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Dear CareerDoctor,I am currently trying to pursue a Clinical Research Associate (CRA) career, but as I have a PhD and 3 years postdoctoral experience in neuroscience I am finding it very difficult to break into this field. So to put myself into a better position, I have started to apply for roles such as Drug Safety Officer as it requires skills and experience that are similar to those needed to become a CRA. However, this has not been successful either; in the 5 months I have been looking for a new position, I have reached the interview stage on only one occasion. Following the feedback from this one-and-only interview, I was told that I was 'too technical' and the interviewer suggested I return to bench work.So what can I do to convince the employers to give me a chance in clinical research when they just look at my CV (which I have actually revised so that it does not come across as an academic CV) and 'pigeonhole' me into bench research purely based on my experience?I hope you can help me. Thank you.Yours faithfullyTeresa

Dear Teresa

I'm sorry to hear that your attempts to break into clinical research have so far failed and the feedback you received was so dismissive. Don't be disheartened though--although 5 months of rejection feels like an eternity, it is not that long when it comes to career transitions and you can praise yourself for having done all the right things. You've tailored your CV and it is good enough to get an interview, you've asked for feedback--even though you may be wishing you hadn't, it is essential to learn from each stage of the process--and you are being realistic about where to start. Continued rejection is not a criticism of you or a denigration of your abilities--it is simply an unfortunate byproduct of the recruitment process. Most employers admit they reject many highly capable people because they only have one job to offer. So it usually goes to the person who has convinced them they are best suited--but not necessarily the person who IS best!

Although I understand your reasons for looking at drug safety as a stepping stone, I've found some resources that should invigorate your search for a CRA post. I'm therefore going to suggest in this column that you continue to aim at CRA posts, although all the strategies are equally applicable to drug safety.

Keeping Your Spirits Up

I want to start with some tips to keep your spirits and momentum up if you are facing another few difficult months. Handling rejection is an essential skill for job seeking--just like writing a CV or networking. For most people it is the most challenging aspect of developing a career, and I doubt anybody sends off the CV they've sweated over for hours with the thought "Can't wait to find out where I've gone wrong with that!" Rejection is even more difficult if you can't wait to quit your current job, or if you have no job at all. If you are unemployed, you need to realise that you ARE working, your current position being that of a "Job Seeker." This might sound a bit naff, but it can help you take a more positive attitude to your circumstances.

It's Just Like Research, Really ...

So, how do professional job seekers work? Let's make some comparisons with your research background. Most scientists will have a series of experiments running at any given time and won't sit waiting idly for the results of one series of experiments to be published before starting the next. It's the same for our professional job seeker--they will always be in the process of preparing a CV or completing an application, preparing for interviews or following them up by asking for feedback. Even with job offers on the horizon, they are still researching potential employers and looking for suitable vacancies. This means that once you have learnt all you can from an application which hasn't succeeded, you can quickly turn your energy to the next attempt.

I've already warned you that most of your efforts will end in frustration--again a familiar feeling for most researchers, particularly at the beginning of a new project. You managed to overcome early setbacks in your research career, perhaps because the end goal--your PhD or a paper--was so valuable. Try to think about your new job in the same way and draw upon previous experiences to identify your own coping strategies. These might include sport, socialising with friends or, my personal favourite, a spot of retail therapy! Treat yourself when you've worked hard or achieved a goal--another benefit of being a professional job seeker is that the boss knows exactly how to reward you.

Another parallel with research is the seasonal nature of recruitment. You wouldn't dream of sending off a batch of grant proposals on the off-chance they might reach the funding body just when they are about to decide where to spend their latest pot of cash. Whilst I'd still recommend speculative applications, it is better to find out first how they will be received. Get in touch with a recruiter to explain you are committed to finding a job in this field and ask if they accept speculative applications--if not, could they tell you when they are likely to recruit and how they advertise. Do they use an agency? If you have sent a speculative application already and haven't heard anything back, ask them if they were interested in your application--be friendly and interested rather than accusative or desperate. If they didn't take your application any further are they willing to give you any tips or suggestions? What experience or skills are you lacking? I'll leave it at that for now as I am going to elaborate on the ideas of speculative and creative job hunting in my next column.

Not all employers are willing to give feedback, particularly if you didn't get to interview stage, and some will even offer it to applicants only if they get to the final stages of selection. If this is the case then be gracious and thank them for the time they did spend looking at your application and say that you are still interested in the company because of ... (insert a well-researched comment here to impress them!) and will look for other suitable opportunities. This may sound unbearably obsequious, but you don't want to close a door into a potential employer by getting stroppy! If you fear for your sanity whilst crawling to employers, remember the advantage of telephone conversations is you can make yourself feel better with obscene gesticulations they can't see. Just don't get too carried away--I was once mouthing "blah blah" during some particularly meaningless piece of feedback when I actually said it--oops!

Your New Project

Let's draw upon some more of your existing skills and apply them to your new project, "The Novel Application of Teresa to Careers in Clinical Research." The best researchers are those who understand the impact of their research on their field. They know they are answering an important question, improving an existing process or, in their own small way, making life better. They are convinced of the value of their work, know who needs to be aware of it and, most importantly, they will describe their work in a way that impresses these influential people. You now need to do the same with yourself. Set aside, for a moment, the negative careers advice you received from your last interviewer and prepare the equivalent of a dissemination strategy. Why are you going to be the best thing to hit the world of clinical research? What makes you different from all the other potential CRAs you are competing with? Who needs to know you are out there just waiting to make their lives easier? Write all these things down and elaborate on your ideas. Your dissemination strategy has two big objectives--to boost your confidence and generate actions to re-energise your job searching.

Resources - Moving out of academia

- Clinical Research Careers

- Work and conditions of Clinical Research Associates

- Success story

Successful researchers cannot develop their ideas and knowledge in isolation--they keep up to date with developments in their field, discuss their project with others in their group and, if looking at new areas, will seek advice from experts. You need to find experts who can help you to build an accurate picture of what is important to employers of CRAs in terms of skills and experience, and the opinions and stories you will hear from them will improve your insight into their work. Make sure you also take this opportunity to find out about developments in legislation, techniques, trends in research, and the perspectives of all stakeholders. Again, in my next column I'll look at how you may research interesting careers in depth and give your job hunting a boost.

Giving the Right Impression

In my last column, I gave Mel some advice on becoming a freelance science promoter. She is hugely motivated by the idea of challenging and changing people's perceptions of science. You need to be similarly energised by the prospect of changing employers' misconceptions about you. Let's take a look at that comment again: "Following the feedback from my one-and-only interview, I was told that I was 'too technical' and the interviewer suggested that I return to bench work." It might be more comfortable to assume that the interviewer wasn't paying attention that day, wasn't capable of making such a judgement, or was having a bad day, but none of these actually help you. Instead let us assume two things: (1) you are not too technical and are suited to working as a CRA; (2) the interviewer thought they were giving you sound advice. This means that during the interview somehow you gave the wrong impression that you were better suited to research than being a CRA. Try to think objectively about how this might have happened and what specific things you would say to convince an interviewer that you will be a great CRA, are happy to leave research, and know what to expect when you start your new career.

Although I have tried to be fair to your interviewer, you are going to come across people with inaccurate views about researchers. Equally, you probably know a lot of academics with inaccurate views about the business world. You are going to have to overcome these misconceptions by presenting yourself using the interviewers' language--you have to talk to CRAs, pick up the terminology, and develop opinions on key issues. Anticipating a recruiter's negative perceptions is the first step in overcoming them. The second step is presenting yourself and your background in a way which will convince them otherwise.

Reality Check

You now need to do a reality check--and again, your dissemination strategy will help. Are YOU convinced that you are going to make a real difference to an employer, from looking at your list? If not, then why should they take a chance on you? You may need to do some more research and improve your insight into the role of CRAs to promote relevant skills. You may even find some gaps which will leave you with two choices. You can either start looking for development opportunities to fill specific holes in your CV or look for a job in the same field which you can use as a "training post." Drug safety officer is one you have already considered--but remember that potential employers won't see their vacancy as a stepping stone to something better, so be careful about how you describe your career plans to them!

Opportunities

Luckily for you, your timing for your job search couldn't be better. The Institute of Clinical Research is running a 1-day course for would-be CRAs which promises "to give them an insight into the role and the opportunity to meet some companies that are likely to employ them; to give advice on preparing CVs and interview techniques, which will stand them in good stead and help to keep them ahead of the competition." There is a charge of £80 for the event, happening in Central London on 15 July 2003, and you will have to judge whether it is worth this investment. I would recommend that you contact the institute to ask who will be attending if you are unsure. I think this would be a fantastic opportunity to talk to CRAs and people who recruit them, to organise visits or job shadowing, to get feedback on your CV, and possibly to meet your future employer. Take the process VERY seriously and treat the whole event as an interview. If I were hoping to recruit a trainee CRA I would definitely come to this event and my apparently informal conversations would in fact be the start of my recruitment process. Make sure you record the names and contact details of all the people you talk to and send them a CV within a few days with a personal covering letter.

So in summary, in order to convince employers to give you a chance you need to:

  • make sure you really understand what a good CRA is by talking to CRAs and people who work with them and ideally spending some time shadowing one

  • be absolutely clear on why you will be such a good CRA

And in order to build your chances of getting to and beyond the interview stage you need to:

  • understand the recruitment process and what is being sought

  • show that you understand the role and have already begun to make the transition into a new field

  • address stereotypical views and overcome problems with pigeonholing by using the language and terminology experienced candidates would use

With the confidence I am sure you will gain from talking to CRAs and with the resilience and tenacity you have developed in the research world, I believe you will soon get that elusive job offer.

Good luck in your career.

The CareerDoctor