What Makes a Research Administrator? | Pulse

by Sarah Marina on Friday, April 27, 2018

In this issue of the Catalyst, we revisit valuable issues.

Republished from Pulse, February 2016.

This month we wanted to learn more about the qualities and experiences that create a research administrator. We were interested in factors research administrators think are crucial for those in the field to have, as well as information on research administrators’ backgrounds and future plans in the field. A brief anonymous survey was sent to the subscribers of RESADM-L listserv asking respondents to rank both descriptors of the profession and qualities they found most important in a research administrator. We also asked respondents to identify their attitude concerning research administration and their career plans for the next five years. We share our results and our thoughts on what they may mean in this column. 

Pondering what makes a successful research administrator, we posed an anonymous survey to the subscribers to RESADM-L listserv. We presented survey respondents with a list of several descriptors commonly used to describe the profession, and asked them to choose the ones that best describe their impressions of what being a research administrator means. We also listed several qualities that are commonly thought to be important for a research administrator to have, and asked respondents to rank those. In addition, we asked those survey participants that considered themselves to be research administrators to indicate whether they enjoy being members of the profession, and about their plans to remain in the field. The survey was open between January 10th and January 25th, 2016 and collected 152 responses. Below, we share what we have learned from our colleagues.

Survey participants
Almost all (148 or 97%) of the survey respondents consider themselves members of research administration profession, unsurprising given the audience of the RESADM-L listserv. Thus, our results do not offer insights about non-research administrators’ impressions of the occupation.

An overwhelming majority (87%) of those who participated in the survey are established research administrators, with only five individuals who had worked in research administration for less than two years responding; 55% of respondents had more than 12 years of experience. With longer tenured research administrators being over-represented among the participants, our results are most reflective of the opinions of those professionals.

Time in the profession:

Enjoyment of the job and future plans
It was wonderful to see that, with the exception of two survey respondents, research administrators enjoy their jobs, with 91% saying they enjoy being a research administrator at least most of the time.

Enjoy being Research Administrator:

It therefore came as no surprise that 71% are planning to remain in the profession in the next five years. As 11% of those who are not planning to remain research administrators are planning to retire, this means that over 80% of our respondents are not planning a career change, a sign of stability and expectation for continued opportunities in the field among research administrators.

Descriptors of the profession
Participants were allowed to select as many descriptors as they would like, giving us a good view of those descriptors that more intensely resonate with our colleagues. The majority of survey participants agree that research administration is constantly changing (86%), demanding, challenging, and complex (81%), varied in its tasks (76%), as is interesting and rewarding (71%). This gives a sense of the field as a moving target, but one most research administrators find worthwhile as a career due to its complex nature. Fewer (but over half) of the participants considered research administration stressful (65%), which tracks with the above. The descriptors that scored lower among our respondents were too much to do/hard to achieve work-life balance (26%), high demand on the job market (16%), and competitive compensation (12%). Other descriptors suggested by respondents included “underappreciated,” “undervalued,” “overwhelmed,” “reliant on faculty to pursue or not pursue,” and on “getting what I need to complete proposals.”

Important qualities of a research administrator
In addition to what descriptors, in their opinion, are most accurate for the research administration profession, we also asked our respondents what qualities they find most essential in a research administrator, ranking them in order of importance. We learned that most respondents considered knowledge of rules and regulations the most important quality in a research administrator, with the most respondents (44) ranking this as their number one choice, and an additional 63 respondents ranking it among the top four most important qualities. Given our role in the administration of a complex and changing landscape of regulations, the importance of this quality among our colleagues was anticipated.

The second most highly rated quality is customer service and collegiality (33 ranked this number one, additional 54 ranked it in the top four), an important skill in such a customer-facing role. This was followed by attention to detail (14 number one, 62 additional top four), problem-solving skills (13, 37 additional top four), and ability to handle pressure and to multitask (12, 45 additional top four), all receiving similar rankings of importance. Communication and organization skills (9 most important and 25 second most important and 8 most important and 13 second most important respectively), and continuous learning (5) had a varying amount of importance among respondents, with many ranking it as less important. No one considered math and budgeting proficiency the quality of most importance of a research administrator.

Based on responses from our colleagues, it is clear that research administration is a complex but interesting field, and that knowledge and collegiality are the most prized qualities of a research administrator. While few among our respondents report finding the field to be in high demand or having competitive pay, most of them have made a long-term career in the field and do not have plans to leave it within the next five years. Together, these responses paint a picture of a dedicated, stable group who enjoy a challenge and work hard to balance the complexity of and knowledge required for the variety of tasks they’re charged with each day. We think that these findings describe the population of RESADM-L that is most likely to participate in studies that contribute to the knowledge about the profession.

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 Zoya Davis-Hamilton at zoya.hamilton@tufts.edu.

Authored by:
Zoya Davis-Hamilton
Associate Vice Provost for Research Administration and Development
Tufts University

Sarah Marina
Assistant Director for Research Administration and Development
Tufts University