Research Administration Careers | Hiring: The Employer Has No Clothes
While anyone can say “yes” to a question, a near miss with an experienced-level hire made it clear that more specific questions about the mechanics of research administration are necessary during the interview process. With this pivot, one institution’s screening procedure became more effective. Some sample interview questions are shared in this article.
Several years ago, I interviewed a candidate for a senior research administrator position. The individual’s resume and application looked strong, with great background and experience. This gentleman came in for the interview in a three-piece suit (vest and all). Check! We started talking and he appeared very thoughtful and eloquent. Check! He spoke about the research administration field in broad, big picture strokes, and discussed his wide experience. Check! Very quickly, it appeared evident that this was to be our hire. I was excited, as hires are never this simple. Toward the end of the interview, I relaxed and wanted to small talk a bit. “So, how many RO1s does your office do in a cycle?” I asked. His response: “What’s an RO1?” I chuckled. “No, seriously, what’s an RO1,” he asks, as he pulls out a pen as if to write down the answer. Suddenly, I wondered, does this guy really not know the main mechanism for NIH funding submissions? I probed a bit further and deeper into the weeds. It turns out that his knowledge base was rudimentary. How could this be, given his background? This did not align with what was on his resume. When I checked his references I discovered that the resume was largely fabricated. I was surprised. How could someone do this? How could I have almost fallen for it? And most importantly, how do I prevent this in the future?
This seminal incident caused me to re-think my interviewing technique. While anyone can say “yes” to a question, it was clear that more specific questions are needed, with more robust inquiries about the mechanics of research administration. With this pivot, our screening process improved, although other surprising outcomes highlighted many challenges in our field. Here are some questions we began asking, which have proved extremely helpful in screening applicants.
- We found the need to know a candidate’s understanding of overhead, or facilities and administrative costs (F&A). Thus, we began asking a situational question: “If you’re meeting with a PI to review financial statements and they question why the direct costs are positive, the indirect costs are negative, but the total costs are positive, what do you tell them?” Shockingly, probably 40-50% of our applicants either cannot answer this question or tell them, “Don’t worry about it.” Obviously, there is an issue regarding the exclusions as budgeted vs. spent. This has encouraged us to deep dive on the concept of F&A after a hire is made.
- We also found the need for a candidate to demonstrate a knowledge of subawards, for example, “What do you do if a subawardee invoices you more than the subaward amount?” Most correctly say they would speak with the prime’s PI, but how the question is answered usually can get to an underlying understanding of how subawards function.
- We all want to assess a candidate’s shortcomings, but no one is going to walk in saying, “I don’t understand.” To garner this information, we have begun to ask either, “What are you currently studying to improve your research administration skills,” or “What was something on your last performance evaluation you were recommended to improve and what have you done to fill that gap?” This question also can elicit responses to determine one’s self-motivation to learn more about our field.
- More recently, we have begun to ask, “How do you deal with ambiguity?” There is the black, the white, and the gray. We all live in the world of gray in our field. How one handles the murkiness of the unknown or lack of clarity can help the interviewer learn how an individual obtains answers and researcher’s questions.
- Every so often a candidate will discuss a situation or policy when responding to a question. In order to garner their depth of knowledge of the field (and gain an understanding of the “why” of what they’re doing), occasionally I’ll follow up with a question I have some familiarity with, citing policy. For example, if a discussion of patents arises, I’ll ask their familiarity with the Bayh-Dole Act. I don’t expect candidates to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the field, but many times I’ll receive a knowledgeable response.
If there is time, I try to end with something about continuing education in the field. “What are you doing to improve your research administration skills and/or keep up with the changes in the field?” For most, I’ll receive standard replies but occasionally I’ll receive the enjoyable, “I’m studying for professional certification,” “I try to attend monthly online seminars,” or “I’m doing LevelUP.” What interview questions have you developed to help review a candidate’s true abilities? Please share and we can publish in a future issue of the Catalyst!
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
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Authored by Mark Lucas, Chief Administrative Officer
University of California, Los Angeles, Department of Neurobiology