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Research Administration Careers| Education: Choosing Your Best Course for Success

By SRAI News posted 08-11-2022 01:16 PM


Research Administration Careers| Education: Choosing Your Best Course for Success

Education as an essential component of the research administrator’s toolkit is this month’s Spotlight focus. What type of background and education is required? Do advanced degrees guarantee success? We explore these and other points in the Catalyst’s continuing series on research administration careers. 

Research administration has yet to sufficiently gel as an early career goal. It is a dynamic, evolving field, with its concentration at academic or medical institutions where research is typically conducted. It is logical, therefore, for research administrators to hold basic or advanced academic credentials. In actuality, a variety of educational levels exists among research administration professionals. Most possess associate’s or bachelor’s degrees, with some completing graduate work. Why such a disparity? Does this suggest that formal education is not necessary for the field? 

We define education as the process of receiving or giving systematic instruction, especially at a school or university and as a body of knowledge acquired while being educated. It is clear that individuals are moving into this field as a career and do require fundamental skills. While there may not be widespread undergraduate degrees in research administration at present, there are relatable core skills needed to achieve success. These include: project management, problem solving, attention to detail, multitasking, effective communication, and computer and software proficiency, as well as algebra-level math skills along with a basic understanding of research and science. 

This overview very much parallels college-level coursework, from projects to theses.  Accordingly, we would argue that success depends on experience with modeling, critical thinking, problem solving, and meeting deadlines, competencies gained through a series of college/university courses.  Further, advanced mathematics is a critical skill for post-award fund management, from basic bookkeeping to mid-level knowledge of cost-based accounting. Thus, an associate’s or bachelor’s degree does help guide one toward success as a research administrator. 

What of advanced education, such as a master’s degree? A graduate degree allows students to develop advanced knowledge of a specialized body of theoretical and applied knowledge, to forge a deeper understanding of their area of study. This degree often is obtained to gain a greater understanding of academia and further comprehension of a discipline. By this definition, a master’s degree could be greatly beneficial toward a defined career. However, this degree is most commonly conferred in well-defined fields. The process of studying an additional two years to attain more educational depth while worthwhile, may be limited in research administration depending on the program of study. It is the transferrable skills one gains from a graduate program – team building, project management, writing, editing – that prove the most advantageous in research administration. 

Currently, there are many new and continuing master’s degree programs in research administration – are these necessary or beneficial? Advanced education is always of value to one’s career. However, individuals should perform a cost benefit analysis to determine whether such a substantial expense will guarantee career advancement. A review of current master’s programs in research administration shows a well-rounded curriculum of our field – pre-award, post-award, regulatory and compliance regulations, etc.  Is a master’s degree required to learn these?  We would argue it is not. Yet, a deep understanding of these issues may otherwise take years of career practicum to reach a similar level of competence. 

What of a PhD? Clearly, it is not a requirement for a typical research administration position involved in pre- or post-award management. On the other hand, there is indeed a need for doctorates who can effectively use this terminal degree to further advance the research administration field. To develop and grow this specialty as a career, there is a wing for academic advancement. Many PhDs are definitely moving the field in new and intriguing directions, as well as serving in roles at institutions to help promote research on a broader or more global level. 

If one does not wish to invest in advanced education, how about professional certification?  Arguably, professional certification is encouraged, more as a badge of knowledge.  While an associate’s or bachelor’s degree can prepare one for the rigors of a research administration career, professional certification is a key way to gain the breadth and depth of knowledge required. Professional certification, such as the Certified Research Administrator (CRA), Certified Pre-Award Research Administrator (CPRA), and Certified Financial Research Administrator (CFRA), requires study to gain an understanding of policy and practice beyond what one may be exposed to in any given position. Further, a general national common understanding of the field allows some standardization. By definition, professional certification confers a level of commitment and belonging to the field.  Is it an educational requirement? Certainly not at this time. However, for career advancement, and especially in the future as research administration continues to develop as a career field, it is anticipated that certification will be essential for progression. 

Research administration is a career that encourages continuing education. The field continues to grow and advance in complexity and sophistication. Policies and procedures change. Regulatory policy evolves. Compliance issues become more weighty. An understanding of the field in 2017 may be very different from what it is in 2022. Therefore, continuing education is significant. This can be achieved through micro-credentialing programs (such as SRAI’s LevelUP program), conference attendance, virtual education, or via the many webinars available through SRAI or at local institutions. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has a library of videos available for viewing on a variety of topics. The key to successful continuing education is scheduling, to ensure that it is accomplished regularly.  One recommendation is to make this a joint office function, with follow-up discussion to relate the topic to local needs. 

In the end, education is a life-long project.  One must maintain current knowledge to keep up in the field.  This is what makes research administration so engaging a career, with the ability to continue to learn throughout one’s life.  Keep in mind that research administrators are a unique community, where interaction and engagement with each other can lead to shared knowledge and expertise.  Fundamental education is important, though continuing education is essential to success.

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

Heather Brown, Grants and Contracts Administrator
Duke Human Vaccine Institute

Mark Lucas, Chief Administrative Officer
University of California, Los Angeles, Department of Neurobiology