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It Was the Best of Times; It Was the Worst of Times | Part 2

By SRAI News posted 02-09-2023 10:15 AM


It Was the Best of Times; It Was the Worst of Times | Part 2

With research administration enjoying unprecedented visibility and opportunities, one would assume it would be an attractive career option.  Yet almost every office across the country is facing the same challenge: staffing.  Listservs that used to post questions with the occasional job posting, now serve as de facto posting boards with the occasional question.  Every single office I have worked with over the last year is dealing with the same thing, empty positions, and few applicants to replace them.  Unfortunately, some of the same things that made research administration a more palatable field, are also responsible for other effects that had a far less positive impact.

First, there are just a lot of positions to fill.  When the pandemic definitively answered the viability of working remotely, these new opportunities upset the mechanisms of staffing that were in place.  The ability for an institution to offer remote positions has created an atmosphere of haves and have-nots, with institutions offering remote work having the ability to attract the top candidates and deeper applicant pools than those who can’t offer remote options.  This puts the pressure on institutions that are already under-resourced.  But even those offices that have the funds and approval to add positions can’t find applicants to fill them. 

There was also a mini brain drain after the pandemic as many senior members of the profession retired as attitudes toward work in general have changed.  As a profession, the stress levels often encountered are just lower than trauma surgeons and people on NORAD missile watch, and the pandemic reframed our relationships with work and our tolerance for that kind of stress in our lives. COVID also changed the consulting field.  It used to be if you wanted to be a consultant, you had to be a “road warrior,” spending three or four days a week travelling.  That is no longer the case and senior RAs have found the pay and freedoms afforded to consultants hard to pass up.  This has created both additional vacant positions and further reduced applicant pools. 

While having the ability to work remotely and take advantage of advancement opportunities is great for RAs, it has wreaked havoc on offices and institutions.  Whereas previously RAs often worked at the same institution for years, allowing the institution to reap the benefits of the time and effort in training the individual.  Now, as soon as someone has any amount of training, the applicant pools are so slim, and people are so desperate to find candidates with experience to reduce further training time, that the people take their training after less than a year and find a remote job for more money.  Training, which used to be an integral part of becoming an RA, has now become a luxury, with RAs who are already overloaded having little time to devote to it.

Lastly, the very culture that gave birth to research administration is part of what is killing it.  I have heard from leaders across the country who report an increase in the amount of friction between investigators and RAs.  This has always been a part of the job, but it seems to have gotten far worse.  This is probably a result of several factors, but it adds to the unappealing nature of the position.  The job has always been hard and under-appreciated, but there have always been those who love to tackle those types of jobs.  But how about a hard job where you are not only underappreciated, but actively denigrated?  Is it somewhere you would want to work?  And possibly even more important, what would you tell others about the job?  What other profession can someone with 30 years of experience and national prominence in their field be overruled by someone with six weeks of experience simply because they are faculty?  While sponsors have begun to recognize the importance of RAs, many institutions lag behind.

I do not have the answers to these questions, but this is an epic challenge that we as a profession need to handle head on, as we often do.  My hope is that this article will start some conversations.  Offices may need to start creating budgets for Recruitment and Retention as well as Professional Development.  Professional organizations need to have Outreach and Recruitment committees, leaders and hiring officials will need to consider how to bring more people into the field.  If these issues aren’t addressed we may end up with a system where a majority of RAs come from staffing agencies resulting in less efficiency, less consistency, and more cost.  As someone who has spent the last almost 20 years as a RA, that would truly be the worst of times. 

Click here to read Part 1.

Authored by Sean Scott, Founder
720 Consulting LLC
SRAI Distinguished Faculty