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How to Become a Research Nurse

4 min readApril, 28 2023

Are you looking for a new challenge in your nursing career? Whether you're just starting out or you're an experienced nurse, there are many nursing career paths from which to choose. Neonatal or dialysis nursing, for example, let you expand your knowledge within a specific discipline. Clinical research nursing, on the other hand, offers the opportunity to help conduct clinical trials for developing and testing new treatments, medications, and procedures.

Becoming a nurse researcher can be incredibly satisfying if you want to enhance your medical knowledge, expand therapeutic options for patients, and enjoy face-to-face care.

What Does a Research Nurse Do?

Clinical research nurses are on the front lines of medical innovation, helping research teams test the latest treatments and procedures. The role of a research nurse may vary daily depending on specific studies or trials in which you're participating. You can generally expect a mix of patient care, academic reporting, and record maintenance.

Some studies call for higher levels of patient interaction. You may interview patients before a new procedure or monitor, record, and report their progress after they've received an experimental treatment. Research nurses must often supervise patients to ensure they follow the study protocols correctly.

Besides patient interactions, a clinical research nurse may be responsible for writing reports or study results, submitting and publishing studies in medical journals, or presenting research findings at a medical conference.

What Studies Do Clinical Research Nurses Participate In?

Medical research is either quantitative or qualitative. As a clinical research nurse, you may participate in both. Quantitative studies focus on results that can be empirically measured, such as statistics. Qualitative studies, like case studies, are more holistic and help you better understand a question or issue from all angles.

Most clinical research is quantitative. For instance, a quantitative study of a new surgical procedure might measure how many days it takes a patient to recover compared to the previous method. Qualitative research, on the other hand, might focus on better understanding how cultural norms in a particular population affect their decision to get vaccines.

What Experience and Education Are Required?

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The role of a research nurse isn't an entry-level position and typically requires extensive studies, which may include job-specific courses and additional nursing certifications. Due to the time involved in becoming a nurse researcher, you usually won't find many nursing professionals in this role early on in their careers. If you're interested in pursuing a position as a clinical nurse researcher, it's wise to start planning in advance.

Besides your licensure as a registered nurse (RN), you may want an advanced nursing degree such as a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). Not every research nursing job will require an advanced degree. However, some employers prefer them, so having one can make it easier to get work.

Advanced degrees typically require a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) as a prerequisite. If you plan to get one, you'll need to take a longer path to get an RN degree or go back to school for your BSN before pursuing the necessary degrees for clinical research nursing. Some programs offer an accelerated program that combines BSN and MSN degrees.

Depending on your position or employer, you may also need specialized training in clinical research methodology and a certification from the Association of Clinical Research Professionals. To obtain a certificate, you must demonstrate as many as 3,000 hours (the equivalent of eighteen months of full-time work) of relevant work in human subject research within the last ten years. If you meet that requirement, you'll also need to take an exam before receiving your clinical research nurse certification.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Nurse Researcher?

Becoming a clinical research nurse can take ten years or more, depending on how much education and work experience you decide to pursue before applying for your first research position. If you intend to maximize your education and subsequent hiring possibilities, this comprehensive timeline outlines the steps you might consider:

  • Years 1–4: Obtain a BSN degree, typically issued as a standard four-year degree.
  • Year 4: Get licensed by taking the NCLEX-RN exam for registered nurses.
  • (Optional) Years 5–7: Obtain an MSN degree. This program typically takes up to three years to complete.
  • (Optional) Years 5–9: Obtain a Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing (Ph.D.) degree, which can take three to five years to complete.
  • 2+ years of work experience: Whether you go directly from your BSN to your MSN or work in the field before pursuing an advanced degree, you'll likely need to spend time working as a nurse before you can apply for a clinical research position. If seeking certification, you'll also need relevant work hours in human subject research, which can take several years to accrue.

Clinical Research Nurse Salary and Career Prospects

The demand and salary for clinical research nurses are strong. Nurses, in general, are in high demand, and an increasingly technological health care industry always needs nurses to develop new treatments and procedures. The salary for a clinical research nurse is higher than the average for RNs, and these specialists make around $90–100,000 per year on average.


Images sourced from Getty Images

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