Research Administration Careers| Training
Often, the most challenging part of a career development cycle comes through professional education and development. This month’s Spotlight looks at training for new research administrators, highlighting essential elements to promote ongoing success.
Training commonly suggests something positive: learning, growing, exploring something new. It opens a world of possibilities and offers aspirations for a bright future. Training can also prove to be the most challenging aspect of a career development cycle. Proper guidance and instruction typically ensure success, but incomplete or minimal training may set up newcomers for inadvertent failure. What then, are the most important training elements for new research administrators?
We all want trainees involved in hands-on work as quickly as possible, but it is never wise to shortcut building a foundation of sound practice fundamentals. Consider training as a completely blank slate. What is a university? What are faculty? What is research? What is funding? Effective training begins at this very basic level. Assume nothing.
For pre-award administrators, essential functions include an expansive overview of the research funding cycle, taking into consideration local university and department or center requirements. Understanding how their role aligns with faculty and central office functions is critical to research administrators’ success. Learning and becoming proficient with the institution’s proposal development system is a sound basis for productive collaboration with faculty and affords a seamless transfer to agency intake systems. Much of this training comes through the old-fashioned internship/apprenticeship method, e.g., 1:1 direct instruction/practice.
For post-award administrators, a fundamental understanding of accounting is indispensable, in addition to the basics of research administration. Essential components include the funding cycle, the limitations of extramural funding, the concept of facilities and administrative (F&A) costs, invoicing, and reporting requirements. For any newcomer, training must begin with these financial tools: the chart of accounts, the university systems used to gather and report data, and the reconciliation process. Start with simple activities such as budgeting (providing practice samples), validating expenditures, and reading ledgers.
Training is disparate. While 1:1 in-person training is ideal, the practicality of this has diminished with today’s hybrid work environment and the fast-paced nature of research administration. Other instructional methods are needed. Self-paced learning by reviewing standard research administration guidelines and federal and foundation agency policies helps fill in the gaps quicker. Newcomers can set their own pace and schedule, taking as much time as needed. Joining listservs is important, as current information gets delivered directly to inboxes. Resources from the Research Administrators Certification Council’s (RACC) Body of Knowledge provide a valuable roadmap for future study. Still, nothing beats coursework for education. Along with training programs focused on internal needs, additional instructional methods should be explored. These can range from online courses from SRAI (Level Up) or NCURA to attendance at conferences which often include “fundamental” training over a one to two-day period. Further, many institutions and grantmaking agencies offer trainings, many of which have moved to an open, online format.
A robust research administration training program includes many of the resources described here. A comprehensive master list of resources and references guides newcomers as they practice and refine skills along a logical learning path. Developing this list is highly recommended; it should be reviewed and vetted on a regular basis. Now for the trickiest part. Trainers must learn when to accelerate and when to put on the brakes. Move too quickly and the trainee becomes overwhelmed and overloaded with too much information. Move too slowly and lose any momentum already created. The pace may differ by trainee. A skilled trainer knows it is valuable to repeat certain trainings at varying points, offering initial exposure to a topic and then a refresher after some hands-on experience has been accomplished. The RACC offers a wonderful Body of Knowledge, resources, and questions to help shape learning. Most academic institutions have online “how-to” guides which are easy to locate and apply as auxiliary training tools.
Most constructive once basic fundamentals have been taught is general experience. There is no comparison. Going through real-life examples, case studies, and the day-to-day unknowns provide rich and memorable examples that help build character and skills. Progressing from compiling an R21 to an R01 to a DP1 to a UM1 NIH proposal can be considered a rite of passage in the field. Conferring with colleagues and peers is another key growth method to share knowledge and resources. This may be within the local office or institution, at conferences or even online. The RESADM-L (https://lists.healthresearch.org/) is an excellent forum to ask questions and share experiences; it also can be a daily tool for learning how peers handle challenging situations.
Training is a life-long project. As newcomers master basics after they enter the field, frequent changes and updates, as well as increasingly complex faculty research proposals offer compelling reasons to continue learning throughout one’s career. Remember, research administrators are a unique community where interaction and engagement with others leads to sharing knowledge and leading the way for new partners.
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
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Submit article or requests for collaboration to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Heather Brown, Grants and Contracts Administrator
Duke Human Vaccine Institute
Mark Lucas, Chief Administrative Officer
University of California, Los Angeles, Department of Neurobiology