Research Administration Careers | Part II: Onboarding
This month, the SRAI Catalyst continues its Spotlight Series on Research Administration (RA) Careers with a look at Onboarding, exploring the different challenges and opportunities facing RA newcomers, experienced professionals, and senior leaders. Future series topics include Training, Education/Certification, Office Structures, and Career Ladders/Tracks.
Onboarding. The term offers promise and hope, the start of a new experience. All jobs have an onboarding process, be it completing new hire paperwork, culture exposure, systems training, or the get-to-know-you lunch. The aspirational feeling of the first day is the best part of any new journey. It is no different for research administrators. Newcomers to the field, experienced professionals, or senior leaders all experience onboarding – often involving a deep dive into the systems an institution uses, a crosswalk of internal processes, and a sociological look at the principal investigators (PIs).
Research administration can prove puzzling to newcomers. Why does research need administration in the first place? Most newcomers are unfamiliar with the field but end up exploring it because of life circumstances, a colleague or supervisor’s recommendation, or the “wrong place at the right time” synchronicity. Nonetheless, once selected for a position, these individuals must be ready to start. Welcome to onboarding! (See February’s SRAI Catalyst for our previous entry on Hiring.)
A research administrator’s first day is often challenging for both employees and supervisors. There is a long ramp ahead. The easiest route launches at the beginning, providing a roadmap for everything to come. This often is achieved through website navigation, presenting various key sites and giving new hires the opportunity to explore them. At one large state university system, the hiring manager starts onboarding with an overview presentation, then asks newcomers to read the basics, from Uniform Guidance (UG) to The Golden Rule. New hires next start to go through a repository of proposals, mostly to become familiar with proposal (or application) components. A combination of individual, one-on-one, group, and independent coursework rounds out the first week. While there is no set good or bad training technique, newcomers should be allowed open time to read and explore, while a colleague or supervisor periodically checks in to review what has been absorbed and processed.
This approach usually takes a week or two. At this point, newcomers have appropriate access to institutional systems and are partnered with another research administrator working on an existing proposal. Even with remote workers this is not as challenging as one might think, as Zoom and sandboxes offer a hands-on opportunity for newcomers to observe, practice, and repeat. With each proposal, newcomers learn more and more. The “live action” partnering component is key, giving new employees immediate hands-on training and feedback. Any institutional coursework can also be performed simultaneously.
This same manager also employs the “deep end” theory, i.e., throw them in the deep end and see if they sink or swim! While the research administration partner initially liaises with the principal investigator(s), newcomers help build the proposal in the S2S system or tool used locally. This hands-on experience has proven indispensable, as the partner gains a “helper” or “assistant” on these proposals. The “deep end” comes quickly. After shadowing and navigating the proposal development system, newcomers are quickly given additional responsibilities with each upcoming proposal until the training wheels are removed. As the newcomers have formed some familiarity with the systems and general outline of the job, now is the time to meet the principal investigator(s). This seems to be the stage most fraught with anxiety. New research administrators who have good social skills or have quickly learned the basics will successfully learn to partner with the PI. Fear of failure is a significant motivating technique. This phase is described as “onboarding the PI” as the PI is now introduced to a new research administrator much as the research administrator is to him/her.
While research administration can be a life-long educational career, in reality it probably takes 18 months to really understand the position – an initial 12 months to learn the job and the cycle, and the subsequent six months to begin to see the pattern repeat. During this period, new employees gradually receive additional training along with increased responsibility. An initial performance assessment can determine if new research administrators have mastered the R21 and are ready to move on to the RO1. Can the new team members suitably inform a PI of the RFA’s requirements? Is it time for them to join a CRA study group and understand what is being discussed? After demonstrating the ability to move to the next step, more challenging and higher volume assignments are added, with a supervisor monitoring and providing feedback. The initial partners are encouraged to continue working alongside their new colleagues, as the mentor/mentee relationship provides mutual professional development benefits.
Finally, consider SRAI intensive training resources for potential development opportunities. These online trainings give any newcomer a broad outline of what the field is and how to perform the fundamental functions. While it will not demonstrate the tools one’s particular institution utilizes, it does offer a perspective of the field that is helpful to any new hires and should be considered as part of the toolkit for onboarding newcomers.
Hiring experienced professionals can be like getting nuts on your sundae, a plus but watch out for nut allergies. Onboarding research administrators with demonstrated previous experience sometimes allows a supervisor to assume that shortcuts can be taken. Will more seasoned RAs really need training in the UG, NIH ASSIST, or Conflict of Interest (COI) policies? The reality is that experienced individuals may not know what they do not know.
The first weeks for experienced professionals need to follow the same pathway as with newcomers. While teaching the field’s basic vocabulary is not needed, partnering these individuals with another research administrator is advised, both for one-on-one local training in institutional systems, and for assessment. What skills gaps will need to be filled? Do experienced professionals understand that the welcome lunch cannot be charged to a faculty’s NIH award? The intent is to precisely determine what training (or re-training) may be required and to fill in these gaps. Many times, new experienced team members will ask for this (“I’ve never done a NASA proposal – how different is it from DARPA?”).
Experienced new hires should be exposed to the same training regimen in terms of local systems and processes. Local acronyms alone are often daunting! While the instinct is to have new experienced colleagues jump in from day one, investing in an advanced training regimen is highly encouraged and valuable. Also, consider offering any refreshers, such as SRAI intensive trainings or CRA study groups. Do the experienced professionals bring a particular expertise that could assist the office? Again – assessment is key. The roadmap, e.g., R21 to RO1 to UO1 to PPG, will still need to be followed. After the supervisor is certain of the experienced research administrator’s proven, demonstrated skills, the roadmap should be extended to further challenge these employees. This is the point to assess overall strengths and weaknesses, capacity to handle higher volume, ability to handle challenging PIs. As with all employees, the pathway to growth becomes the pathway to success.
Hiring senior leaders presents the promise of growth and success, yet acknowledgment of leadership change sometimes produces great anxiety. For senior leaders, the entry point is equally as anxiety-provoking. Although senior leaders are expected to jump in and lead quickly, smart leaders know to stand back and listen before acting.
Onboarding senior leaders is beset with risks. Ideally, these individuals should go on a 360⁰ listening tour, speaking with the research administration staff, PIs, and their own senior leadership. Critical areas include hearing from stakeholders about what has and has not worked, gathering data on processes, people, and performance, collecting metrics, and understanding the goals for the coming year(s).
Change implementation cannot begin unless one understands the current state. Too many senior leaders jump in with a pre-packaged plan from their previous institutions. This is not necessarily a recipe for success. An arguably better approach is for existing stakeholders to develop a current status report before senior leaders arrive and make some general assumptions about the best roadmap for the operation. Senior leaders may be the driver, but the entire operation will be moving down this road.
Rather than have new senior leaders recreate the wheel, have them take advantage of existing resources available to review and assess. Does the institution have a strategic plan for research? What has gone before? What data points are key? What metrics are available or can be shared? Who are the critical players across the institution and can they be compiled onto a list? Are training tools already available? Coming into a new position or institution, new senior leaders can benefit most from proven, successful toolkits and maps.
Lastly, managing expectations is important. New senior leaders are not there to solve every issue that has developed over the last decade. Problem employees and PIs’ personalities cannot be changed overnight. If resources are provided, it will make this vital job easier and, ultimately, demonstrate a more collaborative atmosphere. It is to everyone’s benefit for new senior leaders to thrive.
Onboarding is a process of orientation and acclimating someone to a new environment. Depending on the research administrator’s level of experience, a different array of tools, trainings, and resources is used. What is common to all, however, is the need for partnering with others, for an inventory of resources to be provided, and a roadmap to follow. By building on these, one can build a map to success for the individual, colleagues, and the institution.
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:
- Office Structures
- Career Ladders/Tracks
Submit article or requests for collaboration to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mark Lucas, Chief Administrative Officer
University of California, Los Angeles, Department of Neurobiology
Heather Brown, Grants and Contracts Administrator
Duke Human Vaccine Institute