How to become a research nurse: Education, duties, salary & FAQ

research nurse gives injections to clinical trials volunteers

Research nurse career overview

Where you’ll work: In clinical research settings such as hospitals, universities and specialty treatment clinics where you’ll serve as liaison between researchers and patient volunteers participating in clinical research trials.

What you’ll do: Patient chart review, obtain informed consent, maintain and coordinate complex study conduct, including data and source documentation; Ensure patients are treated ethically and safely during trials.

Minimum degree required: A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) is generally required.

Who it’s a good fit for: Those interested in research and can work autonomously, have good decision-making skills, excellent problem-solving skills and are good communicators who get along with all types of people in all types of situations.

Job perks: Research nurses have the satisfaction of seeing how their efforts may result in new preventative measures and clinical procedures, and sometimes medicines and medical treatment breakthroughs partly because of their work in research and trials.

Opportunities if you pursue a higher degree or certification: You may be eligible for roles such as Research Nurse Supervisor or Senior Research Nurse and work in specialized areas including infectious diseases, cardiology or oncology, among other areas. Your duties in a senior role would likely be more managerial and administrative.

Median annual salary:

What is research nursing?

Research nursing is a specialty area of nursing where the focus is on clinical research. Research nurses are invaluable members of medical research teams and they provide a humanist and caring approach to the research and data collection that goes into advancing treatments and medications for diseases and ailments. Nurses in this role work with patients who are participating in clinical trials and their goal is to keep the volunteers ethically safe, protected and cared for during the research trial.

But as Anne Suttling, a Senior Research Nurse at Portsmouth Hospitals Trust in the UK says on the National Institute for Health and Care Research website, “Our role is so diverse—it is not just recruiting patients [for trials]. There are follow-ups, collecting data for the [clinical research facilities], maintaining site files, knowing about the agencies, regulatory bodies, protocols, consent and giving presentations to inform colleagues about what we do in research.”

Steps to become a clinical research nurse

Earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN).

nurse graduate holds mortarboard in hands

Your bachelor’s degree should be from an accredited nursing program so you can successfully transfer all your credits to your Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program later.

Pass the NCLEX-RN and get licensed.

nurse takes vitals of senior couple

You must take the National Council Licensure Exam for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) to earn your RN license to practice.

Earn your MSN.

nurse research team compares data findings

You’ll need approximately two years to earn your master’s and your coursework will focus on clinical research methods and practice.

Get experience working in clinical research.

male research nurse gives volunteer injection

Experience is essential for research nurses, especially those who want to earn professional certification.

Earn professional certification.

investigator meets with research nurse team before medical trials

Some employers may not require a credential, but if you desire to become a senior research nurse or move into administrative roles, earning professional nursing certification is a must.

What does a research nurse do?

Research nurses are critical to the process of advancing medicine and medical treatment, as they administer care to the patient volunteers who participate in clinical research trials. They ensure that volunteers are cared for and ethically utilized, and they prepare them for trials by taking vitals, labs, collecting data and processing results. Their day-to-day duties include:

  • Administer proper paperwork to clinical trial volunteers
  • Write articles and research reports in nursing or medical professional journals or other publications
  • Monitor patients to ensure adherence to guidelines, rules and patient safety
  • Use qualitative and quantitative research methods to conduct evidence gathering
  • Write grant applications for funding for studies
  • Report findings of data, which may include presenting findings at conferences or meetings
  • Adhere to ethical standards of practice and data accumulation, ensuring the accuracy of data collection and recording
  • Maintain detailed records of studies as required by FDA guidelines, including any drug dispensation
  • Participate in volunteer recruitment and verify eligibility to participate
  • Make sure supplies and equipment for the study are available and working
  • Talk with volunteers and listen to their concerns
  • Provide volunteers with a thorough explanation of the goal of the clinical trial prior to obtaining Informed Consent, and educate them about timelines, procedures, the drugs being used, anticipated side effects, documenting their symptoms and more
  • Collect blood samples, administer vaccines, check lab work and use critical thinking to assess volunteer health and review adverse events or treatment toxicities
  • Manage the clinical and operational aspects of protocols, which are the detailed plans a clinical trial follows

Research nurses are critical to the process of advancing medicine and medical treatment, as they administer care to the patient volunteers who participate in clinical research trials.

Difference between a research nurse and a nurse researcher

A research nurse works on clinical research trials collecting data and caring for patient volunteers, while a nurse researcher is usually a PhD who designs the research study and is the principal investigator for the study.

Traits and skills for research nursing

Besides the required education, it takes a special temperament to become a successful research nurse. Some of the most common traits of research nurses include:

You’ll sometimes work in a solo capacity as a research nurse as you research and process data, so you’ll need resourcefulness to do the job independently.
Excellent communication skills:
You’ll need to work with all sorts of people as well as nurse researchers and other principal study investigators so your ability to communicate concisely and clearly is a must. You’ll need to explain procedures to volunteers and report data findings to study investigators so your ability to communicate should span a spectrum of people.
Analytical and detail skills:
A large part of the job is data collection and processing. If you aren’t adept at working with data, this may be a difficult field for you.
Compassion and open-mindedness:
You will encounter all types of people dealing with different scenarios when it comes to clinical trials. For some, volunteering may be a last resort, so you’ll need to practice compassion and understanding.
Strong writing skills:
Having strong writing skills might be the difference between securing funding for a clinical research trial or not. You’ll also need to and share your findings with others.
Active listening skills:
Research nurses must listen carefully to the feedback they receive from clinical trial volunteers and be able to process and accurately forward that information to researchers and investigators.

Was Florence Nightingale the first research nurse?

The NIH article, The Evolution of Nursing Research, by Jacqueline M. Stolley, PhD, RN, CS; Kathleen C. Buckwalter, PhD, RN, FAAN and Linda Garand, RN, PhD, CS explores the research culture in nursing beginning with Florence Nightingale, who created detailed medical and nursing reports as the chief nurse for the British in the Crimean War during the 1850s.

She wrote that “… apprehension, uncertainty, waiting, expectation, fear of surprise, do a patient more harm than any exertion.” She viewed people as both physical and spiritual beings, emphasizing the importance of the environment and the need to care for the patient, not the disease. With her focus on the environment, nutrition, hydration and sanitation duly noted, mortality rates dropped drastically during the Crimean War.

Where do research nurses work?

Since research nurses conduct clinical research trials, they may be found wherever clinical research takes place. Some environments include:

  • Academic and general hospitals
  • Medical clinics
  • Universities and colleges, where they may work in research, data or academia
  • Global health organizations
  • Research laboratories
  • Pharmaceutical companies
  • Medical research organizations
  • Government agencies
  • Medical organizations
  • Private and public foundations
  • Academia 

Using the PICO method

Nurse researchers begin the investigative process by identifying a problem (the issue that will need a clinical trial to test) that requires a solution. To begin the process, they generally use what is called the PICO method to establish the scope and formulation of the problem. PICO stands for:

  • Patient population of interest
  • Intervention of interest
  • Comparison of interest
  • Outcome of interest

Some studies may append a “T” to PICO, to establish a time frame for the clinical trial or study. Within the identification of the problem, research nurses help nurse researchers and primary investigators solve the problem by:

  • Asking the question that needs to be solved (what the study is about)
  • Acquiring the information and data (conduct the clinical trial with volunteer patients)
  • Appraising the evidence (collect the data from the trial)
  • Making an informed decision (extract the data and establish a path within which to move forward to the solution)

Education needed to become a research nurse

Most research nurses start out with a BSN degree (Bachelor of Science in Nursing), and they may work as a registered nurse or in another specialty area while they gain experience. Research nurses, especially clinical research nurses, either hold a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a PhD (not to be confused with a DNP degree), and the time and experience it takes to earn these advanced degrees while still practicing is one reason why many nurses do not become clinical research nurses until later in their careers.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

  • Prerequisites: Prerequisites include courses in the sciences, plus math-based coursework.
  • Core curriculum: Coursework may include basic psychology, management and leadership, health promotion, pharmacology and pathophysiology.
  • Clinical experience: Hands-on training can occur in almost any setting, including hospitals, outpatient clinics, public health agencies and long-term care facilities.
  • Time to complete: 4 years of full-time study

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)

  • Prerequisites: Must have completed a BSN or a bachelor’s degree in a related area and have several years of nursing experience before applying.
  • Core curriculum: Coursework includes advanced studies in physiology, health assessment, pharmacology, nurse case management, ethics, healthcare policy and in the chosen area of specialty.
  • Clinical experience: MSN students are required to complete 600 or more practice-based clinical hours. Depending upon their area of specialty this may be more or fewer.
  • Time to complete: 2 years of full-time study

What to look for in a school

There are more than 2,600 nursing degree programs in the United States. Choosing the right one is a personal choice, but there are some things you should look for in a school:

Is the program accredited?
Accreditation will ensure that a program adheres to common standards of education and quality. In addition, you’ll need to attend an accredited program to apply for federal financial aid, transfer credits later on when applying for an MSN, and most employers look for accreditation when hiring.
What post-graduation and alumni services are offered?
What does your school and program provide in terms of job placement, resume services and career counseling? How will it help you translate your degree into a job?
How well does the program prepare students?
Ask about the rate of students passing the NCLEX-RN licensure exam on their first try, and how many students from the most recent graduating class have found nursing jobs. Also, ask what their graduation completion rate is.


After graduation, students must pass the NCLEX-RN exam to obtain a license to practice.

The test is a Computer Adaptive Test format, which means it uses an algorithm to produce a new question based on your performance on previous questions.

Topics include:

  • Management of care/coordinate care
  • Basic care and comfort
  • Health promotion and maintenance
  • Pharmacological and parenteral therapies
  • Risk reduction
  • Patient safety and infection control

The number of questions can range from 60 to 145 on the NCLEX-RN and must be answered within six hours total, although there is no time limit for each individual question. There are also 15 experimental questions that do not count in scoring. There are plenty of options for test preparation help, and your school may offer resources while you’ll find many others online.

The test ends when you either pass the test by correctly answering enough questions to stay above the passing line with 95% confidence or fail by not staying above the pass line with 95% confidence. So, you can pass or fail the NCLEX-RN with 60 questions, 145 questions, or any number in between.

Once you do pass the test, you’ll be ready to apply for licensure by your state nursing board, which may also require you to pass background and drug tests and pay the required fees.

Research nurse certification

Research nurses may choose to pursue the CRN-BC professional credential, which is currently the only nurse-specific certification that recognizes clinical research nurse competence and experience. Certification is granted through the Clinical Research Nurse Certification Council and may be earned once applicants have achieved or submitted the following rigorous requirements:

  • Hold a current, valid RN license
  • Have two years minimum practice as a registered nurse
  • Complete 4,000 practical hours in the clinical research nurse role
  • Have a complete resume
  • Provide a 1,000-to-1,500-word clinical research nurse exemplar, which should contain evidence of professional growth and development, practice, team focus and collaboration and quality and safety. The exemplar will comprise 45% of the total score.
  • Hold proof of continuing professional development
  • Have 50 to 64 points of professional activity earned within a five-year window prior to applying for certification

There are several non-nurse-specific professional certifications you may choose to pursue if you are required to earn a research certification for your job. The Society for Clinical Research Associates (SOCRA) offers the Certified Clinical Research certification (CCRP), and The Association of Clinical Research Professionals (ACRP) offers several certifications in clinical research as well.

Clinical research nurse salary

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports salaries for nurses in general but doesn’t break out specialties such as research nurse careers. According to the BLS, the median annual pay for registered nurses, who generally have a BSN, are $81,220. Research nurses would likely earn more in the 90th percentile of registered nurse salary due to the advanced requirements of the job, which equates to a median of $129,400.

Here are salary levels for registered nurses by state.

Registered Nurses

National data

Median Salary: $81,220

Projected job growth: 5.6%

10th Percentile: $61,250

25th Percentile: $66,680

75th Percentile: $101,100

90th Percentile: $129,400

Projected job growth: 5.6%

State data

State Median Salary Bottom 10% Top 10%
Alabama $63,090 $48,820 $82,760
Alaska $102,260 $80,950 $127,280
Arizona $82,330 $66,040 $105,520
Arkansas $64,130 $37,630 $83,700
California $132,660 $84,700 $177,670
Colorado $82,430 $66,130 $107,260
Connecticut $95,210 $71,050 $119,600
Delaware $82,230 $64,100 $101,110
District of Columbia $98,970 $66,260 $135,260
Florida $77,710 $61,190 $100,060
Georgia $79,440 $60,400 $118,270
Hawaii $120,100 $76,640 $137,710
Idaho $77,940 $61,530 $100,440
Illinois $78,980 $62,180 $102,080
Indiana $73,290 $55,200 $95,600
Iowa $65,000 $56,330 $83,360
Kansas $66,460 $52,010 $93,120
Kentucky $75,800 $56,120 $98,540
Louisiana $73,180 $57,500 $95,540
Maine $77,340 $61,170 $100,910
Maryland $83,850 $64,680 $106,910
Massachusetts $98,520 $67,480 $154,160
Michigan $79,180 $64,270 $100,920
Minnesota $84,060 $65,500 $107,960
Mississippi $63,330 $49,980 $84,030
Missouri $71,460 $51,440 $94,340
Montana $76,550 $62,930 $98,970
Nebraska $74,990 $58,900 $93,230
Nevada $94,930 $74,200 $130,200
New Hampshire $80,550 $62,790 $104,270
New Jersey $98,090 $76,650 $118,150
New Mexico $81,990 $64,510 $106,300
New York $100,370 $64,840 $132,950
North Carolina $76,430 $59,580 $100,430
North Dakota $69,640 $60,780 $91,150
Ohio $76,810 $61,860 $98,380
Oklahoma $74,520 $53,560 $97,520
Oregon $106,680 $81,470 $131,210
Pennsylvania $78,740 $61,450 $101,450
Rhode Island $85,960 $65,260 $104,790
South Carolina $75,610 $52,620 $93,190
South Dakota $62,920 $51,240 $80,860
Tennessee $65,800 $51,270 $95,490
Texas $79,830 $61,950 $105,270
Utah $77,240 $61,850 $98,000
Vermont $77,230 $60,900 $101,570
Virginia $79,700 $61,970 $104,410
Washington $101,230 $77,460 $131,230
West Virginia $74,160 $47,640 $96,470
Wisconsin $79,750 $65,110 $100,820
Wyoming $77,730 $60,910 $102,010

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2022 median salary; projected job growth through 2032. Actual salaries vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.

And salaries for registered nurses in comparison with other advanced practice nurses:

Career Median Annual Salary
Registered Nurses $81,220
Nurse Practitioners $121,610
Nurse Anesthetists $203,090
Nursing Instructors and Teachers, Postsecondary $78,580
Social Science Research Assistants $50,470
Medical and Health Services Managers $104,830
Medical Scientists, Except Epidemiologists $99,930

Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

How does a research nurse contribute to the advancement of medical knowledge?

As part of a team of researchers, investigators and other healthcare practitioners, research nurses combine science, data, collaboration, care and nursing practice to find new ways to detect, diagnose and prevent diseases and conditions. Their skills contribute to developing medications, treatments and the delivery of patient care to advance the future of healthcare.

What ethical considerations do research nurses need to consider?

American Nurse provides a Code of Ethics for Nurses with Interpretive Statements that state “the principle of respect for autonomy, respect for persons, and respect for self-determination provides individuals with the right to choose whether to participate in research as a human subject.”

Research nurses must ensure that research is soundly constructed, significant and in conformity with ethical standards. Federal regulations state that before they may be initiated, all research proposals “must be approved by a formally constituted and qualified institutional review board (IRB) to ensure participant protection and the ethical integrity of the research.” Research nurses should also be aware of the qualifications of the principal investigator, the rights and obligations of all those involved in the study and the ethical conduct of the research.

How does a research nurse collaborate with research teams and principal investigators?

Research nurses play a large role in the preliminary setup and actual clinical research trials in that they may help secure funding, and they ensure participants in the trials are fully informed, have signed appropriate documents, are clinically prepared and ethically treated and cared for during the trials. Because they help collect data and basically are key during the actual implementation of the trial, they are essentially the bridge between patient volunteers and the principal investigative team.

What role does a research nurse play in the process of obtaining and maintaining research funding?

Research nurses may help nurse researchers or investigative principals by writing and applying for grants to provide funding for studies.

What steps do research nurses take to ensure data integrity and confidentiality in research studies?

Research nurses use qualitative and quantitative data methods and adhere to the dominant approach to maintaining confidentiality, which is addressed “during research planning… and at three points during the research process: data collection, data cleaning and the dissemination of research results,” says the NIH.

Published: July 20, 2023

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Written and reported by:

All Nursing Schools Staff