How to Become a Clinical Research Scientist: Career Roadmap

Oct 20, 2021

Clinical research scientists perform medical research in labs, seeking better ways to diagnose and cure a wide variety of illnesses. Read on to learn how to become a research scientist, what kind of research scientist degrees exist, medical researcher salaries, and more.

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Clinical Research Scientist Job Description

Clinical research scientists are responsible for performing research in laboratory settings, studying diseases and other illnesses in order to devise better means of diagnosis and treatment. They typically work in research departments for government organizations, at labs in universities and hospitals, or for corporations in the medical and pharmaceutical industries. Their work often involves specialized machines and other tools, and potentially hazardous materials such as blood samples and pathogens being studied. Depending on the stage of research, clinical research scientists may directly interact with patients taking experimental treatments. Clinical research is highly regulated, so attention to detail and precise recording of notes and information is vital to the success of a project.

Research Scientist Education Requirements

Clinical research scientists fall under the category of research scientists, and as with many careers in science, a graduate degree is needed in order to fully participate in research professionally. While many clinical research positions will require a Ph.D, particularly at the upper levels, a master's degree will still be enough in other situations, depending on the location and the nature of the research. Some positions even require a medical degree, such as a Medical Doctorate (M.D.) or a degree in nursing, in addition to education in biology or clinical research.

Dedicated clinical research degrees do exist, as bachelor's, master's, and doctorate degrees. Bachelor's degree programs in clinical research are often designed under the assumption that an individual will continue on to pursue an advanced degree, or will enter the field directly as a clinical research associate (CRA) or coordinator (CRC). Medical research degrees may involve internships or other forms of practical experience, with the intention of providing students with an idea of how the profession works in the real world.

How to Become a Clinical Scientist

The path of a medical research career usually follows steps similar to those listed below:

  1. Obtain a bachelor's degree
  2. Apply for graduate school, or
  3. Begin working as a CRA or other research-related position (optional)
  4. Enter a master's or doctorate program
  5. Graduate and begin searching for positions
  6. Earn certifications and gain experience to advance (optional)

An undergraduate student setting out to be a clinical research scientist should begin with a bachelor's degree relevant to the field. A degree in clinical research is an obvious choice, but majors in biology, biochemistry, pharmacology, or even pre-medical studies can work well. Upon receiving a bachelor's, a student could either apply for graduate schools immediately or move on to graduate courses, if part of a combined bachelor's/master's program. This will involve such tasks as taking entrance exams like the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE), writing admissions essays, and obtaining reference letters.

If a student isn't feeling confident about their academic record in university, it may instead be advisable to enter the workforce for 1-2 years in order to build up relevant experience. Positions related to research, such as CRAs, can provide an excellent stepping stone. Once you feel confident in your abilities and experience, you can apply (or apply again) for graduate school. Individuals hoping to become lead researchers might be better off pursuing a Ph.D. in clinical research, while those who are less dedicated to clinical research in particular or who want to enter the field sooner would be best served with a master's degree. Degrees in areas of biology like molecular biology or microbiology are also well suited, and may leave more options for other areas of research should you desire a change in career later on. Earning an M.D. and then choosing to pursue a Ph.D. later is also an option, if your reasons for approaching the career are more related to medicine than research.

Clinical Research Scientist Career & Certification Info

Clinical research scientists working for universities are likely to teach as well, working as a professor while performing research. Scientists at universities and working for government organizations, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), may be expected to produce research papers for peer review. Scientists working for pharmaceutical companies work towards improving diagnostic techniques and tools and medicines for treatment of disease, which the company may eventually bring to market. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual income for medical scientists overall was $84,810 in 2018.

Advancement opportunities will vary depending on the working environment, but are largely influenced by experience. Individuals looking to advance their careers may want to consider earning optional certification. The Association of Clinical Research Professionals (ACRP) offers several certifications for roles in clinical research, including CRAs (with the Certified Clinical Research Associate credential), principal investigators (with the Certified Principal Investigator credential), and general research certifications such as the ACRP Certified Professional, or ACRP-CP. These certifications require certain degrees, work experience, and the ability to pass a certification exam. Maintaining certification requires continued education and involvement every two years. Certification can act as proof of skill.

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