Clinical Researcher—December 2022 (Volume 36, Issue 6)
ON THE JOB
Talia Nikolao Hight, MBA
Pursuing a career in clinical research is undeniably a noble quest. Clinical research professionals are instrumental in safely bringing medications and therapies to market that improve and save the lives of millions.
Traditionally, however, going to nursing school or medical school was considered a necessary pathway to the ultimate goal of a long-term career in advancing medicine and contributing to the welfare of patients through research. While this continues to be the case for many of those professionals who wish to be investigators on clinical trials, it has meant that, until recently, aspirations toward significant and sustainable participation in clinical research were limited for those seeking less-medically driven research team roles. Further, and all too frequently, the motivation that drove them to choose research—working with patients—would be overshadowed by the lack of resources at, and/or expectations of holding advanced degrees to work for, clinical research sites.
In any role, work at these sites has historically meant being consistently frustrated, flustered, overworked, and under-resourced. Research sites have traditionally lacked funding, staffing, or in some cases, even the most basic information technology infrastructure. Research coordinators to this day may spend inordinate amounts of time bogged down in hours of administrative work, managing heavy paperwork flows, and stuffing 1970s-era binders. Career path options for many people who wanted to work with patients were often limited to working at small, mom-and-pop research shops using archaic approaches.
In order to work in better resourced settings, the alternative choice was too often presented as enlisting with a monolithic, slow-moving organization, such as a major pharma sponsor, contract research organization, or academic medical center with little opportunity for direct patient impact and slower career advancement.
Fortunately, the outlook for anyone enticed by the prospect of clinical research and the role it can play in advancing medicine is much brighter today. Anyone intrigued by the possibilities can pursue a potentially prosperous career complete with advancement opportunities and joy for one’s work. The clinical research career forecast is brightening for a variety of primary reasons explained in the following sections.
More Dollars to Sites and People Doing the Work
Government organizations and pharmaceutical sponsors have long allocated big dollars toward clinical trials. Little, however, was allocated toward building and developing tools that would allow researchers to do their jobs more efficiently and happily.
The pandemic underscored the critical need for clinical trials to be executed quickly and with precision. Pharma finally seemed to recognize that, for more trials to be successful like those developed to combat COVID-19, more money and resources need to be invested and directed toward the people doing the work at the research site and in the community. The renewed focus on arming sites with needed resources makes it more possible for a wider range of practicing physicians to engage in research. These improvements augment the research staff’s experience, creating more satisfaction and joy with every member of the research team.
A Debt-Free Career in Medicine and Patient Care
Careers in clinical research were once the province of students who had made the decision to pursue medicine in their formative years and set out on the requisite educational path. Today, the picture is different—clinical research is available to anyone, no matter how many organic chemistry and biology classes they took in college, even if the number is zero. A pre-med focus is not necessary, and prospective researchers can have any college degree.
Companies are training, teaching, and investing in the professional development of prospective researchers who can join the field without advanced degrees and certifications, though these can and, in some cases should, be pursued down the road—ideally with financial support from the employer. No longer saddled with having to know everything about conducting trials from the moment they are hired, coordinators can focus on and pursue expertise in specific areas of interest. Perhaps most appealingly, clinical research offers a pathway to medicine and patient care without incurring backbreaking medical school debt.
Modernization and Digitization Are Finally Catching Up
Any industry seeking to attract the best and the brightest as they enter the workforce must provide access to modern technology that will reduce manual and administrative tasks and allow for greater time and focus on high-impact work. After years of remaining far behind the technological curve, the clinical research industry is finally making the necessary investments in modernization and digitization, driven in large part by the aforementioned increase in pharma investment. Additionally, where vendors and service providers once developed solutions primarily for deep-pocketed pharma sponsors, new suites of tools and solutions have emerged to help study coordinators and research investigators do their jobs more efficiently and enjoyably.
In the final analysis, the perceptions some have of a career in clinical research leading to an overworked, underappreciated, paper-pushing dead end are being reversed. Clinical trial sites, study coordinators, and investigators in the community are receiving the technology and resources needed to modernize the important work that they do. Clinical research now offers a more approachable, high-paying, and prestigious career path to anyone seeking to positively impact medicine and the people it benefits.
Talia Nikolao Hight, MBA, is Regional General Manager for Topography Health in San Diego, Calif.