How to become a research nurse: Education, duties, salary & FAQ
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).
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.
You must take the National Council Licensure Exam for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) to earn your RN license to practice.
Earn your MSN.
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.
Experience is essential for research nurses, especially those who want to earn professional certification.
Earn professional certification.
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:
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.
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.
Where do research nurses work?
Since research nurses conduct clinical research trials, they may be found wherever clinical research takes place. Some environments include:
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.
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.
- 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:
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.
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||Median Salary||Bottom 10%||Top 10%|
|District of Columbia||$98,970||$66,260||$135,260|
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|
|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
Written and reported by:
All Nursing Schools Staff