Becoming a Research Associate: Salary Info & Job Description

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What are the pros and cons of a research associate career? Get real job descriptions, career prospects and salary info to see if becoming a research associate is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of Becoming a Research Associate

A research associate works in research project coordination in fields like business, clinical science and advocacy. Review the pros and cons below to see if a career as a research associate is right for you.

Pros of a Research Associate Career
Business research associate jobs attainable with a bachelor's degree*
Flexible employment settings for clinical research associates (laboratory or contract research organization)**
Variety of duties (original research, running meetings, grant writing and database management)***
Several academic fields prepare for business research associate jobs (i.e., business, economics, engineering)*

Cons of a Research Associate Career
Clinical research associates may be exposed to hazardous substances*
Advocacy-related research associates may need at least a master's degree****
Graduate degree may be required for obtaining a clinical science-related jobs**

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **Association of Clinical Research Professionals, ***Foreign Policy Association, ****Brookings Institution.

Essential Career Info

Job Description and Duties of a Research Associate

Sometimes 'research associate' refers to a postdoctoral position, but a research associate is also a permanent position found in many industries. Research associates must have attention to detail plus top-notch problem solving, communication and time management skills to coordinate information-based projects. As a research associate, you work under the direction of a supervisor or team leader and are responsible for maintaining the quality and integrity of data, managing databases and analyzing data. Grant writing duties are also common.

In some industries, you also collect information - either by observation, document research, experimentation or through interaction with others. You organize and synthesize information and prepare your findings to report to clients.

Career Paths and Specializations

Science-based Careers

Clinical research associates are employed by contract research organizations or directly by labs. Your primary responsibility is to monitor clinical trials. Some of your assignments may require travel, but that depends on your employer.

Business-based Careers

Business research associates' responsibilities typically focus on problem solving for an employer or client, such as locating information or expertise. You're likely to conduct surveys or market research by phone, perform Internet research, analyze data, communicate with industry experts and examine industry trends. You could also participate in meetings with senior staff or clients to present findings based on your research or interviews. You could help develop strategies to achieve your employer's or client's goals. While some job duties may be performed independently, much of your job is collaborative. Businesses that hire research associates specialize in areas like operations, finance, human resources, executive recruitment, marketing, logistics, occupational safety or security.

Policy-based Careers

Research associates who work for a policy-oriented organization, such as one dedicated to nuclear proliferation issues or healthcare, arrange meetings, roundtables and related events where stakeholders may discuss issues or exchange ideas. You prepare reports on event proceedings for the purpose of sharing with interested parties or the public. You could also conduct advocacy research and prepare materials for meetings of invested parties.

Salary Info

PayScale.com reported in July 2015 that research analysts who earned salaries in the 10th-90th percentile range brought home about $34,000-$70,000, not including bonuses or profit sharing. Bonuses up to about $7,800 were reported, and profit sharing amounts ranged from about $720-$8,200 during that same time period. Typically, those with skills in biotechnology and SAS statistical software earn the highest salaries, according to PayScale.com.

Clinical research associates who earned salaries in the 10th-90th percentile range made about $41,000-$84,000, according to a July 2015 PayScale.com report; bonuses of up to about $6,100 and profit sharing around $400-$7,000 a year were also reported.

What Are the Requirements for the Career?

Education requirements are based on the type of research associate job. According to employers' job postings, policy-oriented careers generally require that you have at least a master's degree in a related field, such as economics, social sciences, public health or public policy. You may be able to obtain a business research associate job with a bachelor's degree, although some employers prefer that you hold a master's degree. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), you could prepare by earning a degree in business, management, marketing, economics or engineering.

According to the BLS, you could get a job as a clinical research associate with only a bachelor's degree or registered nurse (RN) training; in some cases, you may need a master's degree.

Useful Experience and Skills

Job descriptions and qualifications for research associates vary widely among industries. Employers typically want you to have excellent communication skills, including communicating on the telephone. Many also prefer that you have previous experience working independently as well as collaboratively in a team environment. Research experience is also crucial, especially in the field in which the employer operates, such as healthcare or public policy. In some cases, supervisory experience may be preferred. Some positions require that you have working knowledge of regulatory requirements, such as in a lab setting.

Depending on the job, some employers want you to be comfortable using Microsoft Office software programs like Access, Excel, PowerPoint and Word. In some cases, you might be expected to use statistical software packages like SAS, SPSS or SNAP.

What Are Real Employers Looking For?

In many job postings, employers specify a minimum degree level required. Some employers may be willing to consider applicants from more than one degree field, as long as it fits within the industry. Skills required include writing, research, telephone and interpersonal skills. Here are a few real-world job profiles posted by employers in March 2012:

  • An IT consulting company in Boston is seeking a research associate with at least a bachelor's degree to assist research analysts and senior consulting staff with market and qualitative research. The associate would prepare written reports for clients.
  • A New York City financial services firm is looking for a research associate with a bachelor's degree to identify and approach experts in the energy and metals fields who might be interested in consulting work. Proficiency in a foreign language is required.
  • A healthcare policy center in Washington, D.C., would like to hire a research associate with a post-baccalaureate degree and significant research experience to work collaboratively to coordinate agency projects. The person to be hired is expected to communicate closely with internal and external stakeholders and have an active role in producing reports and conference or meeting materials.
  • In Washington, D.C., a nonprofit and advocacy organization seeks a master's degree-educated senior research associate. The candidate should have several years' experience working in national security or nuclear nonproliferation issues in order to coordinate and publish content for a specialized information clearinghouse. The incumbent is responsible for arranging interviews, roundtable discussions and investigative work, plus preparing and publishing news, reports, and related content.

How to Stand Out

Pursue Jobs in Your Degree Field

Consider how the educational path you pursue can directly relate to the industry in which you'd like to work. According to job postings for research associates, while employers generally require a minimum degree level and are sometimes flexible on the degree field, they often prefer that you have a degree in the field in which they operate. Holding a degree in a subject closely aligned to a potential job can help you stand out compared to other applicants with similar skills.

Develop and Prove Critical Skills

Many employers state in their job postings that they want candidates with a minimum ability to use statistical software packages and office-related software programs. You can hone these skills prior to entering the workforce by taking college classes that require the use of these programs. You can also pursue an internship that allows you to gain experience using these software programs in preparing research analysis, reports and client presentations.

Certification

If you get a job as a clinical research associate, you could pursue Clinical Research Associate certification through the Association of Clinical Research Professionals (ACRP). A variety of combined education and employment requirements can qualify you to sit for the certification exam. ACRP also offers a course in research standards and entry-level research associate responsibilities. The Society of Clinical Research Associates offers Clinical Research Professional certification if you have at least two years' experience in clinical research, which can come from a combination of experience and education.

Related Career Paths to Consider

Management Analyst

If a job requiring similar skills and greater responsibility with a higher salary appeals to you, you could become a management analyst. Management analysts provide consulting services to companies that want to streamline their organizational structure, maximize their operational efficiency or improve their bottom line. As a management analyst, you take a primary role in identifying a goal and outlining steps to achieve it based on your research.

The BLS reported that management consultants in general were expected to have 22% employment growth between 2010 and 2020, a faster than average rate. To get this job, you'll usually need a master's degree and several years' related experience. Management analysts, according to the BLS, earned a median annual wage of $78,000 in May 2011.

Compliance Officer

If you'd prefer a greater variety of duties and more responsibility than a research associate, you might enjoy the job of compliance officer. According to the ACRP, you're qualified to work in compliance management if you have the education and work experience to qualify for Clinical Research Associate certification. Compliance managers ensure that applicable rules and regulations, like internal company procedures and federal policies or guidelines, are being followed in the workplace. Your responsibilities can also include personnel management and training, and interaction with regulatory agencies, various levels of management and personnel at multiple work sites.

Employers may prefer candidates with more specialized employment experience, such as in pharmacy work, nursing or quality control. The BLS reported that compliance officers earned a median annual wage of approximately $$61,000 in May 2010 and that those working in the field could expect an average job growth rate of 15% for the 2010-2020 decade.

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