Guest Column | January 10, 2023

The 4-Step Checklist For Small Biopharmas To Recruit & Retain Clinical Trial Managers

By Emily Sooter and Sonia Chammas, Real Staffing


Developing a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2 and treating COVID-19 disrupted many clinical trials around the globe. Additionally, decreased funding, concerns around patient safety and lower enrollment negatively impacted trials in areas such as oncology and gene therapy. Now the focus has shifted and studies that were stalled are back up while new ones are underway. One report predicts the North America biopharmaceuticals industry will gather more than 30% market share in the coming years.

This, along with talent shortages across the board, is causing a backlog in clinical studies. One position critical to helping ease this jam is clinical trial managers (CTMs), the driving force behind getting studies off the ground and keeping them running smoothly. As this role takes on increased urgency, it’s not surprising that those with deep expertise are in top demand at large organizations and able to take advantage of lucrative employment packages. 

To compete, smaller biopharmaceutical firms need to increase their focus on how to attract these professionals when they can’t offer a comparable salary. At the same time, they need to ensure they identify the right candidate for the position, from both an experience and personality perspective. Here are some considerations sponsor companies and clinical research organizations (CROs) should keep in mind throughout the talent acquisition process.

1. Nail Down The Job Title

Clinical operations (Clin Ops) positions can be difficult to market because it’s common for biotechs to use inconsistent titles. For example, CTM and Manager of Clin Ops can mean the same thing: managing trials. Or, it can be a completely different responsibility, such as managing clinical research associates (CRAs). Adding to the complexity is that titles can also differ between small biotechs, large pharmas, and CRO companies. CROs and large pharmas often have very niche positions, which aren’t found in smaller organizations and can be less appealing to candidates who don’t want to be in a narrow role.

When it comes to the CTM position, it’s not uncommon for it to be used interchangeably with other titles in biopharma, most frequently, clinical project manager (CPM). At a large pharma or CRO, these roles are very different. A CTM serves as the primary organizer and supervisor over the trial while a CPM focuses on upholding timelines, budgets, and milestones. Smaller biopharma companies don’t have the luxury of splitting the roles, leaving the CTM responsible for all of the activities, which has led to confusion among the two titles.

While it seems like a minor issue, the misuse of titles can hamper the recruitment process and unintentionally either weed out applicants or bring in those that don’t have the right qualifications. Sorting through mismatched candidates adds a lot of extra time and manpower, which are two things smaller biotechs don’t have to spare. Instead, we recommend consistently using CTM or clinical operations in job titles instead of CPM or other designations.

2. Determine What Qualities Matter

Whether at a sponsor organization or a CRO, CTMs are leaders in clinical operations, driving trials from beginning to end. This means that in addition to looking at the candidate’s education, experience, and certifications, recruiters need to assess their communication skills, both verbal and written, and leadership abilities. An understanding of the specific areas of therapeutic expertise is also crucial, especially for more complex trials such as oncology. Additionally, CTMs at small biopharmas wear many hats and interact with a range of stakeholders, making qualities such as self-confidence, problem-solving, creativity, and interpersonal skills extremely important.

Most candidates in clinical operations are passive, meaning they’re not actively looking for a new job. In addition, many positions have very similar responsibilities so it’s not easy to sell an opportunity as truly unique. Effective recruiting for these positions requires being very specific with candidates about what the job entails so they can determine if it’s the right fit for them. It helps to have a resource, either internal or external, who can spend time with candidates, explaining the job qualifications, responsibilities, expectations, and the working style of the team.

3. Get Competitive About Recruiting

The most important factor during the hiring phase is to be competitive. Compensation is often the number one priority for individuals in the life sciences field and many are drawn to the packages offered by large, established organizations that include high salaries, stock options, 401Ks, and other financial incentives. Another perk that’s become very appealing to some CTMs is the flexibility to work remotely.

Here are five additional candidate attraction strategies that smaller biopharmas should consider:

  • Promote the field: Biopharmas are at the forefront of innovation, creating never-seen-before treatments, whether it’s in immunotherapy, genomics, cell and gene therapies, or others. Additionally, these companies tend to have less bureaucracy than large pharmas, giving CTMs more autonomy and the ability to enact meaningful changes in their department and beyond.
  • Focus on the study: Many CTMs enjoy the field because they value the impact studies can have on people’s lives. They may be drawn to a specific study due to unmet patient needs or even a personal connection to a specific patient population. It helps to understand the candidate’s priorities so they can be matched to the right study opportunity.
  • Emphasize specific expertise: Some studies require CTMs with precise skills, such as oncology. The Association of Clinical Research Professionals cites a Tufts report that found that compared to other drug trials, oncology had more complex designs and investigative sites, generated a higher volume of data, and had more protocol deviations and amendments. In this case, it’s vital to be clear up front so that only candidates with relevant oncology experience apply.
  • Highlight advancement opportunities: While working for small biopharmas can be high-risk in terms of job security, CTMs gain far more experience at these organizations, where they’re exposed to all facets of a trial. They also have the opportunity to progress up the career ladder at a quicker pace, making them more marketable and qualified for a range of positions, including those at large organizations.
  • Act fast: CTMs are in high demand, making this a very competitive recruiting space. It’s important to move quickly when experienced candidates are identified. They’re often entertaining several offers at a time and can start a new position in as little as six weeks from beginning their search.

4. Keep CTMs Engaged For The Long Term To Avoid Turnover

Hiring a CTM who has both the skills and personality to thrive in an organization is just the first step. Due to the fast pace of the biopharma field, it’s easy to see why retention strategies can be overlooked. One of the most critical factors is ensuring the study is supported in terms of resources and personnel. CTMs are passionate about their jobs and want to be part of studies that follow all appropriate measures, protocols, and FDA guidance so they can reach a successful completion.

A defined career progression can help build a sense of job security while showing CTMs their long-term growth and earning potential at the organization. This shouldn’t be a loose process, but rather a formal look at the employee’s goals matched against internal opportunities that is revisited on a regular basis. It’s also helpful to have discussions around what therapeutic areas interest the employees and, when possible, try to assign them studies that are in alignment.

CTMs have a lot of responsibility and one is to supervise a team that typically includes clinical research associates (CRAs) and clinical trial assistants (CTAs). These employees may just be starting out in their careers and looking to CTMs for guidance. It extremely helpful to support the CTM in this leadership role. They may need advice on how to counsel individuals about their job performance, discuss mistakes made by the team, and even address bigger issues such as economic or societal concerns.

Extra Effort Will Pay Off

There’s a host of reasons why CTMs choose to jump from one position to another. Sometimes, it’s due to external events such as a company acquisition or failing study. More likely, it’s because there’s a slightly more attractive offer from a competing company. To be successful in wooing candidates to a new opportunity, companies need to show they’re serious about hiring them. This means putting in the legwork to gain deep insights into each candidate’s specific motivations, qualifications, and preferences, as well as an understanding of the market and competitor opportunities. While this requires additional time and effort, it’ll ultimately pay off with not only an increase in candidates but more experienced applicants that meet the specific requirements of the position.

Headshot of Emily Sooter, woman with blond hair smilingAbout the Authors:

Emily Sooter is an associate director with Real Staffing (a division of Specialist Staffing Group) and has been in the recruitment industry since 2015. She currently oversees all of Real’s West Coast direct-hire staffing and is an expert in biotech recruitment best practices. In her six years at Real, she has specialized in clinical operations, biometrics, drug safety, and executive search. 

Headshot of Sonia Chammas, woman with blonde hair smilingSonia Chammas is a senior recruitment consultant with Real Staffing (a division of Specialist Staffing Group), having joined the company in early 2021. She focuses on placing candidates in biotech clinical operations in the Southern California region. She’s committed to bringing together skilled people while providing customer service and care.