Steps to Becoming a Clinical Trials Research Nurse - Education & Experience


Clinical research is the process of using science to better determine powerful and inventive means of detecting, diagnosing, treating, and preventing diseases and conditions. Clinical trials research nurses help outline trial criteria, write SOPs, evaluate research methods for efficacy, assist MDs or nurse practitioners with live procedures related to their studies, and deepen our collective medical understanding.

The international research community thrives on clinical research nursing. Research nurses are typically responsible for obtaining consent from participants, as well as recruiting, educating, and monitoring them. Additionally, these professionals report to the lead physician or NP and very often coordinate the direct administration of treatments and the evaluation of those treatments.

Some organizations use the term “clinical trials research nurse,” and others use the abbreviation “CRN.” Due to confusion concerning acronyms, most professional organizations use the former. Regardless of how you choose to identify the position, no one can deny that as the Baby Boomers age, greater resources will be required to study the wide variety of medical problems that this generation faces. Due to the fact that specialization in this field is so widespread, it is estimated that nearly 60 percent of open clinical trials research nurse positions take, on average, three to six months to fill.

Clinical research nurses maintain the quality, integrity, and honesty of clinical trials in both the public and private sectors, ensuring they’re conducted in total compliance with local, state, federal, and international regulations. They are often responsible for monitoring and checking in with study participants, completing test procedure paperwork, and structuring follow-up practices. These professionals develop and implement innovative solutions with numerous applications for the betterment of humankind, in addition to tackling some of our longest-running questions about human health. As students, prospective clinical trials research nurses study the components of nursing research, nursing theory, and how to properly evaluate the validity of the research.

Keep reading to learn all about how to become a clinical trials research nurse. Concentrating one’s studies on research nursing means joining the ranks of a small but significant quadrant of the research community.

Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming a Clinical Trials Research Nurse

Step 1 – Graduate From High School

Before graduating from high school, there are many ways that students can prepare for a career as a research nurse in the field of clinical trials. It is recommended that to help prepare for coursework in clinical nursing and research, one should take a wide variety of courses in anatomy, physiology, mathematics, geometry, algebra, chemistry, physics, speech, and psychology. As admission to nursing programs is highly competitive, it is advised that students pursue advanced placement coursework and set a goal of maintaining as high a grade point average as possible.

Another way to gain insight into the medical field is to enroll in an internship at an extended care facility, nursing home, clinic, or teaching hospital. Volunteering, too, can be an excellent way to gain new perspectives on health, care, and nursing theory.

Step 2a – Graduate From an Accredited Nursing Program with an ADN (Two Years, Optional)

An associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) lays a clinical research and theoretical foundation for the work that one will undertake. Introductory coursework in anatomy, physiology, biology, nursing theory, and many more establish a skillset that blends the technical, technological, and medical.

Upon completion of two-year coursework, students will have received one of the following degrees: associate of nursing (AN), an associate of science in nursing (ASN), an associate degree in nursing (ADN), or an associate of applied science in nursing (AASN). Any of these degrees can prepare you to qualify for the NCLEX-RN exam.

For example, the ASN program at Herzing University offers an accelerated, fast-paced course of study for those students wishing to achieve brisk entry into the industry. Students can complete this course in 20 to 24 months, depending on if they have any credits to transfer. General education courses are offered online, while core classes require on-campus attendance.

Step 2b – Graduate from a Nursing Program With a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (Four Years)

For those interested in diving deeper into the world of clinical trials research nursing, a BSN might be the best path. These courses of study build on the basics learned in an associate’s program, focusing on upper-level classes on research theory, nursing practice, and human resource management. At this stage, some aspiring CRNs seek out concentrations that focus on clinical trials or clinical research.

Schools such as the University of Michigan and the University of Washington boast top-notch BSN programs. Both programs can be completed as a full four-year program or a two-year completer program for transfer students or students who already hold an associate’s degree.

Step 3a – Become Licensed as a Registered Nurse (Timeline Varies)

Each state requires that those intending to become nurses must be licensed by that state’s respective licensing channels. This directory collates data on how and where to obtain nursing licensing in all 50 states. Some states require a notarized personal statement or letter of intent with application paperwork.

The NCLEX-RN exam is the American testing standard for all registered nurses. After applying for the exam and offering proof of educational credentials, and meeting all state-specific criteria, nascent nurses must schedule an appointment to take the exam.

Administered by nursing professionals in closed exam rooms on isolated terminals, the exam uses machine learning to adapt its questions for subject, specialization, and skill set. In some states, all of this work (including the exam) can be completed prior to a student’s official graduation date. This helps to expedite a nurse’s transition from student to practicing professional. Be sure to check state, institution, and employer policies before deciding on this approach.

Additionally, there are many certifications in clinical research, nursing science, and nursing research that can be obtained online and added to one’s credential portfolio. For example, the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Nursing offers a certificate in nursing research.

Step 4 – Gain One Year of Clinical Trials Research Experience (One to Two Years, Optional)

Work experience in clinical trials can be critical to obtaining a job as a clinical trials research nurse. Many employers expect applicants to have already worked in this field. There are numerous ways to gain the necessary work experience, including working in administrative roles in trials, completing an internship, or working as a nursing assistant.

Step 5– Graduate from a Nursing Program with a Master’s of Science in Nursing (Two to Three Years, Preferred/Optional)

While much less common in the field of customer and public care, advanced degrees in nursing are critical for those who wish to find a place in the leadership of clinical trials and research nursing.

Expanding on the foundations laid in a nursing BS program, an MS with a concentration in clinical research sciences often takes two or three years. Coursework covers clinical research theory, nursing theory, practicums in a wide variety of healthcare and research environments, research development and coordination, clinical trial management, experiment design, and evidence-based practice, among other subjects. An MS in clinical research nursing positions students to transition into careers as research leads and assistants in pharmaceuticals, consumer products, clinical pathology, virology, oncology, and the study of infectious diseases.

Aside from nursing programs, there are also excellent master’s in clinical research degrees that nurses can complete to gain the necessary education to enter this field. For example, George Washington University’s MS in clinical research science and translational research is an excellent option for those looking to continue their education online. For a more traditional pathway, GW also hosts an on-campus clinical and translational research program that has been widely lauded.

Step 6 – Graduate with a Doctoral Degree in Nursing or a Clinical Research Discipline (Four to Seven Years, Optional)

There are two doctoral nursing degrees available, both of which are terminal, meaning that there are no further paths of education available to those who hold these degrees. While a doctor of nursing practice (DNP) is a clinical practice degree intended for advanced nurse practitioners, a PhD in clinical research and trials nursing requires the pursuit and study of an area of expertise that results in a doctoral dissertation and its defense.

Some advanced nursing programs will accept a BSN as a satisfactory degree when students are applying for graduate school, though the industry standard is to obtain an MSN prior to entering advanced postgraduate nursing studies. Always remember to contact an institution’s admissions office and check in to their criteria for application.

William Carey University offers a cutting-edge PhD in nursing science, and the Texas Woman’s University boasts two doctoral nursing programs: one in nursing science and one which allows those students who have already obtained a DNP to extend their education and gain a clinical PhD. For those seeking an online degree, the University of Central Florida offers a nursing PhD that has built a web-based curriculum around two on-campus intensives each year.

Step 7 – Obtain Certification Through the Association of Clinical Research Professionals (Timelines Vary, Optional)

Certification through the Association of Clinical Research Professionals (ACRP) demonstrates to employers that the candidate has achieved a high level of competency in clinical research education and training. The two primary certifications clinical trials research nurses can earn are as a Certified Clinical Research Associate (CCRA) or as a Certified Clinical Research Coordinator(CCRC).

Eligibility requirements for either certificate are the same. Candidates must have 3,000 hours of work experience in the six content areas of clinical research trials. A formal education program may substitute for up to 1,500 hours of work experience. The content of the exams is similar and includes scientific concepts and research design, ethical and participant safety considerations, product development and regulation, clinical trial operations (GCPSs), study and site management, and data management and informatics. While the exam topics are similar, the CCRC exam is more in-depth and covers more advanced material than the CCRA.

Helpful Resources for Clinical Trials Research Nurses

There are many valuable resources available for prospective research nurses, from non-profits to representative organizations to job boards. Below are some of the most useful resources for those wishing to pursue a career pathway as a clinical trials research nurse:

  • Association of Clinical Research Professionals
  • Center for Information & Study on Clinical Research Participation
  • Clinical Trial Resources (ASCO)
  • Council for the Advancement of Nursing Science
  • Global Research Nurses
  • National Institute of Nursing Research
  • NCLEX Registered Nurse Practice Test Questions
  • Oncology Nursing Society’s FAQs
  • Society of Clinical Research Associates
  • Eastern Nursing Research Society (ENRS)
  • The Midwest Nursing Research Society (MNRS)
  • Southern Nursing Research Society (SNRS)
  • The International Association of Clinical Research Nurses (IACRN)
Kimmy Gustafson
Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson is a freelance writer with a passion for sharing stories of bravery. Her love for world-traveling began when her family moved to Spain when she was six and since then, she has lived overseas extensively, visited six continents, and traveled to over 25 countries. She is fluent in Spanish and conversational in French. When not writing or parenting she can be found kiteboarding, hiking, or cooking.

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