In Case You Missed It—Careers in Contract Research Organizations

Written by Sydella Blatch, Ph.D., NIAID Training Office

Are you interested in a career in industry? If so, have you thought about working for a contract research organization (CRO)? NIH FelCom’s career development subcommittee organized “Careers in Contract Research Organizations,” held on April 16, 2019, with NIH alumni speakers Owen Adam Brady, a scientist at BioReliance, and Ritankar Majumdar, a lead scientist at Covance. Read this event summary to learn some of their key insights.

What kind of work do CROs do?

CROs are contracted to facilitate and carry out various kinds of work, such as toxicology or pre-clinical studies for biopharma companies, often to meet the regulatory requirements needed to move studies forward. 

Some scientists at CROs work at the bench sometimes, while others do not. Ph.D.-level scientists may engage in tasks such as assay validation, product testing, management of teams of bench scientists, data analysis, talking to clients, and regulatory authorities and often have overall responsibility for ensuring a project stays on track.  CRO scientists use project management, critical thinking, technical writing, communication, mentoring, and other skills. 

Drs. Brady and Majumdar agreed that the most challenging parts of their jobs are managing people and timelines, as things typically do not go as planned. People often come to them reporting that something has gone wrong. As project leads, they have to figure out how to ensure the project is completed for the client in a timely manner. 

Advice for those seeking employment at CROs

Like any job, landing a position at a CRO starts either with networking or cold-applying to open positions. The speakers advised that knowing someone at the potential employer is the most helpful, but people are hired without those connections as well. A generic or mundane curriculum vitae (CV) is unlikely to be successful. Your documents should be short and sweet, eye-catching yet professional, and reflect an alignment with the specific scientific skills sought in the position. But, “soft skills” are important too. Employers look for self-starters and problem-solvers whose personalities would be a good fit with the team. 

Tips to network with CRO staff

Attend biotech-related happy hours (see and contact current CRO employees via LinkedIn.

Key things to study

  • Good manufacturing practices (GMP)
  • Good laboratory practices (GLP)
  • Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Title 21 and other regulations
  • Regulatory authorities
    • FDA
    • European Medicines Agency (EMA)
    • Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA)
    • The World Health Organization (WHO)
    • United States Pharmacopeia (USP)
    • The International Council for Harmonisation of Technical Requirements for Pharmaceuticals for Human Use (ICH)
  • Public speaking skills.

Interviewing for CRO positions

You will likely be asked for examples of how you have overcome professional obstacles. To prepare, develop a few “case studies” that illustrate how you have successfully handled issues in training someone, balancing multiple competing priorities, and completing tasks efficiently. It was suggested to use the “STAR” technique when answering such interview questions: organizing your response by Situation, Task, Action, and Results. 

All in all, Drs. Brady and Majumdar conveyed that careers at CROs can be interesting and enjoyable, use a variety of skills, enable learning from colleagues with different job functions, and have the potential for long-term advancement. 

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