Does a CRA need only hard skills?
The job of a Clinical Research Associate (CRA) is sold as being a scientific role. In fact you need a life-sciences degree to even get a foot in the door. And while that education is essential in understanding what’s going on when dealing with an investigational product (IP) and protocols for the clinical trials, the key thing that a CRA actually does on a daily basis is dealing with people. On each of your studies, you will be working closely with your study team members and the site staff at the investigational sites. Each site may have changes in personnel and you may be moved to other studies or gain new sites. That’s a lot of people to be dealing with on a regular basis!
If the job was isolated to only being in a lab, and the only communication was through reports and other scientific/clinical-focused tools and materials, then your need for soft skills would be very low. You would only be dealing with hard skills, utilising the scientific knowledge and training you received from your education plus any training your company gave you. However, for a CRA that’s simply not the case. You are dealing with a multitude of people, in a multitude of areas and roles.
What do I mean by Soft Skills?
There are a few definitions floating around out there about what exactly a soft skill is. I personally like the Oxford Dictionary definition which is “personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people”. The opposite of this is hard skills which can be considered your technical knowledge. To put this another way: knowing the IP’s mechanism of action is a hard skill. Being able to explain that mechanism to site staff clearly is a soft skill.
Being effective requires soft skills
By improving your soft skills, you are improving how you work with the multitudes of people you interact with on a daily basis, both in-person (eg. at a site visit) and remotely (eg. via emails and teleconferences). I’d put a rough estimate that as a CRA, at least 50% of my time was dealing with people. This means that half of my working time is in an area that I received little to no training or formal education on. With half of my job I am left to my own devices to try and figure it out. It’s sink or swim, if you will.
A typical day for a CRA means dealing with many different people, from many different backgrounds, with many different levels of skill, enthusiasm and motivation. Your hard skills don’t make it easier or simpler to deal with people, only soft skills can. Once you’ve got the hard skills, the technical knowledge, needed to understand the science behind the studies you’re on, their objectives and your responsibilities, it’s really soft skills that enable you to use that knowledge and improve the work and efficiency of your studies.
Using your soft skills you can communicate better with your colleagues and your sites. You can get higher quality output from your sites and provide clearer updates and reports to your management, potentially solving problems before they escalate or even arise. There is no downside to having and using good soft skills.
What can I do now to improve my soft skills?
It is essential you get the training and knowledge needed to make the people part of your job work for you and be as effective and stress-free as you can. Thankfully, there are a few different ways you can do this. Three major methods or areas that I’ve used to improve my own soft skills are:
- Listen to podcasts
- Find a mentor
- Do online courses
Listen to Podcasts
When on a plane, train or driving to or from a site visit, you can take advantage of this non-working time to listen to some quality podcasts about self-development, instead of music or other entertainment. There are a number of podcasts out there that can help improve your soft skills by listening to the experts that are interviewed and the tips and tricks you can pick up.
Some of my favourite podcast episodes for soft skills are:
- The Jordan Harbinger Show – with Celeste Headlee “How to Have Conversations That Matter”
- The Good Life Project – with Brene Brown “On Gratitude, Vulnerability and Courage”
- Danielle LaPorte – “Empathy = I want to understand how you feel – and why”
From podcasts like these, I learned to be better at actively listening not only to what people are saying, but how they’re saying things. For example when talking to site staff, do they sound stressed? Is it clear they understand their tasks? Are they confident they will meet the deadline? Are they motivated? What motivates them?
Find a Mentor
This may not be for everyone, but finding a person who is exhibiting the skills or qualities that you would like to emulate to mentor you is a great way of learning and improving your soft skills. If you find it a bit awkward to straight out ask someone to be your mentor, you could always offer to buy this person a coffee (be it virtual or real!) and ask them for their thoughts and insight into how they are successfully dealing with things. You may be surprised how open and helpful people are willing to be, if approached and asked.
Do Online Courses
One important thing to note is that soft skills are exactly that: skills. Skills can be learned and improved through training and practice. A great way to gain any new skill is by doing courses, and especially online courses in this day and age of the internet and pandemics. White Wisteria Academy has a range of courses designed specifically for CRAs to improve their soft skills from topics as diverse as assertiveness, your work life balance and your personal brand at work. Feel free to check them out.
Once you understand the intricacies of your role as a CRA, what can make a huge difference in the quality of your, your team’s and your study’s output is utilising your soft skills. How you interact with your colleagues, be it internally in your company, or externally at your sites, matters hugely and can improve the quality of output massively. Improving your soft skills is a game-changer and should not be underrated or overlooked. There’s no time like the present to focus and level up your soft skills.