Developing Your Research Administration Career – What Does it Take to Be Successful?

diversityGroupYou may not know this, but Research Administrators are a hot commodity. There are many research administration positions available (at least in the Chicago area). At the same time, institutions are evaluating and structuring their research administration staff to meet the growing needs of their investigators in the most effective manner, given the economic environment. What does this mean? Those individuals working in research administration who understand the institutional research environment (academic, academic medicine, research, business) and the forces that shape it, and have skills to help manage that environment will continue to thrive and demonstrate value.

Becoming a Research Administrator

Research Administrator candidates often have a wide range of backgrounds and degrees. Most have some college background, with institutions requiring a Bachelor’s degree or an equivalent amount of experience. Many research administrators have a degree in a financial field such as business or finance; others have degrees that include finance or business along with policy, government or another field of study. There are many English majors, and Science majors who moved into research administration. (My mentor in research administration has a Master’s degree in Library Science, and experience in finance. You can’t hold a candle to her!)

Experience that is required to enter a research administration career:

  • substantial budgeting and financial management as part of one’s work responsibilities
  • work as a consultant, in a retail setting or in customer service for a significant time period
  • any type of work that requires an orientation to detail and checking for quality work product
  • work experience in some setting with investigators, or the sponsored research environment managing awards in some aspect (understanding the role of investigators, managing their grants).

Developing Your Career

So you’ve been working in research administration for a while, and you’ve found your vocation. You want to know how to develop your career. Here’s how to move forward – to develop your knowledge, your network and your career path.

Foster a Cradle-To-Grave Research Administration Skill Set

There are those who are able to develop a career in the area of pre-award or post-award (mostly in central offices) but in my opinion, those careers are becoming more rare. Even central office research administration staff are branching out to department or school level positions which require a full set of grants management skills. Most institutions are realizing that the investigator-centric focus of cradle-to-grave research administration services is also a more efficient use of institutional resources. It’s savvy, smart and good for your career development to have a wide array of skills and abilities to offer your potential employers (but just fine to prefer pre-award over post-award, or vice-versa!)

Find Your Special Skill and Develop It

You know that special skill you’re good at, and everyone comes to you for help? Or the knowledge you have that everyone else thinks is really complicated or hard to learn, and you think it’s super easy and fun? That’s your sweet spot, your special skill. It’s the thing you’re known for. Own it, develop your special skill and dive in deep. Do you work on training grants? Then do everything you can to know EVERYTHING about training grants, every detail, every possible weird thing, so that when someone has a question, you’re the guy to go to. Does administering faculty salary and effort – NMFF clinical commitments, VA appointments, send your heart aflutter? Own it, and be the person in your office that everyone goes to when they need help with research faculty appointments, effort and salary on grants and contracts.

Develop Your Network

Every person that you work with on every project can become a part of your network. This network can help you when you run into a problem and have a question, or can help you identify leads when you find out there is a job opening in another department on campus. Open a LinkedInĀ  account, and when you start corresponding with someone regularly, send them an invite to connect. It’s really helpful, and you would be surprised how many times your network will come through for you! Just be prepared to return the favor.

Identify a Mentor that Can Provide You With the Feedback You Need

Your mentor should be someone who knows you very well, is someone that you trust, and is someone that you are willing to receive honest feedback from on a regular basis. This person is someone who can help assess your “soft skills” – your leadership ability, communication style, ability to guide investigators through difficult decisions – these are key skills to develop and master in order to advance in your research administration career. You need to have a mentor to develop in this area and grow your skills.

Develop a Checklist of Experience that You Want – And Go Get It!

I routinely do this myself – and recommend this highly. Check your organization’s website for the position you’d like to be promoted into, and look on the position description for the experience you don’t have yet. Make a checklist for yourself. (If you need help, meet with your supervisor.) Then, make a plan to get this experience, however long it takes. Make the list as detailed as you need – and check off each item as you accomplish it. It feels great!

Focus on Continuous Quality Improvement – Especially in the Area of Communication

Commit to improving yourself, especially the way you communicate with others. So much of the job is about communication, both in person, in writing and on the phone. We have to be able to understand how we come across to other people, and to realistically assess ourselves, our strengths and weaknesses, and to ask ourselves one question – Am I doing everything I can to provide my colleagues with the information they need to be successful in order to help my investigators conduct their research?

Work As If You’ve Been Promoted – And You Will Be

This is the most important piece of knowledge that may be the most elusive. Organizations promote individuals who are already working at the next level – and demonstrating their skills and knowledge. Studying people who are working at the level that you’d like to be at (the people who you know your boss feels are doing a good job) and understanding what they know and what they do well – meeting with them, and talking to them about their experience – is a good way to map out what’s required to developing your career path.

Attend Local and National Meetings to Learn, Network and Share Your Expertise

In a field where knowledge is always advancing it’s important to continually remain in a learning mode. Attend meetings locally and nationally to network and then share your knowledge – remain in contact with your colleagues and network to share information and your expertise.

Developing Your Career Takes Time

Becoming a research administrator, and developing a research administration career takes hard work, skill, dedication, and many years. It is a profession that is learned through experience, and by working with others in the field. It’s worth the time and effort to build your career carefully and thoughtfully to develop the expertise and knowledge to successfully prepare proposals and administer research grants and contracts in a variety of settings. Seek input, network and spend the time to develop your career – and you’ll be rewarded for years to come.

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