By Ashley Webb, MS, MN, RN, CRN-BC

In 2023, more than 15 novel drugs were approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for oncology indications. They all underwent rigorous testing via a series of clinical trials to demonstrate their safety and effectiveness. As a nurse, you’re familiar with clinical research and may have even cared for patients on clinical trials. But do you know that you could build a career in clinical research?

Nurses Bring Unique Strengths to Clinical Research

Nurses have a special skill set that’s needed in research roles. Some of those skills include:

  • Disease-specific knowledge: Experienced oncology nurses have a complex understanding of diagnostics, treatments, toxicity management, and other aspects of cancer care that are essential to the design and implementation of clinical trials.
  • Expertise in care coordination: Clinical trials require timely completion of study procedures that may include a variety of departments and settings. Nurses can combine their understanding of patients’ preferences and the clinical trial’s protocols to deliver patient-centered care in the context of clinical trials. 
  • Innate understanding of how health systems work: Your experience with the ins and outs of clinical settings allows you anticipate problems and help study teams identify the best ways to deliver new study treatments in clinics and hospitals.
  • Strong patient advocacy: Patients on clinical trials need strong advocates to support their autonomy and safety. Experience at the bedside builds nurses’ advocacy skills which translate well to clinical research roles.

ONS’s Oncology Clinical Trials Nurse Competencies outline more information about the competencies and behaviors required for oncology clinical research nurses.

Nurses Reap Rewards in Clinical Research

Research roles are ideal for lifelong learners—working with new therapies and protocols always gives you something new to learn. Working in research also enables nurses to have a broader impact on cancer care beyond their institution or unit. But perhaps what’s most exciting about roles in research is witnessing the future of cancer care evolving in real time. Research nurses are some of the first people to watch how the next generation of cancer therapies changes outcomes for patients.

Oncology Nursing Roles in Clinical Research

In Clinical Research Nursing: Scope and Standards of Practice, the authors described the variety of roles nurses can take in clinical research, including clinician, manager, educator, advocate, regulatory specialist, and nurse scientist. Specific jobs include:

  • Clinical research nurse coordinators support overall implementation of clinical trials at the site level in academic medical centers or other research sites. Responsibilities include determining how to implement the study in clinical areas, screening and enrolling patients, providing education to patients and other healthcare professionals involved in the patient’s care, following patients to confirm protocol adherence, and reporting safety events.
  • Clinical research direct care nurses provide hands-on delivery of investigational agents in units dedicated to clinical research. Responsibilities include administering medications or therapies, completing timed pharmacokinetic or other lab draws, and monitoring research subjects in real time.
  • Advanced practice nurses may operate as principal investigators for clinical trials. Responsibilities include developing research questions, designing research protocols, and taking overall responsibility for implementation of clinical trials.
  • Nurses in pharmacovigilance roles typically work for clinical trial sponsors on drug safety and are responsible for collecting and assessing information about adverse events related to investigational agents. The information helps identify new side effects and minimize risk to future patients.
  • Clinical research associates, also called monitors, review the onsite conduct of clinical trials on behalf of study sponsors. They travel to different research sites or remotely review documentation in electronic health records and other systems to ensure patients are treated according to the protocol.
  • Study sponsors have a variety of roles focused on clinical operations—implementation of clinical trials at sites. Nurses working in clinical operations may help onboard new sites to clinical trials, provide education to sites about details of investigational agents, and serve as a point of contact for clinical trials questions.
  • Clinical scientists assist in the interpretation and dissemination of clinical trials data. They provide technical and scientific support to study teams and contribute to publications and other study documents.

Nurses considering a transition to clinical research could also explore roles in regulatory affairs, project management, clinical research education, and more. The ONS resources listed in the sidebar can help you embark on a new career in clinical research.