Editor's note: In June, Next Wave's CareerDoctor suggested that Teresa Tang attend a workshop on becoming a clinical research associate (CRA); here, Teresa reports on her experiences at the event. Why not get some personal career advice by e-mailing the CareerDoctor today?

Most recruitment adverts for clinical research associates (CRAs) read something like this: "Life sciences or nursing degree, good communicator, minimum 1 or 2 years' experience." Whilst many would-be CRAs meet the first two criteria, many find themselves in the classic Catch-22 situation: How can you get experience if no one will give you a job in the first place? The competition for any trainee positions that do open up is extremely fierce, so how can you get the edge that will get you the job?

With this in mind, the Institute of Clinical Research (ICR; see box) started organising "So You Want to Be a CRA" events, to give potential CRAs the insight that would set them apart from the competition. Because I'm keen to break into clinical research, I went to one such event, held in London in July, to see whether it did what it said on the tin.

The Institute of Clinical Research

The Institute of Clinical Research is an organisation for scientists and other professionals within the clinical and medical device research field. Its aims include promoting the highest level of practice and training within the clinical research field, helping its members fulfil their potential and deliver clinical research results of the highest quality and value.

Sue Fitzpatrick of ICR kicked off the proceedings with a quick introduction to the institute and a meet-and-greet exercise, in which we were asked to introduce the person sitting next to us to the rest of the group. This gave everyone an idea of why people had come to the event, what their backgrounds were, and what they hoped to gain from attending--a great ice-breaker, as it gave the attendees a chance to find out about each other early on and made things less formal. The 70 or so of us turned out to be a mixed bunch. One person had a background in nursing, another had data management experience, and another worked in clinical trial administration. But most people were final-year undergraduates or postgraduates with a few years' laboratory experience thinking about a move into the clinical research field.

Throughout the day there were a number of talks. Fitzpatrick gave a very brief overview of drug development and an introduction to the rules and regulations affecting the industry, such as those set by the International Conference of Harmonisation for Good Clinical Practice and the forthcoming E.U. clinical trials directive. She also discussed alternative career pathways in clinical research, such as data management, and how they can be used to get your foot in the door to become a CRA.

Hazel Martin and Vivien Baxter of Ingenix, a clinical research organisation, gave general advice on applications, focusing on CV and covering-letter writing as well as interview techniques.

In general the talks were well presented, but I felt that the information was geared to the needs of someone just starting to think about entering the clinical research field. Those seriously thinking about pursuing a CRA career should already be familiar with basics such as the role and responsibilities of a CRA and the clinical research terminology used, especially now that Internet access is so widespread.

Similarly, I thought the presentations about job applications were aimed more toward new and recent graduates than those with a little more job-seeking experience. Having said that, it is good to keep up-to-date with the latest trends in CV writing, and the covering letter written by one Harry Potter was entertaining. It is reassuring to see that it is not only us mere Muggles who require that interview-clinching letter!

More useful than the talks was the practical exercise that Fitzpatrick took us through. We were asked to compare original GP notes to a study entry form, known as the Source Document Verification (SDV) procedure. This was followed by a discussion of the possible difficulties and pitfalls when performing SDV. I thought this was extremely informative, because it was as close as I would get to seeing what a CRA would do without actually being one.

Most valuable of all, however, was the networking opportunity the event provided. The day was punctuated by three long breaks, giving ample time to speak to exhibitors from companies such as Chiltern International, Covance, Ingenix, Phlexglobal, and RDL Scientific, all of which are involved in recruiting for the pharmaceutical industry. All of the company representatives I spoke to were extremely helpful, offering guidance on finding that elusive CRA position, information regarding trainee CRA programmes, and tips on improving CVs in order to obtain interviews.

On the whole, I felt that the event was worth the £80 registration fee, as it provided a very good introduction and insight into CRA and associated careers, plus more general tips on CV presentation, covering-letter writing, and interview techniques. But for someone like me, who has already made the decision to become a CRA, the most useful aspect of this event was the chance to speak to the recruitment agencies and to network with other wannabe CRAs, making the long (and possibly frustrating) road to the Holy Grail, a CRA position, seem that much more bearable and the goal that much more achievable.