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Research Administration Careers | Onboarding: Innovative Staffing Program Achieves Infinite Game Success

By SRAI News posted 05-12-2022 12:54 PM


Research Administration Careers | Onboarding: Innovative Staffing Program Achieves Infinite Game Success

In this month’s Spotlight, the University of Michigan presents a unique solution to combat staffing gaps and turnovers

Research Administration is, as inspirational speaker Simon Sinek describes, an “infinite game.” The goal is to keep moving forward, with no end in mind, no clear winner, and players who come and go. Infinite-minded people play the game because they understand they are advancing something bigger than themselves. They expect the unexpected, realize there are always ebbs and flows, and prepare for radical flexibility. Success in Research Administration inherently requires an infinite mindset. Yet we default to a finite mindset and are surprised and unprepared when staff turnover occurs. We know it will inevitably happen, but we have no plan for when it does. We scramble to schedule interviews and for months on end exhaust and overextend remaining staff until we hire and train someone new. By then, staff who have been covering multiple workloads experience burnout and the cycle repeats. So why is it we have a finite mindset when it comes to hiring and training staff in an infinite game profession? 

The University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA) breaks this cycle with a unique Pool Program designed to train new and existing staff in research administration fundamentals. Our Pool Program exemplifies an infinite mindset as it helps us start the hiring/onboarding process before we even know it’s happening.  LSA’s Finance Division consists of seven business offices, staffed with 45 research administrators who support over 1,000 faculty with pre- and post-award functions. We pride ourselves on maintaining service to our faculty and each other.   The Pool Program comes into play when staffing turnovers provoke gaps in service. This program trains and prepares new research administrators who can easily be moved into openings when turnovers occur. This infinite game approach minimizes the time it takes to onboard a new employee placed into one of our business offices as initial training has been attained and the learning curve effectively diminished. 

New staff hired into the Pool Program don’t have an initial business office assignment. Their job is to train and eventually provide coverage where needed across LSA’s various business offices. Each pool staff member is assigned two Functional Leads, seasoned senior research administrators who are taught how to train new staff while gaining valuable leadership skills. The Functional Leads serve as mentors and main points of contact for their assigned Pool trainees and are responsible for guiding them through training and an extensive onboarding process. Additionally, Functional Leads assess Pool staff, providing feedback and rating readiness for placement. Pool staff must remain in the Pool Program for a minimum of two months but could stay as long as needed until an opening occurs and they are ready for assignment.

Components of the Pool Program include 32 peer-led workshop sessions, a plethora of computer-based trainings, rotations throughout all seven LSA business offices, and shadow opportunities with other research administrators. When a vacancy in one of the business offices opens, the respective manager can fill it with a Pool trainee who is a good fit for the team, ready to step in and start managing a dedicated faculty portfolio. This placement then creates a Pool vacancy which automatically restarts the hiring process. 

LSA Finance has not been immune to the research administrator hiring difficulties. We, too, have felt the pressure of research administrator shortages and competing with institutions nation-wide as remote work continues to be offered. The Pool Program allows us to broaden our candidate capacity to include those with good aptitude and little to no previous research administration experience. We are prepared to hire candidates based on fit instead of only relying on experience level. By applying an infinite mindset to this problem, we have developed a staffing structure that not only outlasts our leadership but keeps our staff feeling inspired and fulfilled.

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:
- Hiring
- Onboarding
- Training
- Education/Certification
- Office Structures
- Career Ladders/Tracks
Submit article or requests for collaboration to

Authored by Kimberly Rooker, M.Ed., CRA, Research Administrator Lead, 
College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, University of Michigan