Research Administration Careers | Hiring
This month the SRAI Catalyst introduces an ongoing column on Research Administration Careers, exploring the many aspects of our rapidly growing profession. We initiate the bimonthly series with a discussion on Hiring: how, why, what to consider, and offer perspectives for both employer and employee. Future topics include Onboarding, Training, Education/Certification, Office Structures, and Career Ladders/Tracks. We welcome feedback on this series and encourage you to submit your own articles on this topic or any of the others to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Research administration is a unique and growing field, most commonly found in non-profit and academic institutions. Over the last 25 years, what was once considered a non-specific work function has developed into a robust, well-paid profession, offering a variety of specific disciplines. What has not yet changed, however, is awareness of the field as a lifelong career option. Research administration’s insular nature often makes its discovery difficult. It is not typical to find individuals who actually pursued an undergraduate degree to become a research administrator. Masters and certificate programs have been established just within the past 10-15 years. Although careers in research administration can face challenges, there are exciting possibilities for those who persevere beyond initial stumbling blocks. One of the greatest challenges comes at the start of the hiring process – recruitment. With little awareness of research administration as a career, most enter the field by chance or luck!
An ad hoc survey of research administrators at a public institution found that many were students who either began working during college assisting faculty or staff or were recent graduates looking for work at the university. Others were already hired in different administrative capacities and given tasks related to the management of research projects or submissions. This unstructured entry point is endemic of most institutions, where degree type is less important than basic skill set. Key attributes appear to include good organizational skills, strong financial capacity, a basic understanding of science, and an ability to multi-task. Most surveyed found that they learned the basics of research administration through an initial in-house course, gaining most of the skills through an on-the-job internship (i.e., performing basic repetitive tasks and gaining responsibility over time). Nearly all agreed that they did not foresee this as a career, considering it more as a learning experience and “seeing where things go.” The minimum time to gain basic skills was 18 months, the typical time it takes to go through a funding cycle and then repeat it.
This beginner’s process does not clarify why these individuals were hired in the first place or mastered these tasks and advanced over time. For this, we look to the other side – the hiring managers (i.e., successful career research administrators). This cohort has the most problematic task, identifying those with the capacity to learn the skills necessary to submit research proposals and to monitor them once awarded. What components are essential? It is clear that as there is no undergraduate program yet in the field, a liberal arts or business degree is helpful. Knowledge of basic accounting or economics, the ability to monitor and manage multiple needs simultaneously, and – yes – familiarity with basic psychology are all key parameters that promote success. Pre-award skills are different than post-award skills and individuals may focus on one or the other depending on their background and comfort level. In interviewing candidates, a well-rounded resume, with a focus on organization and project management is a most critical resource.
Hiring, however, is not only done at the entry level. Evidence suggests that, while often challenging, recruitment and training of beginning research administrators works well, even though the process requires much time and effort. The next tier presents a greater challenge– advancing from an entry-level research administrator to a mid-level career one. Although it may take several years to master the basics and begin considering a career as a research administrator, progressing to a mid-level position requires more than just mastery of the fundamentals. It presumes practical, hands-on experience with grant-active faculty members, a command of larger or more complex awards, knowledge of current industry regulatory issues, and proficiency with managing awards that have gone off the rails or have not performed as smoothly as anticipated. It is these “real life” stories (case studies!) that build character and help develop expertise.
If one wishes to apply for a mid-level position, two responsibilities are key. The first is to develop a resume that carefully outlines skills performed and challenges faced. The second is to build a network so that the job search is smooth. Word-of-mouth is often the best recruitment tool. What differentiates one mid-level research administrator from another is their ability to deftly discuss the depth and breadth of knowledge and experience in the field. If one candidate has only submitted R01 awards, for example, this may have less value than another candidate who has worked with a variety of mechanisms across various federal agencies and private foundations. To validate one’s skills, professional certification is an asset, as well as consideration of further education, such as a Master’s degree in research administration. While not required, these demonstrate a career commitment to the field.
For hiring managers, having a pool of mid-level candidates seems the ideal situation for hiring a qualified and experienced research administrator. They often find, however, that time in the job is not always the best metric. When evaluating applicants, hiring managers need to look at skills and experience obtained, expertise with award types and portfolio volume, and whether a prospective hire is truly are ready for next level work. Many, many are not. Expectations for mid-level career hires are for these individuals to be autonomous, to have the ability to handle a large volume of awards, and to be able to educate new entrants into the field. Hiring managers also need to determine whether the candidate’s skills were learned properly and if the candidate has a strong foundation to build upon. This is where professional certification and related training is important, as it provides validation.
The third hiring tier is management or senior management in research administration. Now the field narrows. Senior research administrators likely have decades of experience and a wealth of knowledge. They have experienced diverse challenges and have performed in a variety of positions. They are familiar, if not fluent, in both pre- and post-award responsibilities, as well as regulatory compliance functions. Senior managers or directors may not have direct experience with every agency, yet they are familiar with agency guidance. They typically have presented at national meetings and have taught courses locally. This cohort of career experts also includes those who have expanded their skill sets into administrative management. Clearly, hiring for this tier is both a challenge and a pleasure. It remains complex, as each candidate checks many, but not all boxes. For hiring managers it is a pleasure to meet and interview colleagues who have gone through the trenches, gained both practical and experiential knowledge, have presented in professional meetings/conferences, and aspire to use that knowledge to foster improvement. From the candidate’s point-of-view, these positions are rare. One has to self-examine whether the administrator is prepared to step away from day-to-day award submission and progress to senior management. Senior positions require more oversight and less transactional functioning. It is a difficult move for many, although in the end a very rewarding progression. From the hiring manager’s viewpoint, this hire is crucial to the unit’s continued success. It often depends on assessing the candidate’s ability to be a “futurist,” i.e., someone who can identify emerging trends and develop strategies to implement them locally. While an MBA, JD, or related terminal degree is not required, these degrees or associated skills are indeed essential to thriving in this environment.
Research administration is a wonderful, life-long career, although a lengthy and challenging one to break into, develop in, and maintain interest and expertise. Effective hiring is critical to ensure success for both the candidate and the hiring unit. Candidates must be engaged with joining a profession where entry requires learning and patience but the reward is a long-term career with endless possibilities. Hiring managers must be willing to make best estimates of an individual’s potential more than anything else.
Hiring in research administration is both a challenge and an art.
Consider submitting a reply or article on one of the following discussion questions:
Research Administration Careers will be an ongoing column this year. The Catalyst wants to hear your thoughts and articles on all of our topics throughout the year:
- What’s an unusual hiring situation you’ve encountered in your career?
- How do you rescue a flawed hire?
- What strategies do you use to increase positions in your unit/department?
- Office Structures
- Career Ladders/Tracks
Submit article or requests for collaboration to email@example.com.
Authored by Mark Lucas, Chief Administrative Officer
University of California, Los Angeles, Department of Neurobiology
Authored by Heather Brown, Grants and Contracts Administrator
Duke Human Vaccine Institute
Authored by Tyler Tulloch, Grant Services Manager
Michigan State University