Moving Up The Ladder in Clinical Research: 5 Keys to Becoming a Leader

Posted by Chad Birt on Jun 21, 2021 8:00:00 AM
Chad Birt

Are you a clinical research assistant who dreams of becoming a clinical research manager or clinical operations director? When you’re just starting out, achieving a leadership position might seem like an impossible task, but if you plan ahead and map out a route, it’s absolutely possible. 


Though there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, there are several things you can do (and skills you can hone) to ensure you continue moving up the ladder.  


1.) Be open to different opportunities. To serve in a management position, you need a wide range of clinical experience. The more you know about pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and biotechnology, the better. 


Your educational experience can help guide you. For example, if your degree is in chemistry, drug development might be of interest. If you enjoy project management and interacting with others, a position at a clinical research organization (CRO) might make sense. 


Don't be afraid to try different things. As you do, see what aspects of the job (or jobs) you like most. You can use that information to map out a career path focusing on your area of interest. 


2.) Hone your leadership skills. Serving in a leadership position is much different than being an employee. Instead of clocking in and running through a to-do list, you’re required to provide constructive feedback, focus on all aspects of the deliverable, and delegate certain responsibilities to others. What’s more, as a manager, people look to you for clear instruction and training. 


You probably already possess some or most of these skills, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. As writer Donald T. Phillips once said, “the best leaders never stop learning.” Consider attending professional conferences once or twice a year, interact with fellow industry professionals on forums like LinkedIn, and regularly read industry news and relevant publications. For more structured training, consider enrolling in a clinical trial project management course. This list from is a great place to start.


3.) Find a mentor. Landing a role as a clinical leader isn’t always clear-cut. Regardless of your skill set or expertise, challenges will arise. Working one-on-one with a mentor is an excellent way to define your career goals and gain some clarity. Mentors also provide accountability. Often, it’s difficult to stick to new habits, even if you have good intentions. Routine check-ins with your mentor allow you to monitor your progress, make adjustments, and set new goals. 


You can find a mentor by contacting colleagues, professors, or clinical leaders you’ve worked with or studied under in the past. If that’s not an option, consider enrolling in a professional mentorship program. For example, The American College of Healthcare Executives offers a Leadership Mentoring Network that’s “committed to expanding leadership and career development through strategically matched mentor relationships.”


4.) Learn to delegate. If you love your job and take pride in your work, it’s easy to take on too much. Unfortunately, if you do, the project you're working on could suffer. That’s particularly true in a clinical trial environment, where dozens of people are required to come together and achieve a specific goal. If you enjoy control, delegating tasks to team members will feel uncomfortable at first. Don’t let that discourage you.


When it comes to delegating tasks, recommends a four-step approach:


  • Clearly define the task. Assignment briefs should include the deadline, key points of contact, necessary documentation, and expected results.
  • Choose one (or multiple) people who are ideal for the job. If possible, try to align their skill sets and experience with the goal at hand.
  • Regularly communicate. Establish routine meetings throughout the week to monitor progress. Let your team know you’re there to answer questions and provide support.
  • Trust your instincts. Once you’ve assigned a task, feel confident in your team to get the job done. Try not to micromanage or spend time worrying.


5.) Give credit when credit is due. Great managers know their employees play a crucial role in their success. Even if you aren’t in a leadership position now, show gratitude to your colleagues on a regular basis. Noting their accomplishments is an easy way to build morale and increase retention. 


If you’re already in management, consider hosting networking or team-building events throughout the year. Now that the COVID-19 pandemic is winding down, it’s safer to socialize in person. Host a family picnic at a local park, attend a sporting event together, or start a book club. These activities present an opportunity to get to know one another and build stronger bonds. 


These are just a few of the steps you can take to become a clinical research leader. What was your path to a leadership position like? Would you recommend anything else? We’d love to hear your thoughts! Please fill out the comment form below and click “submit.” 

Topics: Clinical Research, Pharmaceuticals, leadership, Business Etiquette

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