RA Career Paths | Tania Johnson
Many who find themselves in a career in research administration didn’t start out in this field. This series will focus on the unique, and often winding, paths that led to a career in research administration. Do you have an interesting story about how you go into your career in research administration? Share it with us by submitting an article here!
Research administration as a career path is a hidden gem of which I never could have conceived but is well aligned with my personality and strengths. As a child, if there was a word or fact that was unknown, I wasn't content until I ran to our family den to pull down a dictionary or encyclopedia from the bookshelves to search for the answer.
My research skills were honed throughout my career, including during my undergraduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania, while studying abroad at a public research institution in France, and during another stint at Penn where, in addition to my graduate studies, I served as a Graduate Research Assistant at the African Studies Center.
My first exposure to grant writing happened in an unlikely place - a graduate course on African conflict. The professor had the wisdom to want his students to learn not only about the subject at hand but to also come out with a concrete, marketable skill. For our group project, we had to write a mock grant proposal in response to an RFP to provide relief in a conflict-ridden country. Through this assignment I learned about goal setting, budgeting, evaluation, and assembling the right team to achieve project aims.
The mock proposal project gave me just enough of an orientation to grants to secure an entry-level position at a small nonprofit that refurbished medical equipment and supplies from Philadelphia area hospitals and sent them to Eastern European under a USAID contract. I was hired by my late colleague and friend Brooke Baxter, one of the brightest, most caring souls I've ever known. I am forever grateful to her for giving me my first job in grants and, unbeknownst to me, opening up a whole new professional path that I've journeyed on for the past 17 years.
Unfortunately, my nonprofit job ended after only one year when the organization closed down. Fortunately, I gained exactly the minimum experience necessary to secure an entry-level grants administrator position at Swarthmore College, coming in just at the eleventh hour. I was promoted to assistant director after a year and a half and had subsequent promotions over the years to associate director, interim director, and most currently, director of sponsored programs in 2015. While I remain a member of the Advancement Management Team, I report to the Provost and Dean of the Faculty as of July 2020. Over the years I have had different emphases in addition to proposal submissions as our grant operations have matured, from IRB administration to institutional grants to research development.
A career in research administration is a rewarding opportunity to serve the career development and wellbeing of our faculty and the students they mentor as part of their research and scholarly activities. This work is even more paramount as our faculty and student bodies continue to diversify and institutions grapple with how to transfer knowledge more effectively into communities given the events of the past year. I hope all of our SRAI colleagues will be encouraged that our work truly does matter and is a key factor for the growth and maturity of our institutions.
Authored by Tania Johnson, CRA, Director of Sponsored Programs