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Career Advancement in Clinical Trials: How Developing New Skills Can Prevent Turnover

The industry needs to more clearly define the different competencies and career paths within clinical research so all employees can lean into their strengths and build a career plan that brings them fulfillment.

In the clinical trials industry, career development is more critical now than ever before. Burnout and turnover are rampant, while study volume and complexity continue to increase.

2022 saw a 10% increase in ongoing clinical trials over 2021. But sites, sponsors, and CROs don’t have enough staff to keep up with this growth. Many research sites saw their turnover rates rise as high as 50%, and Clinical Research Associates consistently have turnover rates of 24-29%.

Turnover at Contract Research Organizations (CROs) and sponsors creates a constant pull to hire experienced staff from sites. This means sites no longer have enough staff to do their critical frontline work. Clinical trial timelines then slow down, increasing costs and putting trial results at risk.

But the clinical research industry can tackle these challenges. We need to start by expanding the types of candidates we hire in clinical research. Then, we can focus on helping those candidates develop specific skills that will help them avoid burnout and grow their clinical research careers instead of leaving the profession.

Challenges to employee recruitment and retention

Employee retention is a problem in many industries in the wake of the Great Resignation; the Covid-19 pandemic changed mindsets about quality-of-life expectations and work-life balance.

Employers can improve retention with tactics like:

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  • Recognition
  • Work-from-home benefits
  • Competitive pay
  • Career development opportunities

However, in the clinical trials industry, the importance of career development pathways has lagged behind other industries–especially at smaller research sites. The lack of formal career development often contributes to the flow of site staff to sponsors or CROs.

The funnel of potential new employees into the industry also trails well behind other industries.

It’s hard for candidates to learn about clinical research because its primary career paths are not recognized by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. and there are very few dedicated educational pathways into the career field.

Another barrier is that CROs and sponsors typically require two years of experience to meet regulations–and those that don’t often expect candidates to have a life sciences degree, as Lauren Ballina Chang pointed out at the Research Revolution conference.

If sites or sponsors restrict their candidate pools with narrow experience or education requirements, they have a smaller pool of candidates to choose from, making it more difficult to hire–and to hire diverse candidates.

And a lack of diverse staff can have a negative impact on patient diversity. A Tufts study showed that sites with higher racial and ethnic diversity among staff members saw that reflected in the patients they enrolled.

Organizations like Clinical Research Fastrack and ACRP are attempting to overcome strict educational and career requirements with training programs for job seekers who haven’t previously worked in clinical research. But the industry also needs to be open to curious, passionate candidates from a variety of backgrounds.

Career development to improve employee retention 

Once employees have joined the clinical research industry, they need opportunities to grow their skills so they don’t find themselves stuck with the same position and salary for years.

The continued growth and evolution of clinical trials gives clinical research professionals the ability to focus on specific skills and customize how they would like to advance their career. Professionals could focus on:

  • Technology skills
  • Managing hybrid and decentralized clinical trials
  • Diversity and inclusion initiatives

The industry needs to more clearly define the different competencies and career paths within clinical research so all employees can lean into their strengths and build a career plan that brings them fulfillment.

When employees have a clear career path, they are less likely to experience burnout and leave their positions–and they’re better equipped to handle the unique challenges of the clinical research environment.

Defining career paths and competencies

Career development starts with defining career paths, responsibilities, and competencies.

Historically, the clinical research industry has been inconsistent about job titles, levels, and responsibilities. For example, a person performing the same set of tasks could be called a Clinical Research Coordinator at one site and a Study Coordinator at another.

Because titles and levels are so inconsistent, it’s hard for clinical research professionals to compare jobs, look for salary ranges, or know what specific skills to grow to move up the career ladder.

Some organizations have attempted to combat this by building their own career frameworks that they share publicly. But industry-wide career frameworks are still rare and don’t incorporate every element of a modern clinical staff member’s job.

The Joint Task Force for Clinical Trial Competency (JTF) attempted to tackle this with the Core Competency framework, introduced in 2014 and updated in 2019. This framework has also been adopted by ACRP and other clinical research organizations, as Susan Landis shared at the Research Revolution event.

However, the framework doesn’t reflect the heavy emphasis on technology and decentralized and hybrid trials that has emerged in the past four years.

Technology as a crucial new skill 

The Core Competences Framework was updated in 2019 to “recognize the need to integrate technology-related enhancements to the competencies required for the conduct of clinical research.”

Yet technology is still not listed on the competency wheel, even though staff are often expected to spend hours on technology training and learning new systems. 60% of sites say they use 20+ technology systems.

Clinical research staff, especially site staff, are often also expected to be IT support for participants who struggle with a trial’s technology. Those skill sets don’t necessarily overlap with the soft skills or medical knowledge that have historically made research coordinators one of the most valuable links in a clinical trial.

The clinical research industry needs to update its job descriptions and expected skills to reflect industry changes. The ideal clinical research job framework would:

  • Include technology
  • Offer multiple paths for progression based on people’s talents and the industry’s evolution
  • Define the different skills required for patient-facing and behind-the-scenes roles

Although technology can require training, site enablement technology can also remove the need for clinical research professionals to spend all their time on repetitive communication or manual paperwork.

With technology, clinical research professionals can spend less time on downloading attachments or faxing forms and more time on the skills they want to build: whether those skills are working with patients, data analysis, trial design, or diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Reducing turnover with career development

The clinical research industry can often be fractured and competitive. But sites, sponsors, and CROs can work together to solve the shared problem of turnover and burnout.

The first step is to expand the pool of candidates we hire from by removing the “two years of experience” barrier and considering employees from non-traditional backgrounds and newer training programs.

Once employees have joined the clinical research field, we can keep them there by offering career ladders and clear frameworks for the skills they need to develop–including the technology skills necessitated by decentralized and hybrid trials.

Clinical research professionals can then choose their own path within the profession, whether that means becoming experts in science, data, tech, or patient care. There’s space for all of us.

Special thanks to Lauren Ballina Chang, Kimberly Jenkins, and Susan Landis for joining me on the Research Revolution panel that inspired this article.

Andrea Bastek is the Director of Innovation at Florence, the largest eISF + Remote Site Access platform in clinical research with more than 8,000 study sites across 30 countries connected. She has extensive experience in the clinical trials space for medical devices, including deep collaboration with sites to drive processes that ensure successful study participation. She is committed to finding workflow efficiencies that improve clinical trial execution. She holds a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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