Walking the Tightrope – Reflections on a Career in Research Administration
Like most of you reading this article, I never intended to pursue work as a Research Administrator, and I didn’t even know that such a field existed until I unexpectedly found myself working as a Grant Administrator in a central office at a large research university.
In my early years as an administrator, I had no idea about the bigger picture of how university research works, why it is important, and how it serves as an engine for economic growth.i But I quickly learned that by helping Principal Investigators navigate the red tape and rules that accompany sponsored funding that I was, in a small way, contributing to something larger. For a small-town girl who was told by her guidance counselor that she probably wasn’t college material, the idea that I could be of help to university scientists and scholars was transformational. To this day, it is what keeps me grounded in my work as a Research Administrator.
Yes, a big part of what we all do is to make sure the research and funding is managed in compliance with a myriad of rules to protect our institutions and be good stewards of taxpayer and sponsors’ dollars, but I’ve learned that equally important is that we make sure our Investigators have the support they need to do their work.
The 2018 Federal Demonstration Partnership (FDP) Faculty Workload Survey found that Investigators spend 44.3% of their research time on obtaining and managing federally funded research.ii A colleague once told me that many faculty researchers associate themselves with their work first and institution second, and Investigators who can’t accomplish their work in their current institution will look to others that are more accommodating.
In the competitive world of research funding, there is no shortage of institutions looking to scoop up the best talent. It is essential that we acknowledge the connection between faculty support and a strong research administrative infrastructure as part of our organization’s research strategy and that regardless of one’s position, everyone contributes to faculty and institutional research and funding success.
For those on the front lines working directly with Investigators this means staying current on the rules and requirements of your job, being laser focused on the details, and timely in your communications with your Investigators. They are often patient but do want reassurance that requests are being met and that their questions will be answered. While we are a heavily regulated field, try to come from a place of ‘yes’ and if you don’t have the answer or aren’t sure of how to address a request – reach out to your supervisor or a trusted colleague. We work in a field of gray where rarely is there one clear answer.
For managers, the approach to faculty support looks a little different and is in addition to what our front-line team must do each day. Because our work is constantly shifting due to new rules, changing technology and unpredictable external forces (pandemic, partial government shutdown-- to name a couple), be on the lookout for operational efficiencies that you can implement in your area’s day-to-day to make work easier for your team any maybe even the Investigators. Research administration relies heavily – if not almost entirely on other organizational units (e.g. human resources, procurement), it is important to take the time to get to know these units and build your networks. It is also necessary to be available to staff when they need answers and are navigating the gray space.
At the senior level – faculty support takes on a much more strategic focus. What I’ve quickly learned during my time at this level is that even the daily decisions require careful attention to the big picture. You must see the forest from the trees.
This means thinking about the institutional framework for supporting research and developing policies and procedures that protect the institution but accommodate the research(er). In some cases, this may include strategies for incentivizing research. And because research and sponsored funding are so dependent on other organizational units, not only do we need to simply build a network with them – we must be able to bring these important partners together to manage expectations and find ways to address compliance without impeding research.
At all levels, the daily balance between compliance and support and managing multiple expectations can feel like walking the tightrope. I joined SRAI when I was a front-line Grant Administrator and over the years, I have been fortunate to develop a network of international colleagues and mentors that I can rely on when I need to find my balance. As a member of SRAI, you can be sure that you will never have to walk the tightrope alone.
 Best Practices in State and Regional Innovation Initiatives: Competing in the 21st Century.
National Research Council (US) Committee on Competing in the 21st Century: Best Practice in State and Regional Innovation Initiatives; Wessner CW, editor.
Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2013. Accessed August 3, 2020.
Results of the 2018 FDP Faculty Workload Survey: Input for Optimizing Time on Active Research. Accessed August 3, 2020.
Authored by Dara C. Little, MPA, Assistant Vice President for Research and Sponsored Programs
Northern Illinois University
SRAI Education and Professional Development Committee Chair
Dara Little is one of the candidates for one of the two At-Large Board Members for the Board of Directors.
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