both on-site and online training geared towards a final paid-for exam. To take the exam, you’ll likely have to prove you have several years’ experience in the profession, a letter of recommendation from an employer or client, and documented relevant training.

Though becoming CRA certified isn’t a necessity, doing so will help you stand out from the crowd and strengthen your career prospects.

Apply for clinical research roles