Today’s data manager is in the thick of the action, and though there’s no cape, it has become an in-demand career path. Here are the key traits of what makes someone a good candidate for a career in data management.

Richard Young, VP, Vault CDMS Strategy, Veeva Systems

December 21, 2022

5 Min Read
data scientist awash with abstract data
metamorworks via Adobe Stock

When you hear “data manager,” it probably doesn’t sound like the most exciting job. In the past, data management has been referred to as the librarians of clinical trials and a leftover discipline of yesterday. Yet, we just witnessed the transition of data management to something more akin to data science -- a dramatic shift driven by the demands of COVID-19. Today, data management is at the heart of transforming clinical trials and there has never been a more exciting time to consider a career in clinical data.

The rule book was completely rewritten during the pandemic. In the past, roughly 4,000 trials took place in any given year. Conservative estimates believe this volume increased by more than 1,000 due to COVID-related studies. At the same time, the pressures to find new ways to keep research in other critical conditions led to countless opportunities to innovate and evolve. After all, you cannot just stop cancer research!

The pressures to expand and deliver showcased that traditional thinking, technologies, processes, and activity were no longer fit-for-purpose. Physical access to people, to sites, even to patients was shut off with zero notice. There was no way to visit a research center and collect data. Face-to-face assessments and paper-driven approaches proved unviable. Trials became exponentially more complex overnight. The achievements of our industry are dramatic -- not just to keep research moving forward, but also to achieve the impossible. Clinical protocols that once took three to six months to author were completed in 24-48 hours, and human readable protocols were turned into working clinical databases in a matter of hours -- demonstrating that the impossible could be made possible.

Data management was at the center of so much of this change, and as a result, data management grew into the operational core that got jobs done. Suddenly, managers weren’t just shepherding data -- they were thrust into problem-solving and driving outcomes. Solve one problem, then move on to the next.

Data managers proved that they are problem solvers, and far from the discipline of the past, their emergence as the IT unsung heroes of COVID breathed excitement into the career, creating a hot job market.

Times Have Changed

Twenty or 30 years ago, we would have collected maybe a million data points for a significant Phase Three study. Today, we're potentially gathering several million data points per patient per day, especially if they're wearing a monitoring device like a Fitbit or Apple Watch. Data managers are using new technologies and techniques to look across data sets to focus on what's important.

If you look back a decade or so, it was thought that a clinical research associate (CRA) would make a data manager (DM) redundant because technology would automate building and cleaning databases. However, COVID showed that data managers took on more responsibility in talking to sites and driving that first-line support model. If anything, data managers are now showing how the roles of DM and CRA come together, enabling specialization and focus where it matters most. Data managers are leading execution, taking more accountability for the collection of more data, from more sources and determining how we approach cleaning and reporting data in a risk-based manner. This turnaround started long before COVID in truth, but the absolute need generated by the pandemic shone a very bright light on the transition. Today there’s more data than ever. There are more clinical trials than ever. And as a result, there are now more career opportunities.

Today, All Roads Lead to Data

I doubt there has ever been a young child who sat around the dinner table with their family and wistfully declared that they dreamed of being a data manager. Data management was often a career a person just fell into. I had little idea of what data management was when I stumbled headfirst into the role. Today, data science is incredibly well publicized within universities, and I see job fairs describing data management as a career. How refreshing is that?

A whole new generation has become interested in data strategy and management. It’s a growing and evolving industry, and it’s not only exciting, but the idea of conducting trials with life-improving or saving potential is fulfilling. Today’s data manager is in the thick of the action, and though there’s no cape, it has become an in-demand career path.

Get a Job

What key traits make someone a good candidate for a career in data management?

Inquisitiveness tops the list, especially an interest in technology and people. A scientific background helps, though you don't need to know all the ins and outs of medical issues. Having thick skin, realizing not every idea will work and being adaptable is crucial. I often compare data management to solving a Rubik’s Cube. It really is.

Candidates from other industries can cross over into the field, particularly from areas like banking and insurance, because they have transferable data skills. Those who use data to make decisions or model an industry are also in good stead because they’ll be able to think holistically about data and apply it to the patient experience.

As with any job interview process, candidates and employers must meet each other's needs, but data managers are in high demand. Job candidates evaluating companies should determine if the culture fits and if the company will set them up for success. For instance, ensure the organization will provide what’s needed for a robust home office, including state-of-the-art tools, furniture, and anything else needed to make it a place where people want to work.

Be sure to get a sense of how people are treated. According to a Robert Half survey, four in 10 US workers report an increase in burnout. Those feeling the strain the most are technology workers, and during the pandemic, stress took a considerable toll on data managers.

Finally, consider what your first 90 days will look like. Be sure you won’t be left alone with tutorials and a long list of reading materials until they’re ready to bring you into the fold. Also, verify the company has iron-clad remote work policies. And if you can go into an office, be sure prospective employers have met all safety precautions and that you can meet everyone with whom you’ll be working.

About the Author(s)

Richard Young

VP, Vault CDMS Strategy, Veeva Systems

Richard Young is vice president, Vault CDMS Strategy at Veeva Systems, the industry cloud for life sciences. For more information, please visit careers.veeva.com.

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