I never really had a career plan, so I always hated that interview question, "where do you see yourself in 10 years time?" Having thoroughly enjoyed my BSc in pharmacology the obvious progression seemed to be a PhD and then a postdoc position. My first postdoc was in the States, but I did not enjoy it. My boss was an extremely bright, enthusiastic lady and I began to realise that I would never get excited about science the way she did. The idea started to hit me that I may not be good enough to make a career out of academic research! As I watched people fighting for funding I became very disheartened with the whole system.
Although my first thoughts about leaving bench research were emerging, I convinced myself that it was just the work I was doing at the time. But getting back to the UK and a second postdoc, I quickly realised that my earlier doubts were founded on more than just my experiences in the U.S. It was definitely time for a career change.
Several friends had made the jump into clinical research, and I started to explore this as an option. I had a long chat with one particular friend. She had been a Clinical Research Associate (CRA) for a major pharmaceutical company for a couple of years and seemed very happy. She gave me a great booklet * containing lots of information about how clinical trials are run and what a CRA does.
A CRA spends a lot of time visiting clinicians who are performing clinical trials to ensure that everything is being done correctly, that the patients are not being compromised, and that the data collected are accurate. A CRA can work either for a pharmaceutical company or a Contract Research Organisation (CRO). The latter is contracted by companies to run their clinical trials.
My soul searching led me to the conclusion that, for me personally, clinical trials seemed a lot more relevant to everyday life than bench research. I also liked the idea of taking steps back to my pharmacology roots. But what appealed to me most about the field was the opportunity to build a career. I knew people who had entered clinical research some years previously and they had done very well, climbing the ladder toward managing trials reasonably quickly. If I did leave research I wanted to move to something that gave me plenty of career prospects for the future.
Of course I had some doubts. I knew the job involved a lot of travelling, mostly driving, which is something I do not enjoy! I'd also been led to believe that CRAs are classically quite extrovert and have to put up with quite a lot of verbal abuse from clinicians! But, even if it wasn't my dream job, it fitted enough of my criteria for me to try to make the jump.
My CV needed some work as it was very much geared toward research jobs. Again, my friend helped out. She suggested that I highlight skills such as problem solving, interpersonal skills, and the ability to work as part of a team while being independent, which I used everyday but never really thought about. Up until then I thought that my lab experience and publication record spoke for itself, but it really is important that you select out all your strengths and sell yourself--even though it can be difficult to do so without sounding clichéd--because the competition for these jobs is huge. Any clinical experience at all, however limited, should be milked for all it's worth. Many companies want nurses for CRA posts because of their clinical expertise.
So, with my freshly revised CV, I started to apply for jobs. I found the best source of advertisements was New Scientist, but I very quickly realised that a transition into clinical research was not going to be easy. All the adverts asked for people with experience, but how could you get experience if no-one would take you on in the first place? One agency told me that my PhD was meaningless; someone else said that I was overqualified and would find the job very boring. It was very demoralising, but I still believe that lab experience is an excellent background for working in clinical trials. It teaches you to think on your feet, collaborate with colleagues, and have confidence in your actions. Still, applying for job after job became very frustrating: I knew I could do the job standing on my head but nobody would give me a chance!
Finally, after 5 months, I had my first proper interview. The interview itself did not go too well, but I had a great chat with one of the interviewers while I was waiting for my taxi home. He gave me some invaluable advice. He told me that it is very important to convey in your covering letter that you have a good knowledge of what the job entails and how your skills can adapt to this. He also said that it's important to tailor your letter specifically for each job, showing that you have read the advertisement properly and you are not just blindly applying for anything. His other tip was to print your CV and letter on thick, good quality paper as this will really stand out in a pile!
For my next interview, a couple of months later, I did a lot more homework into the role of a CRA. I learnt various key terms such as GCP (good clinical practice) and SDV (source data verification). I didn't fully understand what they meant but I could fit them into a sentence if required! Whatever I did it must have worked because I got the job and have been a CRA for over a year now.
It has been a very steep learning curve and I found it tough starting again at the bottom of the pile. As with any job there are good points and bad. There is a lot of travelling, which does get me down sometimes, but my driving skills have improved no end! Spending so much time with clinicians I actually really enjoy, and as yet not one has shouted at me! The day-to-day work can be very mundane, but I can see where the experience I'm gaining can lead and I know that if I persevere for a few years there will be a lot of options open to me. I do miss the lab sometimes, but then I hear my friends talking about grant applications and their uncertainty for the future and I don't miss it so much anymore!
* "So you want to be a CRA? A Guide to Careers in Clinical Research," is produced by Ingenix Pharmaceutical Services and can be ordered free from their Web site.