Do I Need to Have a Medical Degree to be Involved in Clinical Research?

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Most people think of clinical researchers as medical doctors performing clinical trials with pharmaceutical or medical device companies, but what is clinical research? Clinical research is the study of health and illness in people and ways to prevent, diagnose and treat illness. It is conducted by medical doctors, but many other researchers are involved in the entire process. Clinical research is performed to learn more about disease and improve healthcare for people in the future. Such a huge project allows for an umbrella of people with various skills, backgrounds, and education to become involved. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), clinical research involves epidemiology, behavioral health, health sciences, and clinical trials. 

Education needed for clinical research

Education is the first thing to consider to become involved in clinical research. Undergraduate and graduate schools are both options and students can choose between three pathways. The first is to gain a bachelor’s degree in a health-related field and then get certified as a Clinical Research Associate (CRA) or Clinical Research Coordinator (CRC). CRAs supervise clinical trials and work closely with other administrators to monitor progress and ethical standards. CRCs perform clinical trials and follow the guidelines of good practice and uphold ethical standards. Both CRAs and CRCs work under the supervision of the principal investigator. The second pathway is to obtain a Master’s level degree in clinical research or similar field. The third way to consider is to complete a medical doctorate and/or PhD for the highest educational degree offered for clinical research.

Essentially, undergraduate degrees related to biology, biochemistry, pharmacology, pre-medicine, nursing, health science, or biotechnology are good stepping stones to begin a career in clinical research. The following undergraduate degrees are directly related to clinical research and are offered at various universities around the United States:

  • Bachelor of Science in Clinical Research
  • Bachelor of Science in Clinical Research Management
  • Bachelor of Science in Clinical Laboratory Science
  • Bachelor of Science in Healthcare Administration in Patient Safety and Quality
  • Bachelor of Science in Health Sciences in Clinical Research
  • Bachelor of Science in Public Health in Clinical Trials Research
  • Bachelor of Science in Biomedical Science
  • Bachelor of Applied Science in Clinical Research

Other Bachelor of Science degrees that would allow easy transition into clinical research include: Biology, Biochemistry, Human Biology, Cellular Biology, Biochemistry, Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, Physiology, Genetics, Bioenvironmental Engineering, Biotechnology, Microbiology, Public health, Immunology, and Nursing. These degrees are offered in various states both on-campus and online. With a Bachelor’s degree, students may begin an entry-level position with clinical research. Once students gain experience, they may sit to take certification exams; either the CRA or CRC. This would open more doors for clinical research involvement, or even lead to leadership positions in clinical trial projects. On average, a Bachelor of Science degree takes 4 years to complete.

Clinical research and graduate school

Another pathway to become involved in clinical research is to go to graduate school. Most programs require a bachelor’s degree in a related healthcare field, as mentioned above. Once accepted, many Graduate programs offer specific degrees related to Clinical research. Some examples include:

  • Master of Science in Clinical Research
  • Master of Science in Applied Clinical Research
  • Master of Science in Clinical Research Management
  • Master of Science in Applied Clinical and Pre-clinical Research
  • Master of Science in Health Sciences in Clinical Research and Translational Research
  • Master of Science in Clinical Translational Management
  • Master of Science in Clinical and Translational Science with a concentration in Research Management
  • Master of Health Science with a concentration in Clinical Research
  • Master of Health Science in Clinical Research Administration
  • Master of Clinical Research and Product Development
  • Master of Clinical Research for Health Professionals
  • Master in Clinical Research Methods and Epidemiology
  • Master in Health Economics and Clinical Outcomes Research
  • Master of Science in Clinical Investigation Studies
  • Master of Science in Clinical Laboratory Science
  • Master of Science in Regulatory Science
  • Master of Science in Regulatory and Clinical Research Management
  • Master of Science in Medical Product Development
  • Master of Science in Biomedical Laboratory Management
  • Master of Science in Biotechnology

As you can see, many Master-level programs are offered as a direct path to clinical research. This also does not include Bachelor level degrees that offer continued education at the Masters level. For example, with a Bachelor of Science in Biology students can then continue with a Master of Science degree in Biology. This would also be an option to get involved in clinical research. Master degrees, on average, take 2 years to complete. This does not include the time it takes to complete the prerequisites such as a bachelor’s degree. Although CRA and CRC certificates wouldn’t be necessary once you received a masters degree, it is seen as the golden standard for clinical research. Much like any field, gaining certification verifies expertise, education, and dedication to the field or area of study.

MD or PhD and clinical research

The last pathway to become involved with clinical research is becoming a Medical Doctor (MD) and/or completing a Doctorate in Philosophy (PhD) program. PhDs are purely research degrees, and conclude with research publications, termed: dissertations. The most prestigious PhD programs related to clinical research in the United States include:

  • PhD in Clinical Research
  • PhD in Experimental Medicine
  • PhD in Translational Medicine
  • PhD in Bioanalytical Methods
  • PhD in Epidemiology and Clinical Research

Of course, completing a Medical Doctorate (MD) program automatically opens doors to clinical research; however, both MD and PhD candidates would be named principal investigators of research trials and clinical research projects. Since they hold the highest degree possible, they assume the highest responsibilities and liabilities of any clinical research project. Many medical schools offer dual degree plans that would include MD and PhD. This means that once medical school is completed, the student would hold both a medical doctorate and PhD in a given field or specialty. Medical School typically takes 4 years to complete, and PhD programs can last anywhere from 5 to 6 years, depending on how long it takes to complete a dissertation.

RELATED: How Long Does It Take to Become a Doctor?

Ways to be involved with clinical research

Students do not need a medical degree to become involved in clinical research. Many options are available to become involved in clinical research either via undergraduate or graduate school pathways. The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that medical scientists are projected to increase 8% over the next 10 years, which is higher than the national average for all occupations. This tells us that medical scientist and clinical research is a growing need for future students to consider.

Tessa Chatham

Master of Science (M.S.), Nursing Education| Aspen University

Bachelor of Science (B.S.), Nursing| Texas Christian University

Bachelor of Arts (B.A.), Psychology and English| The University of Texas at Arlington

September 2019

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