Perhaps you’re fascinated by medical science, but the idea of treating patients as a physician or nurse doesn’t quite fit your career aspirations. Instead, you might consider pursuing a career as a clinical research specialist, also known as a clinical research coordinator.
What is a clinical specialist, and what’s the process for how to become a clinical research specialist? In this career, you use your health science degree as you assist with clinical trials aimed at developing new treatments using medications and medical devices for diseases and other conditions. Below, you can explore the answers to common questions about the career field and get some advice on shaping your own career pathway.
In This Article:
- What Is Clinical Research?
- What Is a Clinical Research Specialist’s Job Responsibilities
- What Is the Job Outlook for a Clinical Research Specialist?
- How To Become a Clinical Research Specialist
- Future Growth Opportunities for Clinical Research Specialists
What Is Clinical Research?
Clinical research is the subspecialty of the healthcare field that works with the research and development of new medical treatments, products and processes. A clinical researcher, also known as a principal investigator (PI), is a medical scientist who evaluates the safety and effectiveness of medications, diagnostic tests, therapeutic treatments and medical devices. The clinical research specialist is the professional who assists the clinical researcher or PI in the day-to-day operations of conducting the trial.
Another way to answer the question, What is a clinical specialist? is to take a look at a few examples of what clinical research specialists actually do and how their work impacts everyday human life.
Recently, PIs at Johns Hopkins discovered that a particular neuron located in the hypothalamus appears to play a role in a person’s ability to sleep. This discovery offers exciting possibilities for the next generation of insomnia medications.1 And in 2021, medical scientists developed an experimental gene therapy designed to give people with sickle cell disease the ability to produce their own hemoglobin.2
These are just two of the exciting medical breakthroughs that PIs have been responsible for — and clinical research specialists or coordinators have assisted with them. Every year brings hundreds of new breakthroughs that offer hope to patients with conditions as common as insomnia or as rare as Lesch–Nyhan syndrome. Although the clinical research specialist does not conduct the actual medical research (e.g. designing the study), they do play a support role that enables the trials to proceed.
In short, a career in clinical research coordination is one that can give science-inclined individuals the opportunity to serve others in an indirect fashion. If you’ve ever taken an over-the-counter pain reliever, applied a topical anti-itch cream or received an implantable medical device, you can thank a clinical research specialist for providing the behind-the-scenes support necessary for the clinical trials.
What Is a Clinical Research Specialist’s Job Responsibilities?
Now that you know the broad answer to the question, What is a clinical research specialist? it’s time to take a look at the specific job duties these professionals handle. The typical clinical research specialist job description will vary from one employer to the next. However, it may include any of the following tasks:
- Perform all activities as directed by the principal investigator
- Work with the PI to develop research protocols and guidelines
- Serve as a liaison for the clinical site
- Recruit and register clinical trial participants, ensuring that all registered participants meet the eligibility criteria
- Explain the processes and procedures of the clinical trial to the study participants
- Ensure the clinical study is in compliance with all applicable regulations and all institutional protocols
- Ensure the trial proceeds according to the study guidelines
- Keep the clinical site stocked with any essential supplies and ensure all necessary equipment is functioning appropriately
- Collect, review and enter clinical trial data into a database
- Prepare a report on research findings, as requested
What Is the Job Outlook for a Clinical Research Specialist?
Clinical research specialists are needed to provide support and assistance to clinical researchers as they design and conduct trials. The U.S. Bureau of Labor (BLS) does not report specifically on clinical research specialists. However, they do report data for medical scientists.
A clinical research specialist or coordinator works under a medical scientist or PI, which means that the job growth rate for medical scientists could shed some light on the future prospects for research coordinators. The BLS states that 20,800 new jobs are estimated to open for medical scientists from 2021 to 2031, due in part to the aging U.S. population. This indicates a 17% growth rate during that time period, much faster than average.3 As people grow older, they become more susceptible to developing diseases and conditions, including:4
- Parkinson’s disease
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Other emerging problems such as antibiotic resistance to diseases associated with climate change and air pollution
How To Become a Clinical Research Specialist
The pathway to become a clinical research specialist is challenging, yet it can be rewarding. You can begin in high school by taking as many math and life science courses as possible. In particular, try to take Advanced Placement (AP) classes in biology, chemistry, statistics and calculus.
It’s also helpful to take computer science courses, as this position requires a high degree of computer literacy to use their complex software and analyze data.5 Writing skills are similarly important, because these professionals may be directed by the PI to compile reports on research findings. Whenever possible, get active in extracurricular activities such as science fairs, mathematics competitions and similar activities.
When you’re ready to apply to colleges, look for a school with a strong STEM department that offers degree options in the medical or health science field.
Earn a Health Science Degree
After high school, you should plan on earning a degree in healthcare or a related field. Some options include a biology degree, a chemistry degree or a health sciences degree. The health science degree is a broad program that can teach you the foundational competencies in the healthcare field. The specific curriculum will vary from one school to the next, but may include topics such as the following:
- Healthcare risk management and compliance with federal, state and local healthcare regulations
- Applied statistical methods and their use in the medical field
- Emerging trends and issues in the medical field
- The fundamentals of various medical research methods
- Ethical issues for healthcare professionals and the application of theoretical frameworks for ethical decision-making
When you have the opportunity to take electives, it’s best to choose additional classes in life sciences. Biology, chemistry and math classes are particularly important for aspiring clinical research specialists.
Complete a Relevant Medical Science Internship
During the course of your studies, it can be helpful to seek out job shadowing and internship opportunities. Some benefits of job shadowing or interning during college include:
- Gaining invaluable experience
- Helping you build a professional network to draw upon when you start looking for a job after college
- Receiving a possible reference or letter of recommendation from your supervisor for your applications
Earn a Graduate Degree in Medical Science
For an aspiring clinical research specialist, a bachelor’s degree may be all that’s needed to land a job. However, some employers prefer job candidates with additional qualifications. You may find that it’s necessary to earn a graduate degree in order to get a job and explore opportunities for advancement.5
Future Growth Opportunities for Clinical Research Specialists
For a clinical research specialist, there may be some room for upward career growth. For example, you might decide to pursue the job of medical scientist. Medical scientists typically lead teams of technicians as they design and conduct medical science experiments.
It is considered a standard requirement for medical scientists to have a terminal degree. Many medical scientists hold PhDs, although some have medical degrees and have acquired the necessary licensure to become medical doctors.5 Other scientists hold dual medical degrees and PhDs. The particular PhD you choose should focus on life or medical sciences. For example, it’s common for medical scientists to earn a PhD in biology or chemistry.5
New doctoral students can expect to pass a number of classes before taking their comprehensive exams (“comps”). In graduate school, comps aren’t limited to testing material taught in any one particular class. Rather, comps test broad knowledge across the student’s field of expertise.
After passing your comps, you’ll become a doctoral candidate and you will conduct your own original research. Doctoral candidates’ research adds to the body of knowledge in the field. You’ll write your dissertation based on your research. Once your dissertation is successfully defended, you’ll be awarded your PhD, and you may have the opportunity to become a medical scientist.
The College of Nursing and Health Care Professions and the College of Science, Engineering and Technology at Grand Canyon University are pleased to offer the Bachelor of Science in Health Sciences degree program and the Bachelor of Science in Biology with an Emphasis in Pre-Med to aspiring clinical research specialists. Complete the form on this page to begin planning your future at GCU.
1 Johns Hopkins Medicine. (2017, August 31). Love Your Beauty Rest? You Can Thank These Brain Cells. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Retrieved April 6, 2023.
2 Cleveland Clinic. (2020, October 6). Cleveland Clinic Unveils Top 10 Medical Innovations for 2021. Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved April 6, 2023.
3 COVID-19 has adversely affected the global economy and data from 2020 and 2021 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as well. Accordingly, data shown is effective September 2022, which can be found here: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Medical Scientists, retrieved on May 16, 2023.
4 Occupational Outlook Handbook. (2023, January 9). Medical Scientists Job Outlook. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved on May 16, 2023.
5 O*NET OnLine. (n.d.) Medical Scientists. Retrieved on May 16, 2023.
Approved by the associate dean of the College of Science, Engineering and Technology on Sept. 5, 2023.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.