2009 Salary Survey Results

Economic worries, salary freezes remain issues as recession drags on

Still, many respondents manage modest wage hike

Clinical research (CR) directors and staff have experienced stagnant salaries, job cutbacks, and benefit cuts as a result of the recession in 2009, according to experts and results from the 2009 Clinical Trials Administrator salary survey.

Most CR salaries this past year have been stagnant, or the raises are small and in the 1% to 2% range, says Janet F. Zimmerman, MS, RN, an assistant clinical professor and coordinator of the clinical trials research track at the College of Nursing and Health Professions at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

For instance, the 2009 salary survey shows that nearly half of respondents reported no change in their salary over the past year. By comparison, the 2008 salary survey showed that 90% of respondents received a raise.

Also, in 2009 about 37% of respondents reported modest raises of 1% to 3%, while only 15.79% reported raises in the 4% to 6% range.

This trend likely is due to across-the-board salary freezes at major research institutions and health systems.

Institutions like Harvard University in Boston are freezing all staff salaries and making it more difficult to hire new employees or replacement staff, notes Ramesh Gunawardena, MBA, director of clinical trial operations in the clinical trial office of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. Gunawardena is an editorial advisory board member of Clinical Trials Administrator.

"I have staff meetings every week, and I tell them about the financial status of the institution and how privileged we are to still have our jobs," he says.

The salary and benefits cutbacks are not personal and are across-the-board, he says.

"We reassure staff that the cuts are not because they're not doing a good job, and we'll praise them even more, recognizing the work they do," Gunawardena adds.

It's been difficult to maintain employee morale in CR offices, but it helps to offer frequent positive reinforcement and to structure jobs where everyone is cross-trained, Gunawardena suggests.

"Everyone here is cross-trained, and if there's a need and someone is stressed, then we can reassign another staff member to that position," he says. "That's one of the most important things — to cross-train staff so we can have stopgap measures."

One trend reported by respondents to the 2009 salary survey is that CR offices are short-handed, and it's been difficult to obtain funding for hiring additional staff.

Some predict this trend soon will change.

"From the research perspective, I think this is a momentary lull, and I think we're going to see some hiring in the next year or so," says Stephen L. Kopecky, MD, a physician in cardiovascular diseases and internal medicine and a professor of the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine in Rochester.

However, the domestic CR industry faces some long-term problems, Kopecky adds.

"I do believe in the long run that research in the U.S. is still a difficult road," he explains. "We're pricing ourselves very high compared with the rest of the world, and the rest of the world is starting to improve their research."

The 2009 federal stimulus package and its funding for research will benefit U.S. clinical research sites in the near future, however, he adds.

In other results from the 2009 salary survey, CR respondents were somewhat younger, less experienced, and less highly-paid than in previous surveys. While about 95% of respondents in the 2008 survey had worked in health care for 13 or more years, only about 79% of respondents reported 13 years or more experience in the 2009 survey.

Also, the last survey found that 94% of respondents reported making $60,000 or more per year. In the 2009 survey, about 74% of respondents reported making $60,000-plus annually.

The percentage of salary survey respondents who reported losing staff this past year has increased, as well. In the 2008 survey, about 20% of people surveyed said they had lost staff; in the 2009 survey, 31.58% of those surveyed said they'd lost staff. Conversely, an increased number of sites have gained staff. While about one-quarter had gained staff in 2008, now 36.84% have reported gaining staff.

In at least one way the recession has helped with staffing issues: fewer people are voluntarily leaving their current CR job to seek better pay.

"We haven't had anyone leave in the last two years," Gunawardena says. "The economy has in a sense helped because we don't see too many people jumping around in jobs anymore."

Also there have been more people applying for clinical research positions, although many of the unsolicited resumes show no CR experience, he says.

"What we've seen is a whole slew of people randomly applying for positions," Gunawardena says. "These are people with 10 years, 20 years of unrelated experience applying for clinical research jobs because they had some biology classes in college and think they can turn their attention to that."

At the same time it's also been easier to hire people with more experience, he adds.

"For the cancer center in the study coordinator role we have four different levels, a CR1, CR2, CR3, and a clinical trial specialist, which is the highest role," Gunawardena says.

"What we found in the past is it's fairly easy to find candidates for the CR1 and CR2 levels because the CR1 is the level of new college graduates, and there's a new batch each spring," he explains. "The second level requires two years of experience, and that's fairly easy to hire too."

But traditionally the two highest levels proved a challenge to fill, and now that has changed with more candidates applying for jobs with several years or more of experience, he adds.

The key is to match candidates and their experience to the CR site's needs, and this can be tricky.

"You don't want to hire someone just because they have 10 years of experience," Gunawardena says. "They could be just trying to find a temporary job while they're looking for the ideal job, and you don't want to be that transition job."

So while there's a bigger pool of experienced CR professionals available than there has been in the past, the key is to not hire people with too much experience and then find out they weren't planning to stay for long, he adds.

Some of the trends noted in the 2009 CTA salary survey are mirrored in other health industry surveys.

For instance, a Georgia Hospital Association (GHA) survey conducted earlier in 2009 found that 60% of its hospitals had considered reducing staff, largely due to budget problems resulting from increases in patients who are uninsured.

Also, the Hospital Nursing Study 2009: Vermont Health Workforce Assessment Survey found that nursing vacancy rates have declined because of the recession.

Other findings in the 2009 salary survey were that 63.15% of respondents reported having six or more people in their departments, and only 10.53% reported working 40 or fewer hours per week. More than 26% reported having work weeks of 51 hours or more.

Some of the chief personnel concerns listed by respondents of the 2009 salary survey included these comments:

  • "Finding qualified, experienced staff;"
  • "Payroll in a down economy;"
  • "I need more positions approved to grow the clinical research department;"
  • "Lack of study coordinator pool;"
  • "Maintaining the quality of my work and being able to meet the deadlines for deliverables."

More than 65% of the 2009 salary survey respondents reported having earned a bachelor's degree or higher education, continuing a long-term trend of better-educated CR professionals.

"I've looked at many job postings, and across-the-board they will ask for an advanced degree," Zimmerman says.

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