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Finding your Why

By SRAI News posted 09-11-2019 07:18 PM

Authored by Susan Wyatt Sedwick
Senior Consulting Associate
Attain LLC

A few weeks ago, I lost my coveted why.  Have you ever lost your why? Maybe it was a particularly big fail in having a proposal returned without action due to an oversight in review, inability to reach agreement in a contract negotiation, or a late final invoice. More often than not, I have lost my why when a principal investigator has, in my opinion unjustifiably, lashed out at my office or me personally for being an “impediment to research”. 

In full disclosure, after I had a recent experience with losing and miraculously finding my why again, I conceived this idea and the concept of finding your why.  I conducted a quick internet search of the term and found multiple books with similar if not identical titles. My first thought was to purchase one of those books to use as a reference but quickly dismissed that notion because I wanted this to be an honest reflection of my original intent and not a scholarly work. 

When I began my career in research administration over 25 years ago, my why was simple: that first research administration job looked interesting even though I was totally clueless about what it entailed but I saw it as a foot in the door to working in higher education. It didn’t hurt that it also gave me access to reduced tuition for my doctoral program. But life has a way of delivering reality checks, sometimes in the most unexpected and heartbreaking ways.  Shortly after taking that first research administration position I found my new why when I heard those tearfully delivered and devasting words from the other end of the phone, “I have cancer.”

Someone very dear to me had been diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer that had spread. After her surgery, we knew just how far: into six lymph nodes. The prognosis was not positive for an otherwise vibrant, healthy 36-year old mother of two young children. Quickly her “why me” became my why when she was enrolled in a randomized, placebo-controlled trial of Tamoxifen. Her only fear was not for the potential side-effects which proved to be significant but that she would receive a placebo and thus what she saw as her best chance for long-term survival would be lost. That is when research administration as a career and a purpose became real… why. That day made me understand that what we do matters to millions and without research administration, my loved one might not have a had that option done in an ethical manner that valued the brave and hopeful contribution she was making toward research.

Over the years, I have lost and found my why multiple times. Being a part of a groundbreaking research discovery or celebrating a new professor’s first award made it real. Signing off on our 92-year-old legendary principal investigator’s proposals made me understand the meaning of optimism and our contribution to his why. Being a part of a profession that is helping make research happen gives purpose to the daily grind that at times can feel like a thankless job, not the profession that I have grown to love and from which I have gained so much personal growth and satisfaction. But why for any professional can be fleeting and can be easily lost.

My latest why find came at the end of a particularly stressful and thankless week.  My why was misplaced when I ventured down the hallway of the children’s hospital where I am consulting.  Seeing the faces of very sick children putting on brave faces always reminds me of how lucky I am to have for the most part been spared that agonizing experience with my own children and grandchildren.  As I walked past a young couple crying outside a hospital room, I could only imagine their pain and frustration in that moment.  Their “why us” was profound….and there it was: I found my why again.

So, these days I am hanging onto my why a little tighter grateful for the opportunity to continue to work in a rewarding profession with dedicated researchers and research administrators. What is your why? I encourage each of you to mark time off of your calendar each month to go out and visit your favorite and even your not-so-favorite researchers. I can promise you it will help you find your why and help that researcher understand why you are there for support and not an impediment to their research. 

And if you feel so inclined, please share your why stories with me at I would love to hear from you because a lot of my why has always been the opportunity to work with people with that shared dedication and drive. And once you find that why, hold on tightly but don’t despair if you misplace it. There are lots of opportunities to find your why again. 

And thankfully my loved one is still with me as a daily reminder my how important my why is to me and important our profession is.

1 comment



09-13-2019 02:23 PM

I love this Susie.  My why has been clear to me since I figured out what research administration is.  It is a chance to be a part of achieving something big and important and making a difference in this world.  I work with faculty who have done more than I could in 5 lifetimes, and they need me to carry out their research successfully. Where else can a person of modest talents like me have so much impact?  Synergy rocks!