A Recruiter’s Guide to Attracting and Retaining Talent for Clinical Research

Updated on August 27, 2023
Teams of doctors working together in medical office

With the “Great Resignation” persisting even as the economy slows, clinical research organizations face steep challenges retaining talent. Turnover rates for clinical monitoring roles in the U.S. remain high—24% compared to 15% outside the U.S., according to a recent BDO report—and salary demands are climbing in a tight labor market. Healthcare worker exhaustion and burnout from the pandemic has only added fuel to the fire. 

These high turnover rates represent a critical hurdle for the clinical research sector, which over the past three years has been buoyed by digital technology and a renewed interest in public health. Staffing shortages can bog down research timelines and in turn, limit the time candidates can spend with physicians and other healthcare professionals conducting trials. In addition, recruiting new staff carries a much higher cost burden than keeping tenured employees on the payroll—and it can take years to rebuild staff relationships when they leave.

To explore how the clinical research sector can weather this tough labor market, we’ll assess the current state of the clinical research landscape—and how to keep your employees and consultants satisfied—below.

The COVID-19 Pandemic Changed Everything

In the early days of the pandemic, COVID-19 was the principal focus of the healthcare industry. Actalent saw demand for talent increase at pharmaceutical companies that were running vaccine clinical trials. Companies and government organizations shifted funding away from other areas of research to accelerate COVID-19 work.

But now, the pendulum is swinging back as vaccines and antiviral therapies such as Paxlovid help to curb deaths and reduce severe disease from COVID-19.  Oncology studies have seen renewed funding, with new and innovative technology delivering promising results in cancer treatment. As a result, the industry is now experiencing a wider breadth of medical breakthroughs to treat other illnesses and conditions.  

Among those advances: Pfizer developed a maternal immunization that provides antibody protection against the potentially deadly Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) in newborns, earning a breakthrough therapy designation status in the process. Likewise, a small Memorial Sloan Kettering trial—backed by pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline—recently recorded the total remission of early-stage rectal cancer in all 12 of its patients. While these results are preliminary and the sample size is modest, it’s a hopeful step forward in cancer treatment. 

To sustain that momentum, medical research organizations must keep the talent that made those breakthroughs possible in the first place by adopting new hiring and retention strategies as the pandemic subsides. 

Finding—and Keeping—the Right People

To retain top-tier talent and attract prospective hires, medical research organizations should provide better compensation, benefits and career development opportunities. Here are four strategies that enable them to do just that:

1. Provide better pay—and paid time off (PTO)

The truth is: when workers leave for another organization, they often get paid more. Some organizations point to compensation models prior to the early days of the pandemic, and argue that as the country returns to normal, so should salaries. But with inflation reaching a 40-year high, workers looking to boost their pay are seeking job offers from other companies—even as a tactic to get raises at their current firms. That’s why it’s imperative that clinical research teams continually monitor what salaries competitors are offering and adjust their pay scales accordingly. This will go a long way in not only attracting great talent, but in helping companies retain their talent long-term as well. 

PTO matters too. Historically, hospitals and doctors’ offices have offered competitive PTO plans to their permanent, or full-time staff, while clinical research consultants have been left with less robust plans. It’s time to listen to the consultants and reconsider PTO policy—especially in light of recent social and political shifts. 

For example, one Actalent consultant wanted to observe Juneteenth. To support them, our team initiated an open, educational dialogue with the client about the historical importance of the holiday. Because we had a great relationship with the client—and a willingness to advocate on our consultant’s behalf—we were able to get that time off approved. However, not every consultant or medical professional will have the support of a workforce expert advocating for them; this is why it is important for companies to continue to assess these policies. 

2. Offer remote work options

Like many U.S. workers since the pandemic, clinical research staff are increasingly looking for remote work opportunities. In January 2020, fewer than 3 percent of applications for job postings on LinkedIn were for remote work. Today, applications for remote work in small and mid-sized cities make up over half of them. While many organizations may be resistant to the idea of clinical research consultants switching to remote work, many clinical research nurses (CRNs) and clinical research coordinators (CRCs) conduct certain aspects of trials from home already. Even the option for hybrid work will help companies open up their talent pool and increase the number of candidates who are interested in new opportunities. 

3. Look for applicants with transferable skillsets

As they search for qualified candidates, medical research organizations should consider candidates from other fields who have transferable skills, which can open up options in a tough labor market. 

Companies will sometimes specify that they are only willing to consider candidates with oncology experience, for example. But this requirement could be causing them to miss out on great clinical research talent in the form of people with multiple years of experience within other specialized therapeutic like infectious disease or ophthalmology. CRCs understand the complexity of trials with those areas, and not every candidate needs to know oncology-specific software inside and out—often a few days of training is often enough to bring new hires up to speed.

4. Reconsider your must-haves 

Given the current talent shortage, companies need to make an honest assessment of their candidate must-haves versus nice-to-haves. For example, while a bachelor’s degree is typically listed as a must-have, for some roles, experience in a clinical environment without a four-year degree may suffice. It’s also important to consider things like passion for the industry and skill with compassionate patient interaction that may outweigh an atypical background.

For patient-facing roles, soft skills should be considered a requirement (not just a preferred qualification) as they help keep patients engaged and participating in treatments and trials. CRNs and CRCs that perform patient intake must be able to show compassion for candidates and exhibit versatile bedside manner. They must also be able to discuss candidate symptoms and the success of their prior treatments. A detail-oriented, inquisitive, and curious CRN is more likely to be able to attribute symptoms to a particular treatment, instead of just recording results without following up or asking questions.

Passion for clinical research is also a necessity. In our screening process at Actalent, we ask candidates about the trajectory of their career, what they are aiming to achieve in a new role, and what they enjoy most about working in clinical research. Understanding what inspired a candidate to pursue clinical research in the first place is crucial; some are motivated by the prospect of scientific breakthrough, while others have been personally impacted by clinical research—often through loved ones who have received life-saving treatments in the trial stage. My team and I often advocate for candidates who not only have great experience, but are passionate about what they do, and who we feel will make a positive difference on a trial and to the patients.

As you begin to unravel candidates’ motivations and aspirations, consider this: the best new hires understand the purpose of their work and feel connected to the positive outcomes they create. That sense of pride means that employees aren’t just looking at their income, but the overall mission of each clinical trial. 

What’s On the Horizon

With fears of a recession growing, it’s important that medical research organizations shore up their resilience. They can start by staying up to date on new developments surging across the healthcare industry. Those findings will inform what trials they should they bring in, and what medicines they should research. 

Medical research must catch up with the life sciences and pharmaceutical industries, which continue to improve their model of recruitment amid widescale attrition. Over the coming months, improving benefits packages, identifying key skills among potential hires, and offering remote flexibility should be the backbone of any medical research organizations’ recruitment and retention strategy. When employees feel heard, seen and taken care of, they value their employers and their work. And when consultants are fulfilled, patients have a better experience, and employers have less to worry about.

Jen Kozlowski is a strategic delivery executive at Actalent
Jen Kozlowski

Jen Kozlowski is a strategic delivery executive at Actalent, a global leader in engineering and sciences services and talent solutions. Jen runs Actalent’s strategic recruiting office in Parsippany NJ, where her team specializes in recruiting clinical research professionals across the country. She works with a wide breadth of companies and consultants within clinical research and has 10 years of experience working within life sciences. Jen is a passionate advocate for scientific professionals and will complete her MBA this year.