Are Contract Research Organizations the Place for Your Life Science Career?
Contract research organizations (CROs) or contract research management organizations (CRMOs) may not seem as appealing as working in R&D for a big pharma company or being in on the ground floor of a biotech startup, but it can have a lot of advantages—including plenty of career opportunities.
“We can never find enough people really in any of the functional areas within a drug trial,” said Steve Matas, Senior Vice President of Staffing for Advanced Clinical, which is both a CRO and a recruiter for CROs and biopharma companies. “There’s way more need than people. There’s a huge gap.”
CROs provide a variety of services to biotech and pharmaceutical companies. In many cases, CROs handle much of the technical aspects of clinical trials, contracting out clinical research assistants (CRAs) to physicians’ offices, hospitals or biopharma companies. But it doesn’t stop there.
Matas said, “One of our lines of business is a CRO where we outsource work and perform it for sponsors’ drug trials. We also offer services where we take functional areas of a trial and outsource them, and we provide staffing to sponsors when they need them. So when they need 10 CRAs for a trial, or a clinical research manager (CRM), we provide those people on a contract basis.”
But as a CRO, Matas notes that they handle all functional areas, whether it’s clinical trial management, project management, CRAs, the entire data management areas and development areas.
It all depends on the CRO. Some handle every aspect of drug development, while others have niche specializations. For example, Jeff Mayhew, Chief Development Officer of CRO LabConnect, says they’re a specialized CRO.
“We are a laboratory services company, which is how I like to define us,” Mayhew said. “Very broadly, we focus 100% of our business in supporting clinical trials. As such, we have a number of different services and products. We started off in the industry as a central laboratory. As a central lab, we collect samples from investigator sites around the globe and provide centralized testing, and project and data management services for our clients to help them execute their trials.”
Who CROs Are Looking For
Because the activities of CROs are often so broad, there may be career opportunities for all education levels—and certainly most specializations as well.
“Our minimum requirement for entry-level positions is high school diploma or GED, and this is a great opportunity to explore entry-level lab assistant positions, with the potential to move up to technician roles,” said Haydee Acebo, Manager of Global Talent Acquisition for CRO Charles River Laboratories.
And Charles River offers tuition reimbursement, so it may be a great opportunity to become acquainted with a good laboratory practice (GLP) environment while returning to school for a higher degree.
At the associate and bachelor’s degree levels, Acebo says, “There are technician and advanced technician positions, as well as roles for those who are on a scientist or regulatory affairs path. There are also opportunities for lead, supervisor, and manager positions.”
Acebo points out, and this probably shouldn’t be a surprise given the high-level technical work many CROs perform for biopharma companies, that many of their employees at the scientist level have PhDs across numerous disciplines.
“Our Veterinary and Clinical Pathologists are Doctors of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) with DACVP status (Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Pathologists),” Acebo said. “Additionally, across our organization, we offer operational support for professionals at all levels in the form of Human Resources, Information Technology, Sales, Marketing, Communications, Finance, Legal and Executive Administration.”
Matas notes that although they have a need for employees in many different therapeutic areas, immunotherapies and central nervous system (CNS) disorders are really hot these days. “We can’t find enough people with an immunotherapy background. And the same goes for CNS, Alzheimer’s and brain studies—we can’t find enough people with those kinds of backgrounds.”
For example, at the beginning of 2018, there were 112 drugs in clinical trials for Alzheimer’s disease alone—26 compounds in 35 Phase III trials, 63 compounds in 75 trials in Phase II, and 23 compounds in 25 trials in Phase I. And what all those trials need are experienced people with a background in central nervous system disorders.
“It really comes down to highly trained people,” Mayhew said. “I think it’s diversity, too. It’s not just in one area—we have universities, private companies, and worldwide leaders in global health.”
LabConnect’s employees tend to be clustered in several geographic areas, although many may travel nationally and internationally as part of their positions. Administration, business development, finance, marketing and scientific support are primarily in Seattle. About 160 to 170 staffers are in Johnson City, Tenn., where the main operations office is located. About 70 are home-based anywhere, with another 18 to 20 in San Diego. They also have some European staff, and about 30 laboratories worldwide that are involved with LabConnect in one way or another.
Charles River Laboratories has operations all over the world. Advanced Clinical offers services in over 50 countries.
As expected, CROs are going to tend to share more positive aspects of working for their organizations than negative. Pay, for example, appears to be about the same between traditional R&D biopharma jobs and equivalent CRO jobs, according to Matas.
Advanced Clinical’s Matas also points out that in his experience, many research scientists begin their careers with CROs, gain a wide range of experiences and contacts, and then often settle down with a sponsor company located in the city or region where they live.
“The work we do at Charles River is very rewarding and there is no denying that every day is a different challenge,” Acebo said. “Our days can be long and in a very fast-paced environment, but we also know there are thousands of people counting on our work worldwide.”
In addition, Charles River, according to Acebo, offers numerous ways to advance your career, “because they require collaboration with different departments, locations, and client interaction, etc. Also, there are many training opportunities that include method development and harmonization. We encourage our employees to own their career at Charles River by thinking about their future. Where do you want to grow and what are your career aspirations? We invest in training and development programs that support our global employees in achieving their career goals by providing tools, resources and programs.”
In fact, CROs generally have a reputation for training and development, because they are innovative by nature. There are continuously working to stay on top of the latest technologies and that means not just hiring people with the newest skill sets but making sure their employees have opportunities to learn them.
In addition, generally speaking, CROs provide stability that may or may not be available in a traditional pharmaceutical company (and certainly not in a startup biotech company). CROs tend to value a broader skill set, which can be applicable across a broad range of disease indications and needs.
And as both Matas and Acebo have noted, CROs currently have a strong need for expertise. Acebo says, “Charles River has had a number of acquisitions in the past five years and has continued to expand both our portfolio and our geographic footprint. That expansion requires more talent to support our growth. Across Charles River, we work on critically important therapeutic areas daily, including cancer; metabolic diseases, like diabetes and hypertension; rare diseases, like Batten’s and Huntington’s; and neurological diseases, like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.”
All jobs have pros and cons. Not all cons are necessarily cons—it may depend on what you want out of your job, where you are in your life and what your goals and ambitions are.
“Most of our functional people in our CRO could be flying across the country, working with a lot of clients,” said Matas. “So from a workload perspective and a work-life balance, it can be pretty rough. They’re on the road a lot. They’re working lots of different clients around the country and the world. That’s pretty demanding, so people who want a family and want to settle down often get a job with a sponsor in the city where they live and stay there.”
And again, depending on your career goals and personality, the range of work and the projects you may be working on can be a pro or a con. Some research scientists, for example, absolutely want to focus on their own research interests and advance their research goals. This may be more suited for academia than industry or CROs, but in CROs, you will tend to work on a variety of projects for sponsors within your areas of expertise. Some people, however, may find the variety exhilarating and a continuing challenge.
Charles River’s Acebo also puts a positive spin on this, noting, “Compared to traditional R&D jobs in biopharma, working for a CRO grants individuals the benefit of an accelerated pace and increased exposure. In a traditional R&D job, an individual may work on one project team, focused on one molecule for many years. At a CRO, that same individual is working on several projects across several clients, giving them the benefit of a more diversified workload.”
Is working for a CRO right for you? It could very well be.
As Acebo notes, “We are incredibly proud of the work we do each day, and the impact we have on the health and wellness of people across the globe."
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