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Q&A: Rebecca Anderson on Transitioning into Clinical Research

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Rebecca Anderson began her career in basic research; she was a faculty member at the George Washington University Medical Center before moving to a career in the pharmaceutical industry. With an arsenal of experience in both academic and industrial settings, as well as basic and clinical research, Anderson has written a handbook for investigators looking to break into careers in the clinic. Her book, "Career Opportunities in Clinical Drug Research," details the skills required for clinical positions — from clinical research associate to data manager — and tips for those seeking them. GenomeWeb Careers recently spoke with Anderson, who shared tips for landing a job in clinical research. Below are excerpts from that conversation, edited for space and clarity.

GenomeWeb Careers: How does your transition from academia to industry relate to your shift from basic research to clinical? Were they borne of the same — or similar — motivations?
Rebecca Anderson: For me it was a rather natural progression. My expertise is in pharmacology. Even though I was in an academic position, all of my research work was on drugs, and studying how drugs worked. My first industry position was not that big a transition for me — I was still doing research. The thing that attracted me was that I was able to get more on the cutting edge of discovery of new drugs, rather than working on ones that were already well-known and well-established. I had access to a whole world of new scientific ideas that weren't as much available in academia.

GWC: Your book serves as a sort of handbook for those looking to break into clinical work. What's your best advice for investigators in this position? How can they best prepare themselves?
RA: The handbook is targeted primarily at helping people qualify for clinical research positions in industry. The transition for a lot of scientists, including myself when I first moved over ... is fairly easy to do. What's difficult is for people — even [those] with a scientific background — to land a clinical research position. One of the key prerequisites is to have an understanding [of], and preferably experience with, doing clinical studies. And, coming from a laboratory setting, people — even though they're very smart and plenty motivated — just don't have that one, critical prerequisite. And the sad thing is, which my colleagues and I realized when we started trying to recruit and hire people into open positions, is that it's not hard to get that kind of experience if someone were to just tell you that, number one, you need it, and number two, how to get it. That really was the gist of my whole book was to lay out for people: here are the opportunities and here are the things that you can do to improve your chances of getting a job.
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GWC: How can people obtain that clinical experience?
RA: Probably the most effective way of getting clinical experience is to work as a clinical study coordinator. For almost anyone, accessing clinical study coordinator positions is relatively easy. And that's because drug companies have to do clinical studies at medical centers, academic centers, they actually go even to private practice physicians, and those clinical investigators who are physicians need a support staff to help them run the studies. The key position on that support staff is a clinical study coordinator. They may be — and often are — nurses, but you don't have to have a nursing background to be a clinical study coordinator. Anyone with a science background or aptitude, [can] approach a physician who's doing a clinical study ... they're grateful to have that kind of help. Even working as a volunteer to start out with. The staff may already have people in place — and typically they do it as a part-time job, in conjunction with their other responsibilities at that workplace — but they're always grateful to have someone else help out. The thing is, if you walk in, volunteer to help out, and then a paid position becomes available, you're right in line to get a job. And that puts that person right on the front lines of really rolling up their sleeves and doing clinical study work.

GWC: What are some of the key qualities the clinical researchers possess that are unique to their duties and work environment?
RA: Number one, it's very much a team effort. Everyone has particular roles and responsibilities, of course, but it's a very collaborative and collegial setting. It's a type of work environment where people that are willing and comfortable working in a group setting or a team setting function best. The second thing that comes to mind is that it's a very highly regulated environment. The Food and Drug Administration has lots of rules and requirements and so there is a very defined structure. For many scientists, that can be an uncomfortable constraint because they tend to want to go off on their own and, when they have a bright idea, pursue that. Clinical researchers also pursue those sorts of interesting ideas, but they have to do it under a much more structured procedure.

GWC: You've said that clinical research careers are "rarely mentioned in academic degree programs." Why do you think that is?
RA: I actually don't know for sure why that is, but I can speculate that for many, many years — and, actually to some extent, still today — the drug industry was sort of a black box. Most of us really don't know what goes on inside a drug company to develop a new drug. A lot of it has to do with, again, the rules for protecting the confidentiality and rights of the patients that are being treated. We have to be very careful about what we say publicly. That makes it difficult to spread the word about what actually goes on. Until you're actually in the industry — and you can see it from the inside — most folks really don't have an understanding of what things are done and what career opportunities are available.
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GWC: Speaking from your experience as a hiring manager at a variety of firms, what are some of the things applicants should bear in mind? What are some things not to do?
RA: It's important to highlight those things that you've done that are related to clinical research. Anything that has 'clinical' in it — obviously having direct experience as a clinical study coordinator or in some other way would be the most impressive criteria on your résumé. That's often the hardest to get, especially if you're just starting out. Again, the whole premise behind my book is 'How do you get started if you don't have it?' and 'No one's going to hire you unless you do.' The second best thing would be, as I said earlier, to volunteer and get experience, [even if it's] unpaid — that's still credible and valuable experience. There are a variety of online training courses and workshops are various organizations. Many of them even offer continuing medical education credits — if they have CME credibility, then those courses are recognized as relevant — and so if you have taken courses to understand medical terminology and best practices for conducting clinical studies, that shows initiative and an interest in that kind of job.

On to what "not to do," what comes to mind first are just sort of some of the general things for applying to any job. … Make sure that your résumé doesn't have any typos or grammatical errors. It's particularly important for a clinical industry job, again because it's so highly regulated. If you have mistakes on your résumé — even just one or two — it suggests that you're sloppy. Attention to detail is something that [hiring managers] would pick up on really quickly. I think, probably the second thing, given the way technology and job markets are going these days … make sure that you have cleaned up your social network pages because hiring managers and HR departments are pretty diligent these days in their homework in checking out candidates for positions and if you want to be considered a serious candidate, then you have to present yourself in a serious, professional way. What I encourage people to do is to go on to a more professional social network, like LinkedIn, which has lots of constraints that limit the content only to professional kinds of information.

GWC: Anything else that you'd like to add?
RA: One of the main points of confusion is that people often self-select themselves into thinking that they don't qualify for this kind of career path even though they might be interested in it, because they don't have an MD. For many of the positions — particularly for entry-level — all you need is a bachelor's degree or equivalent. If you have a higher graduate degree, so much the better, because your promotion opportunities are much greater, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be an MD, it can be a PhD or PharmD. For those who might be thinking that 'Clinical medicine sounds like a really neat career, but I'm not an MD or a nurse, how can I possibly even break into it?' Well, the truth is, most of the folks don't have that background. What they do have, though, is the required experience with clinical studies.

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