‘Role Transition’ when becoming a Research Nurse

Posted on by Kelly Gleason in Professional Development, Research

Following the decision to become a research nurse, the first few months can be quite difficult and can really make you wonder whether or not you have made the right decision.  You miss the routine of the ward, the camaraderie of your peers and feeling like you actually know what you are doing!

You arrive in clinical research equipped with your years of clinical experience, feeling like a competent healthcare professional able to answer your patients’ questions, make decisions regarding their care, and enjoy the well established and trusting relationships you have developed with your medical colleagues. Suddenly you are in a sea of unfamiliar acronyms, being asked to steer several ships to dock – and all this without a life jacket and the usual support, guidance and knowledge upon which you had come to rely. While navigating this new sea we have all also found it difficult to ask for help in fear that we will look incompetent and that our new employers might question their decision to recruit us in the first place!

I would like to take this opportunity to say: ‘its okay and its normal’…we ALL go through the same process…and it does end…and you do, once again, find yourself feeling like the professional you once were. 

Spilbury et al 2007, describe this period as ‘role transition’: a time when a research nurse experiences a loss of role confidence while acquiring new skills, knowledge and competence – in order to function in a new role and to adapt to working more autonomously than one did on the wards.

It is much easier, I think – once you accept that this is going to be a period of transition and that your role during this time is to learn – not to have all the answers. As Earl Gray Stevens once said, “Confidence, like art, never comes from having all the answers, it comes from being open to all the questions.”

I also think it is important to accept that not everything can be learned straight away, and rather that the first 6 months is a good time to learn the systems and processes of your particular place of employment, and become familiar with the regulations that govern clinical research, your assigned trial portfolio, your patient pathway to optimise recruitment, and get to know the multidisciplinary team you will be working with.

In my experience it takes most people 6 months to start feeling  more ‘at home’ in this new chosen field.  This of course will depend on what you are exposed to in this first 6 months, and who you have supporting you.  Support in the role of the research nurse is also essential for survival, so make links where you can – even if it is with research nurses in other disease areas.  The ‘peer group’ for research nurses is growing and there is now greater awareness of the role – so if you have not come into a team but instead work more in isolation, then try to speak to management or your nursing directorate, as they will likely know other research nurses in your organisation who can provide you with support and understanding when you need it.

I believe that for most of us, persistence through this initial transition period is well worth it.  The field of clinical research is growing and beginning to offer nurses wonderful opportunities to develop themselves professionally.  The anticipated changes in the NHS over the foreseeable future will undoubtedly affect how we deliver care and how we support research.  Let’s be ready to offer solutions.  Solutions that will benefit the healthcare system, and solutions that will support research nurses in developing themselves as advanced practitioners, committing themselves to innovation and the highest standards of care – all of which can only be achieved if research fully integrates itself in the service we deliver.

So if you like to be challenged, have a passion for leadership and for making things better, maybe research nursing really is for you…the initial change can be a little uncomfortable – but with a little understanding that this is likely only to be temporary and that you are allowed this time to learn, you will hopefully come out ‘the other side’ to see many opportunities that this new and growing field has to offer.

Spilbury K, Petherick E, Cullum N, Nelson A, Nixon H & Mason S, (2007) ‘The role and potential contribution of clinical research nurses to clinical trials’ Journal of Clinical Nursing 17(4), 549-57.

13 Responses to ‘Role Transition’ when becoming a Research Nurse

  1. Donna Warren says:

    I found your post very informative! Am wondering, though, can you give a nurse some suggestions on HOW to obtain a position in Research? I have been an RN for 20+ years, and am determined to get into this field of nursing, but seem to run into roadblocks every step of the way. I am working on my BSN and should finish in February, 2012. I am totally willing to obtain any certifications that are needed, and I am hoping to continue my education with a masters in Research Nursing. Any good pointers you can suggest?

    Thank you!

  2. Kelly says:

    Hi Donna,

    Thank you for your comment. You seem to be on the right track with your formal education, completing your BSN and looking into a masters in research. One basic training certificate which is needed by everyone who works in clinical trials is GCP or Good Clinical Practice training. A certificate is obtained after completion of a face-to-face training session or an online course.

    It is useful to learn as much as you can about the area of clinical research and what the role of a research nurse actually entails. This allows you to first see if it is something which is right for you but also how you can demonstrate at an interview or in your application, that even without research experience, you have the qualities needed to work in research. You can also demonstrate the skills required using your experience in a non-research setting and with 20 years of expereince in nursing, I am sure you have a great deal to draw on!

    If you have not had the oppotunity to see what is involved in managing a clinical trial or study, Clinical Research: Getting Started! is a good overview of the life of a trial and what the research nurse does at each stage of a study.

    If you would like to discuss any of this further, please feel free to give us a ring!

  3. Carys Johnston says:

    Hi there,

    I am also very interested in becoming a research nurse but litrelly have NO idea where to start. I have only been qualified a year (realise I will probebly need more experience but I would like to prepare!) and would like to make some progress to at least allow me to even look in to research nursing in a few years. Do you have any advice on where I start? I am also willing to go back to university to achieve any further qualifications i may need.


  4. Kelly says:

    I would agree it is very helpful to get some good experience under your belt before venturing out into a specialised field, however, there are many ways to get into research nursing and many roads you can take once you gain some experience in the field. The one you take really depends on your interests an opportunities along the way.
    Research nursing is a speciality in itself and with a growing community of research nurses supporting clinical research in the UK, research nursing has become a career pathway in itself for some.

    The role is varied but there are common areas to any research post. First of all, it is a very autonomous role requirring one to be very organised and pro-active in pushing projects forward and liaising with many different groups and departments both inside the healthcare system (R&D, pharmacy, radiology) and outside (pharma, inspectors, trials units). General nursing experience will help you deal with this when you first enter research nursing. Negotiation, communication and relationship cuilding skills really help you to be successful in a research role.

    As research is a speciality in itself, you have to learn about the regulations and legislation that govern clinical research. This can feel a little daunting in the beginning but you ususally have a good grasp of this knowledge after your first year in post. If you were thinking of attending an interview for a research post, it would be good to complete a Good Clinical Practice (GCP) course beforehand to learn some of this legislation.

    And finally, the Finch Report led to the development of MRES programmes for nurses so have a look around in your area to see what is on offer. This sort of training also helps to build a solid foundation of research knowledge to get you started.

    It is a really good time to be in research in the UK, and research is a great field to expand ones knowledge and skills…and who knows where that could lead!

  5. holiness moyo says:

    HI there
    lm also trying to venture into clinical research as l have a passion for research. However my background is registerd nurse learning disability and lm about to complete my MSC in public health health promotion.Any advise on how l could go about it. holiness

  6. Michael says:


    I thank you for your article! It is quite informative.

    I am a BScN student entering my 4th year this fall. I feel very passionate about the research field, and I was wondering how I go about steering my gears towards Research? Do you have any tips or resources to move me towards the right direction? Any suggestions are welcomed.

    I look forward to hearing from you.

    • Kelly Gleason says:

      Hi Michael,

      Thanks for your comment, and it is great that you know what you are passionate about and that so early in your career have an interest in research! Is it possible for you to ask for a research rotation in your clinical placement in your undergraduate programme? Polly Black, a nursing student in Edinburgh, wrote a blog about a new programme in Edinburgh. Her blog is titled Research Nurse Shadowing – Serendipity at Edinburgh University and can be found at in case that is also of interest.

      Research nursing is beginning to be seen a speciality in itself but often nurses have a clincial speciality as well. If you are going to look for a job in research it woudl be good to have GCP training (Good Clinical Practice). This is a course that covers how clinial trials must be run in the UK from a legal perspective. It highlights the responsibilities of various partners i.e. Investigator, Sponsor & Ethics Committee. We also have a one-day course called Clinical Research: Getting Started! which covers the practical aspects of GCP i.e. what GCP looks like in your every day job.

      I would just try to get exposure through a placement or shadowing and do a GCP course- and by the way, you won’t be able to learn it all in that first course but it is a good start! And if you want to learn more about how GCP applies to a real life trial then maybe we will see you on our course in the future.

      If you are going to apply for a resarch post upon graduation, then the GCP and exposure would certainly increase your chances of getting the job.

      Good luck!

  7. Theodora Agbu says:

    I would like to be a nurse researcher. I hold a masters degree in nursing. I would be grateful if you could tell me what to do.

    Thank you,


    • Kelly Gleason says:

      Hi Theodora,

      There are various ways you can get into research nursing. Firstly you could shadow a research nurse to get a better idea of what the role entails. You could take a Good Clinical Practice course, which are offered on-line, to help you understand some of the regulation and legislation that govern clinical trials. This is also a very good course to complete before going for an interview for a role in research. Read and learn all you can about the importance of informed consent in research as this is a major part of the role of any research nurse.

      You will find on the Clinfield Resource Page a link to the competency framework in the UK for clinical research nurses. This document is a wealth of knowledge and links to important documents you should be aware of when working in clinical research.

      If you are in the London area and can make it to any of our courses, Clinical Research: Getting Started! is a good course for beginners as is Informed Consent and Applying to Ethical Opinion in the NHS. Showing initiative by getting some job related training before an interview is definitely impressive to employers.

      And finally, join our email list to receive newsletters, blog posts, events and soon job postings for anyone working in clinical research.

      I hope this helps!


  8. Catherine Young says:

    Hi Kelly,

    What a great article. I have recently made the transition from the ward into research and completely agree with your comments. Your article has given me reassurance in my decision to move into Research, and I agree that support is important. I am extremely lucky as my peers are both experienced and supportive and I am looking forward to the future in research.
    Thank you again.

    • Kelly Gleason says:

      Hi Catherine,

      Thank you for your commments, how do you feel a few months into the role?


  9. Lucy wellings says:

    Really great to find this blog! I’m applying for a research job at the moment. I’ve read your comments about the GCP course and Finch report. Is there any guidance you could give me about what I might be asked in interview?
    Many thanks

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