Research Administration Roles and Responsibilities: Research Administration "Pulse" July 2017

by Zoya Davis-Hamilton on Thursday, July 27, 2017

Zoya Davis-Hamilton, Associate Vice Provost for Research Administration and Development
Sarah Marina, Assistant Director for Research Administration and Development at Tufts University

For this issue of the Pulse we asked our fellow research administrators whether their institutions have defined roles and responsibilities for individuals working in pre- and post-award research administration. If roles and responsibilities have been defined, we additionally asked how such definitions were created by their institution. To contextualize our results, we also asked survey participants about the type of office and institution in which they work. This anonymous survey was distributed to the subscribers of the RESADM-L listserv.

The survey was open between May 12th and May 26th, 2017 and collected 158 responses. Below, we describe what we learned from our colleagues.

Survey Participants
The majority of respondents (78%) reported working at a university, with a smaller number working at hospitals (7%), other nonprofits (6%), a research institute (4%), along with several unique individual responses. Most survey respondents (38%) work in a combined pre- and post-award office, at either the central or school-level, with those working in a pre-award office being close second (28%). Other respondents work in departments (18%) and central or school-level post-award offices (4%). Responses of “Other” included those that were from one-person operations, compliance and research offices, rates development offices and those where research administration does not constitute a full-time job. It is possible given the survey design that individual institutions may be represented by multiple respondents.

Do investigators understand research administration roles and responsibilities?
We asked respondents whether, in their opinion, research administration-related roles and responsibilities in their institutions are clearly understood by investigators. Only seven percent of respondents gave an unqualified yes, with more prevalent responses being “most of the time” (40%) and “some of the time” (35%). Roles and responsibilities are felt to not be understood by investigators by 18% of respondents. The fact that close to half of our respondents reported that investigators at their institutions understand research administration roles and responsibilities most of the time is positive. However, the greater than 50% of investigators whom our respondents rate as only sometimes or never understanding is clearly an area for improvement.

Do research administrators understand their roles and responsibilities?
A quarter (25%) of survey participants reported that in their institutions all research administrators understand their roles and responsibilities. An additional 46% noted that all central staff in their organizations has such understanding, meaning that departmental administrators may not. This gap between perceived central and local knowledge, as well as the ~30% of respondents who feel that research administrators at their institution have some or no understanding of their roles and responsibilities, is somewhat troubling.

Documenting roles and responsibilities
Survey respondents were asked how research administration roles and responsibilities are documented and being promoted at their institutions and were allowed to pick more than one choice. They shared that roles and responsibilities are documented in the following ways:

Responses for “other” trended toward those working to close the definition gap, those who rely on word of mouth or precedent, small offices, and those where it varies from job to job. These results indicate that most institutions document their research administration roles and responsibilities in some way. The survey results do not however indicate the quality or accuracy of this documentation, which is an interesting area for future research.

Our results point to a movement toward documenting roles and responsibilities for research administrators across institutions. There remains confusion, however, among faculty and locally-based staff about both.

We know anecdotally that many employees that perform duties related to research administration wear several different hats or carry out duties that are outside the initial range of their job descriptions. Clearly defining roles and responsibilities creates focus, assists with efficiency, promotes responsibility and bestows authority. It also provides clarity to investigators and administrators about whom to turn to with questions or for help.

We will continue to periodically check the “pulse” of research administrators on various topics.

If you have any topics or questions that you want to see addressed in Pulse in the future, please let us know. Send feedback, ideas, questions and inquiries to Sarah Marina at

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