What Does a Clinical Research Specialist Do?

clinical research specialist working on the computer

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 medical research specialist or a medical scientist. In this career, you would put your health sciences degree to work developing new treatments using medications and medical devices for diseases and other conditions.

What Is Clinical Research?

Recently, clinical researchers 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, researchers developed an experimental gene therapy designed to give people with sickle cell disease the ability to make their own hemoglobin.2

These are just two of the exciting medical breakthroughs that clinical research specialists have been responsible for. Every year brings hundreds upon hundreds of new breakthroughs that offer hope to patients with conditions as common as insomnia or as rare as Lesch-Nyhan syndrome. Behind each of those discoveries and innovations is a team of medical scientists.

In short, a career in clinical research is a life-changing one that gives scientists the opportunity to serve others in an indirect fashion. These scientists work behind the scenes to learn more about diseases, disorders and conditions, and to develop new or better ways of treating them. 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 making it possible.

A Typical Clinical Research Specialist Job Description

The typical clinical research specialist job description will vary from one employer to the next. However, it may list any of the following tasks:

  • Design and implement clinical studies to investigate diseases and disorders, and to evaluate potential methods of treating them
  • Prepare, test and analyze medical samples using laboratory equipment to investigate pathogens, chronic diseases and toxicity
  • Conduct clinical trials in accordance with all applicable FDA rules and other regulations in order to evaluate the effectiveness and safety of new medications
  • Develop standardized drug doses, potency and administration methods to allow pharmaceutical companies to mass produce medications
  • Develop, create and test medical devices
  • Compile clinical findings, write reports on them and publish findings in academic or professional journals

It’s common for clinical research specialists to lead and supervise teams of laboratory assistants, which may sometimes include graduate students. They spend much of their time in the lab or in an office setting, analyzing their findings, studying data and writing reports.

Others may collaborate with physicians, who handle the hands-on work of administering the new treatments being tested in a clinical trial.

What Is the Job Outlook for a Medical Research Specialist?

Society will always need medical research specialists to investigate diseases and develop new medications or devices to treat them. Clinical research specialists are needed due in part to the aging U.S. population. As people grow older, they become more susceptible to developing diseases and conditions, including:

  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Cancers
  • Other emerging problems like antibiotic resistance to diseases associated with climate change and air pollution

Becoming a Clinical Research Specialist

The pathway to become a clinical research specialist is challenging, yet immeasurably 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 medical scientists must have a high degree of computer literacy to use their complex software and analyze data. Writing skills are similarly important, since these professionals must frequently write grant proposals to fund their work. 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 field. After earning your undergraduate degree, you’ll need to earn a masters degree and a doctoral degree, and/or a medical degree if you were a pre-med student as an undergrad. Then, you’ll be ready to look for your first job as a clinical research specialist. 

What Can You Expect From a Health Sciences 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 Bachelor of Science in Health Sciences degree. This last option is a broad degree that will provide you with foundational knowledge 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 medical scientists.

During the course of your studies, it can be helpful to seek out job shadowing and internship opportunities. Some benefits of gaining experience during college include:

  • Provide invaluable experience
  • Help you build a professional network to draw upon when you start looking for a job after college
  • Supervisors may write a letter of recommendation for your graduate school application package 

What Graduate Degree Should Aspiring Medical Scientists Get?

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. 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 clinical research specialists to earn a PhD in biology or chemistry. It can take four to eight years to earn a PhD.

New doctoral students can expect to take 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’ original 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.

The College of Nursing and Health Care Professions is pleased to offer the Bachelor of Science in Health Sciences degree program to aspiring clinical research specialists. Click on Request Info at the top of your screen and begin planning your future at GCU. 


Retrieved from:

1 Johns Hopkins Medicine, News and Publications, Love Your Beauty Rest? You Can Thank These Brain Cells in July 2021 

2 Cleveland Clinic, Newsroom, Cleveland Clinic Unveils Top 10 Medical Innovations For 2021 in July 2021

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.

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