Innovative job-classification tool ensures MUSC has the workforce it needs to run efficient clinical trials

A hand putting the final puzzle piece in place

When the pandemic hit, clinical researchers jumped into action, starting up trials of COVID vaccines and treatments in record time. Without experienced and knowledgeable clinical research coordinators to run those trials, South Carolinians would not have had early access to these cutting-edge tools for fighting the virus.

Those research professionals were at the ready, thanks to an initiative begun a decade earlier by the South Carolina Clinical & Translational Research (SCTR) Institute to improve the recruitment and retention of clinical research professionals.

The initiative was spearheaded by Clare Tyson, research coordination and management manager for SCTR; Sarah Brewer, prospective reimbursement analysis manager for the Office of Clinical Research; and Jackie Carter, a talent acquisition manager for MUSC Human Resources (HR), who joined the team for the second phase of the project.  

Last November, Tyson, Brewer and Carter were among three teams selected by the Association of Clinical Research Professionals (ACRP) as finalists for the 2020 Innovation in Workforce Development Award. Their selection as finalists recognized a decade of work creating and implementing the HR Matrix, a tool that helps to ensure successful recruitment and retention of clinical research professionals at MUSC.

In 2011, SCTR leaders and other research stakeholders met with MUSC HR to discuss poor recruitment and high staff turnover. They determined that the root causes were a lack of standardization in job titles for clinical research professionals and lack of a career development pathway. People who did the same job were often classified and paid differently. In the absence of a clear career ladder, clinical research coordinators moved frequently from department to department, seeking ways to advance their careers and find better pay.

“We were experiencing not just high turnover with people leaving the institution to seek other career opportunities but also job hopping within MUSC,” said Brewer.

The MUSC team made a virtual presentation about the HR Matrix to the Association of Clinical Research Professionals as one of three finalists for its Innovation in Workforce Development Award.

At the heart of the dilemma was a failure to acknowledge clinical trial coordination as a full-fledged profession.

“When I started in clinical research, the culture was such that clinical research coordinators and assistants were transient,” said Tyson. “The position was seen as a stepping stone for those who wanted to seek and pursue medical degrees.”

Because the field had not yet been professionalized, applicants tended to find the career by accident.

“For many of us, this was a career path that we did not anticipate,” said Tyson. “We stumbled upon it, and I think you'll hear that as a theme for any research coordinator. It's not something that you set out to pursue, but it's something that you find and then you become very passionate about.”

In partnership with HR and in collaboration with other MUSC research stakeholders, Tyson and Brewer took the first steps to offering a more stable career pathway for those interested in coordinating clinical trials. They identified three primary titles for clinical research staff across the university as well as three subclassifications. For example, a program coordinator I could be hired at the novice, journey or advanced level, depending on the requirements of the position. Salary would be adjusted based on earned certifications, education level and professional experience.

Publishing CTSA Program Hub’s Name
CTSA Program In Action Goals
Goal 1: Train and Cultivate the Translational Science Workforce
Goal 4: Innovate Processes to Increase the Quality and Efficiency of Translational Research, Particularly of Multisite Trials