Strategies for Managing Stress and Boosting Brain Bandwidth

ConcentrationNew Behavioral Economics, Cognitive Science and Social Psychology Research Findings Help Research Administrators

If you’ve been a research administrator or financial administrator working in research administration for any length of time, you’ve figured out one thing: the tremendous pull this job has on your concentration and focus. If you’re like the talented team in my office who are performing cradle-to-grave research administration, the orientation to details, double checking formulas and worksheets, and the weight of forms and online data entry, it’s a sea of work. It’s vitally important to develop strategies to manage cognitive overload, so that you can see your work (spot errors before they are entered), think through the logic of your work process (what is required of your application or your financial process – not to perform it on autopilot), and adjust/incorporate new information in the process of managing work.

Common Strategies for Managing Stress and Maintaining Concentration

  1. Taking a break – at least once an hour for 5-10 minutes, away from your computer.
  2. Eating healthy food and snacks during the work day (my office has nuts, granola bars, green tea and popcorn to fuel hungry minds).
  3. Ask for help – reach out and have your colleagues review your work when you develop Excel blindness or are stuck on your application budget.
  4. Facilitate communication and head off surprises so that you can focus on the work at hand.

Mindfulness and Increased Attention

Harvard Social Psychologist Ellen Langer has conducted research for the last four decades on mindfulness in a variety of aspects of human life, including the performance of complex work. Langer defines “mindfulness” as the process of actively noticing new things – being actively engaged in work or life, rather than not thinking about what you are doing when you are doing it. (Think about it – it happens a lot!)

Langer contends that a mindful context for addressing complex work is identifying the best way to apply rules and guidelines given the context of a particular situation. Langer’s definition of mindlessness in complex work is “one size fits all.”

Langer has shown that mindfulness lead to better performance, increased attention, and better outcomes. In one study, she had symphony musicians, who are often bored to death with playing the same music often – play differently. One group was told to play the same as usual. The second group was told to play the same music, but to play it mindfully. It was the same music, but they brought to the performance in small and perhaps imperceptible ways, their own personal touches. However, this group of musicians were paying attention in a new way. And the results showed that this performance was rated higher.

Langer does not like checklists – she believes that they foster mindlessness (unless they trigger us to be mindful).

Strategies for Improving Mindfulness

  • Are there aspects of your work that are repetitive and boring (like reviewing workflow requests for purchasing, etc)? How can you turn these aspects of your job into something mindful, and challenging? Can you improve the process, turn it into a “game” of sorts, make it new?
  • Can you teach an aspect of your job to someone else, and in the process, become mindful of your work?
  • Is there an aspect of your work that you would like to improve (quality control)? Can you find a team member or colleague that has a similar concern and offer to provide proof reading, etc to them if they will do the same for you?

Brain “Bandwidth” – Factors Affecting Cognitive Capacity index

A team of researchers from Harvard and Princeton have conducted studies to define the effect that specific internal thoughts have on our ability to perform daily tasks. More specifically – they wanted to know if types of external and internal thoughts and experiences could distract or disrupt the cognitive capacity of individuals to such a degree that it would affect their educational achievement or work performance. The answer was yes.

Researchers have known for 40 years that external stimulus (loud repetitive noise) can affect cognitive performance. Sendil Mullainathan, a Harvard economist, and Eldar Shafir, a Princeton psychologist have learned through their research studies that scarcity, an internal stimulus, can also affect cognitive bandwidth available for performing work tasks.

What is scarcity? It’s the internal monologue that occurs when an employee is worried about paying bills, an ill family member, or the cost of day care. Scarcity captures the attention of the employee – because it relates to a pressing need – and reduces attention and focus for other tasks, producing what the researchers call less “bandwidth.” They consider bandwidth to include two aspects of mental functioning – cognitive capacity (problem solving) and executive function (attention, planning and judgement).

Interestingly – it’s not just adverse circumstances that affect cognitive bandwidth. Mullainathan and Shafir found that study participants who were dieting also had bandwidth deficits.

BandwidthCultivating Cognitive Bandwidth

Develop plans and processes to manage aspects of life automatically – to free up bandwidth.

  • Sign up for automatic bill payment and an employer’s 401K plan
  • Schedule breaks and develop an exercise plan for health with a friend or personal trainer.
  • Use services to complete your grocery shopping (Peapod, etc) and stock your pantry with nutritious food. Freeze and reheat healthy meals. Have a group of friends over once a month to cook lunches for everyone to take to work (splits the work of cooking and is lots of fun).
  • If your thoughts are taking over at your desk – get up and walk around – give yourself a time limit to worry (2 minutes, 3 minutes)  and go back to your desk with a bottle of water and your mind clear.
  • Create a space at work for you to go if you need to think about something that you are worried about – or – if you need to capture your thoughts, write them down, but create a process or place where you can boundary your worry and provide yourself a space and a time that you feel better and can productively capture your thoughts and feelings in a time frame that is usable. When you get home, you can review the information and put it to work. The idea is to get the information off your mind at work so you can concentrate and feel better.
  • Most importantly – if you are having long term concerns of any kind – there are often programs through the HR office of many universities that can help you address these types of concerns raised here – use them.

In general – if something is distracting you and it’s minor – take care of it. You will be able to work more effectively if you handle what’s on your mind first. If something more significant is on your mind, and you’re having trouble focusing, it’s best to engage your supervisor to develop a plan on how to manage your work in the short term.

We now have proof that there isn’t enough Diet Coke in the world to power through the data we handle on a regular basis. It’s really important to manage our health, get regular sleep, take breaks and to use the processes here to work smarter – our institutions are counting on it.

Preparation Nation: Shut Down Week 3 – What Happens Now?

Fiscal Cliff 2I’m following the latest on the back and forth negotiations in Washington DC on my iPad like a devotee of Scandal (or Breaking Bad for you guys out there). Will they or won’t they? Who is doing what to whom? When will they open the government? Are we going over the cliff? Oh the drama!

It would be entertaining – if it weren’t so high stakes for the scientists doing research around the world. And not just for the graduate student who traveled all the way from Boston to Antarctica and had to travel all the way home again once he got there (because his research project was cancelled during his trip). Scientists are reporting that the shutdown is having a devastating impact on the ability to obtain specimens, recruit participants, and collect and analyze data – which could set back research in a variety of fields from months to years. You can tap in to conversations that researchers are having online on Reddit here. (Note the team that is working at the South Pole!) You can also follow #shutscience on twitter for more stories from scientists who are on experiencing the shutdown’s devastating impact on their work.

The Status of Negotiations

While it appears that Congress and the President are making some headway towards an agreement that will keep us away from the fiscal cliff (and perhaps negotiating a budget to open the government in the meantime) they will need to achieve that in the next three days. If memory serves, this Congress likes to take us to the last second, we’ll see. If you’d like to track the status of discussions in Washington, a few helpful resources include a visual guide to the negotiations; a series of articles on the shutdown and its impact on science, and to remind us what we’ve lost in all of this, a tally of what the shutdown has cost.

The Washington Post has a live update on the negotiations on their website if you can stomach the roller coaster ride.

Resources To Keep Going During The Shutdown

You may have already figured out some quick fixes when the NSF, NIH and other government websites went dark. Google cache is one easy way to find program announcements, RFAs and access to other website pages that are currently unavailable. There are other homegrown websites and links (see resources above) with additional links and documents. While Federal government agencies have stopped accepting applications (you can submit to, but they won’t reach the agency, so most agencies have said not to submit)  preparations for completing grant submissions should continue on schedule.

However, we are learning from NCI Director Howard Varmus just how long it may take for most Federal agencies to come back on-line after the shut down is over.

When the Shutdown is Over

By law, Federal employees had to vacate the premises and leave behind their work computers and devices on the last day of the fiscal year. The shut down was completed within 1/2 day (in reality, I’m sure most agencies saw it coming and were prepared for some time).

Since then, we’ve not heard much, until now, about how the shutdown is affecting agencies and their ability to fund and manage research and how things might work after the shutdown is over. This memo from Harold Varmus gives us a leg up on how we can get ready for questions from our investigators – and as you’d suspect, the news isn’t great. Large and small agencies are going to have a tough time catching up from just a couple of weeks – and as we know, these weeks contained crucial grant and contract deadlines.

We’ll be ready to submit applications, but the systems to accept them will have to be ready for every application, all at once. Grant review meetings will need to be rescheduled as quickly as possible – and all of the missed deadlines and missed meetings will have a cascading effect on upcoming deadlines for every type of extramural application. All of these activities depend on hundreds, if not thousands of faculty and staff altering their plans to participate in rescheduled reviews to bring the process back on-line.

And the longer we’re waiting, the worse the problem becomes.

What Can You Do to Help Your Investigators?

As most program officers are unavailable (they have been furloughed) it’s important to keep up with the latest news in Washington to identify potential impact on your investigator’s research.

  1. Talk to your investigator regularly to determine his/her concerns – a lot of investigators have concerns that are time-dependent. (If the shutdown lasts until X date, I’ll be fine, but if it goes until Y date, this will happen…)
  2. Read academic media to learn what your investigator’s colleagues are doing to cope in the face of the shutdown.
  3. Discuss fiscal strategies for managing research projects given a delayed payment cycle – if you have projects that are in the process of being renewed, how will your investigator manage with his/her current budget?
  4. Investigate available institutional resources, if you’re that fortunate, for these types of situations. Perhaps you can pool institutional resources to care for animals, or share staffing to keep gathering data, etc.
  5. Talk to central offices about what they are hearing regarding the shutdown, and how you can prepare for next steps.
  6. If you find something that was especially effective to assist your investigator in weathering the storm, remember what you did, because you’ll need to do it again in six months!

Remember – expect the worst – and hope for the best, and maybe we’ll end up somewhere in between.

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 LinkedIn  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.

Why E-mail is a Necessary Evil – And What You Can Do About It


Why is e-mail evil? And why is this not just another scribe about how to write e-mails carefully? Because e-mail has replaced many forms of  communication in our everyday professional life, and e-mail has the power to derail the management of an entire sponsored research project if we’re not careful. We’ve given e-mail its power without thinking. We’ve now got to decide to wield this power wisely, and to understand its effects, especially when it has legal and compliance implications. This is true both within our organizations, with subcontractors and with collaborators.


  • An e-mail message reflects as much the intention of the sender – as it does the point of view of the receiver.

This is the biggest minefield of them all. When an e-mail is opened, it can be misconstrued because the receiver is having a bad day or has misunderstood what has been written because of a poor choice of words by the sender. The method of e-mail delivery strips away all personal intent – which is why we have discovered every keyboard use for the emoticon to relate emotional intent with our messages. And still they run astray. (Not to mention what may happen when the sender fires off a hot one without thinking!)

  • People from different cultures, ethnic backgrounds and life experiences use e-mail differently, yet we have few clues for understanding these differences on e-mail.

We have to approach e-mail with an absolutely open mind – because the brightest minds in science and medicine may be the most brief composers, poorest spellers, or English may not be their first language. It would be easy to draw another impression about the type of person we would be assisting from their e-mails. But we cannot.

  • Organizations use e-mail differently and assign different meanings to types of e-mail messages.

Universities and large organizations use e-mail to correspond with collaborators, while smaller community organizations prefer to use e-mail to confirm interactions that have taken place either in person or on the phone. E-mail as a primary form of correspondence can be viewed as a sign of lack of trust, which can affect the relationship if the organization is participating in a sponsored project.

  • People of different age groups have different comfort levels and expectations when communicating on e-mail, and may fail to recognize when using other means of communication is needed to bridge gaps in understanding.

While its important not to generalize, it is common to see entire conversations on e-mail these days. These conversations can take place among the Gen Y crowd, but busy Baby Boomers engage as well. We’re all multitasking. What tends to happen is that misunderstandings and conflicts start to occur online – and no one picks up the phone or calls for a meeting. And the limitations of an online conversation abound, and we have the problem that the misunderstandings with their compliance implications are being documented. Ultimately, this creates more work, all for the “meeting” or “conference call” we were trying to avoid!

  • E-mail is immediate, auditable and can be subpoenaed.

It all comes down to this in the end. Once you push send, you cannot recall an e-mail with information that should not have been distributed. (I have seen people try to do this.) E-mails document decisions and activities within an organization and with our collaborators and subcontractors – every e-mail needs to be thought of like an external broadcast, regardless of who you are actually sending it to.It reflects you and your institution.


This is the necessary part. We all have to use e-mail. It’s a necessary tool in our business communications arsenal. However, we need to be more fully aware of how to use e-mail wisely. We can’t avoid all the problems with e-mail, but we can use it better (analogous to mastering defensive driving on the road):

  1. When contacting someone you don’t know or corresponding with someone new – keep messages short and ensure that you include face to face communication or phone calls. Rely more on e-mail once you understand their “e-mail communication style.”
  2. When you’re working on a  project and you encounter a difficulty with e-mail communication, pick up the phone and call the person instead of e-mailing them back.
  3. Learn e-mail conventions – and notice when people you correspond with don’t use them. It tells you about them and helps you understand more about the people you work with on e-mail. Give everyone you work with on e-mail the benefit of the doubt.
  4. Never ever respond to someone on e-mail in anger. If you’re the least bit frustrated, walk away and come back to the issue later.
  5. If you don’t know how to respond to an e-mail, or if the answer is too complicated and you don’t know how to explain it, that’s a good sign that the information may be sensitive and it probably should be discussed before being written down.
  6. It’s very easy to miss words on a screen when you are reading an e-mail. If you want to make sure you are understanding the information someone has said to you, read it to yourself. Likewise, if you want to make sure that your e-mail is grammatically correct, or written in the best way, read your outgoing e-mail to a colleague before you send it and get feedback.

When you think about it, a quick phone call might be the easiest way to take care of something after all.

This is my boss. Who do you work for?

Dr. Stefania Fatone is an investigator at Northwestern University. She’s a perfect example of the up and coming investigators at Northwestern that are working hard on their science, publishing, and looking toward her next round of funding. Her work focuses on developing a customized  prosthetic or orthotic device for individual patients based on a number of factors she’s identified in her research, to meet the needs of their particular condition or level of ability. Her science is fascinating – and it’s a pleasure to be on the team that’s assisting her to advance her work. Dr. Fatone is my boss.

So is Dr. Steven Gard, Dr. Konrad Kording, Dr. Thomas Schnitzer, Dr. Allen Heinemann, Dr. Keith Gordon, Dr. Rosemary King, Dr. Yeongchi Wu, Matthew Major and Chris Robinson. These are just some of the 126 investigators I work for at Northwestern.

An Investigator-Focused Accountability Model

1. Investigators generate the scientific ideas that drive research funding. When we forget this, and create systems that take investigators away from their primary role, this inhibits them from being successful in managing and obtaining awards. (Current studies show that investigators in a variety of roles spend a third to a half of their time doing routine paperwork!) While investigators should know how to manage their grants and negotiate university policy, they are not required and should not be held accountable for managing the institutional blizzard of electronic and paper documentation that is required to do so to maintain compliance.

2. Investigators often have multiple roles, which are highly valued by the institution. Investigators teach, conduct research and care for patients. For a medical school – these individuals are central to  meeting the mission of the institution. In addition, when they are able to meet their clinical targets, maintain their research commitments and teach students, institutions earn revenue from patients, tuition from students and facilities and administration revenue from research grants – enabling them to afford to continue to meet their mission (and pay staff salaries).

3. Managing research, teaching and clinical responsibilities is difficult. Investigators need to make sure that their clinical commitments are managed in line with their research grants, and that takes knowledge and skill – something an investigator shouldn’t have to worry about alone as their career advances and a research administrator tracks with them.

4. Research projects are more complicated as collaboration is now the norm. Managing an investigator’s effort and salary is now a full time job, which requires monthly check ins and reconciliation with effort reporting. Research administrators are best suited to assist PIs as we are closer to their activities and can assist with a fuller knowledge of their research aims and other commitments.

5. Funding mechanisms are more complicated, and sponsors require more reporting and accountability from recipients of sponsored research funding. Yes, it’s true – the award is made to the institution – but the investigator is the named recipient of the award. He or she is required to know the terms of the award, follow all the rules and requirements and meet the stated aims in order to use the funds and remain eligible for the institution to receive future funding on his or her behalf. If I am protecting and serving the investigator – I am going to ensure the institution’s ability to receive future research funding as well. We take on the burden and keep the scientist informed of this information as their project progresses.

To sum it all up – investigators put the “research” in research administrator. Increasing the ability for investigators to focus on their research in a compliant, efficient and cost-effective framework, is what we do best. I love working with my colleagues in central offices and departments, but ultimately, what we’re all doing is coming together to develop a network to ensure our investigators and their research staff and students have the resources they need to succeed.

So I know what you’re thinking – we don’t work for (on behalf) universities? You bet we do! You’ve heard the saying: “if momma ain’t happy, aint’ nobody happy?” The same is true here. If our investigators aren’t working – research doesn’t happen. We address our institutional needs when we address our investigator’s ability to conduct research under all federal, state and university guidelines. We facilitate the work of creative and intelligent people, within bureaucratic and financial structures, while meeting the needs of both.

It’s a fine line to walk, and a difficult one at times. But I, for one, wouldn’t trade this job and all my bosses, for anything.

What happens when you make a mistake?

I’m re-reading Atul Gawande’s fabulous book The Checklist Manifesto. If you haven’t read it, you need to get a copy. It’s a real page turner. The book discusses the complex work of surgeons, airline pilots, construction workers and others who competently perform their jobs, acknowledging one fact – that a mistake they make can cost a life – even their own. The author strips away the need to assign blame and fault (it’s counterproductive and unhelpful) and outlines a path for understanding why mistakes are made and how to prevent as many of them as possible. Gawande’s prescription, as you can probably guess, is the use of checklists. What you may find interesting, however, is his description of the checklist implementation process in hospitals and other healthcare settings, where nurses and other professionals challenge the physician-centric culture and ask whether a physician has washed her hands, or if he is making the incision in the correct appendage. Great stuff! Shows that it’s hard for all of us to admit we make mistakes. But necessary and life saving.

Research administration is complex work, but it does not have the immediate impact of heart or brain surgery. We are not landing planes, and in this we are fortunate. If we make a mistake, most times we are afforded the luxury of being able to address it and ameliorate its effects. The Management Craft blog has a fantastic post about making mistakes, and how to handle making a mistake as responsibly as possible. What I liked most about this post was the importance of treating others how you’d like to be treated when you make a mistake – which calls to mind the importance of creating an institutional culture which values integrity and honesty. Revealing errors and dealing with them quickly is vital in our profession, in order to maintain the integrity of the research enterprise.

New York Times post highlights the cost of not revealing an error – simply from a business perspective. Can you imagine, from a sponsored research point of view, if a “bag purchase” equivalent were ignored for as long, what the result would be? We need to praise our colleagues for recognizing errors, especially early on, to view them as symptoms to diagnose the systems that need fixing. When we recognize our own mistakes and ask for help, we are creating an organizational culture that values learning, integrity and problem solving. It also gives us the opportunity to share information – so that everyone is updated on new information or a more effective way to address a process or procedure.

In managing sponsored research resources, we realize that our work impacts the careers of our investigators, the safety of research participants, and the ability of our institutions to obtain and conduct sponsored research. The ability of research administrators to successfully – and with integrity – administer sponsored projects is at the heart of an institution’s research program.

Five things you can do right now to create a problem solving workplace:

1. Identify your team mates.

Everyone needs a fresh pair of eyes to check their work or someone to double check their budget before turning it in. Who is on your team? Identify at least one or two more people who will check your work when you are tired, or stressed so that you’ll know those silly mistakes will be caught before you turn your application in to the funder, or your progress report in to the foundation.

2. Admit your faults.

Where are your weak spots? No matter what you do, you always misspell certain words. Or particular formulas in Excel are hard to remember, or whatever it is – name it. Then create a solution that addresses the stress around this problem. Chances are you have repeated “mistakes” (financial, grammatical, etc) around these areas. Can you create a cheat sheet? Can your team mate catch the error? Can you use spell check?

3. Improve your planning.

Mistakes occur when there’s not enough time to budget, write, meet with investigators, heck – fill in the blank. Use your time management skills to guide investigators through the process of applying for grants, completing progress reports, etc. so that there are enough days and hours to get everything done without working until midnight strung out on coffee. (Granted, there’s only so much we can do without mind-control powers, but we can try!)

4. Ask for help.

It’s strange – sometimes, especially with very overpowering investigators, many of us want to sound like we know the answer to everything because it seems like that’s what the investigator wants. It’s ok to say you don’t know, but you’re going to find out. Just say when you’ll follow up and make sure you do it. Then ask for help – and get the answers you need.

5. Change one thing.

Can you see a pattern? Is there one issue that occurs often enough where you can identify a way to address a solution? Looking at the steps that occur in the chain of events that leads up to and after a mistake can help you identify an opportunity to change the outcome. Success is a powerful motivator.

What do you read?

What’s on your Kindle, or your iPad? (Or your night table?)

It’s not just a loaded question for political candidates. Keeping up with developments in the field and incorporating new information into daily work is a requirement for research administrators, and a broad “media” list shows you’re thinking about your role in a strategic way. Resources for research administrators include information streams from agencies, and timely sources of input about how to anticipate changes in the funding environment we work in, as well as how to improve service to investigators.

Of course, we’re always reading and keeping up to date in a rapidly changing field, that seeks to serve scientists who are looking for funding that is becoming harder to find, looking to establish and solidify their careers and to advance their research agenda through alliances and collaboration. We’re uniquely suited to help our investigators identify opportunities and ensure that their proposals best represent their work, especially when we have a solid understanding of their scientific research and the competitive environment that they are working in.

Michelle’s Must-Read Media List

  • Dr. Sally Rockey’s Rock Talk Blog – written by the director of the NIH Office of External Research. There’s always something helpful on this site. I read it on my Google Reader through RSS.
  • GovTrack RSS feed on Congressional Appropriations – when Congress is about to shut down the government and I don’t know if I’m going to be able to submit applications for cycle coming up next week, I watch CNN and track my RSS feed for legislative updates to keep my investigators informed.
  • – Kevin Pho, MD is an uber-blogger who has an empire on Med-Page Today with a following of physicians and other medical professionals who discuss the latest trending topics in research. It’s an interesting perspective to keep up on research and news affecting physicians and investigators in the clinical realm.
  • Speaking of Medicine – Is the leading open access Public Library of Science medical journal that publishes “highly selected papers of relevance to a global audience that address the major biological, environmental, social and political determinants of health.”
  • Stanford Social Innovation Review Blog – SSI Review is a creative resource for managing projects, workflow and resources in a non-profit environment.
  • Harvard Business Review Blog Network – HBR is the go-to resource for management, HR, and career insights, as well as how to manage projects, and people. I recommend a subscription to benefit from the full array of the information available.
  • NCURA: Report on Research Compliance (e-mail subscription service) – is a fantastic, but expensive email subscription that tracks all aspects of Federal government activity on the area of research rulemaking and compliance, as its happening. There are email updates and a monthly newsletter. Definitely worthwhile.
  • RSS feeds for NIH, NSF, and a myriad of foundations and sponsors’ websites – I prefer to receive updates from sponsors via Google Reader, where others may prefer Twitter or Facebook. Check the “news” or updates pages for NIH or NSF to subscribe to just the information you need in the format you prefer.

Reading List

The books below are some of my faves, because they lend insight into the work of physician investigators, their training and education,  and the tremendous complexity and change in the medical/clinical environment (created by research and the health care system itself). When our investigators come up for air to write a research grant, after spending eight hours in the lab, or in the O.R., or in caring for patients, it’s helpful to have some context to think about their experience and the pressures they are facing.

Managing Externally Funded Research Programs: A Guide to Effective Practices – Council on Government Relations

The Checklist Manifesto – Atul Gawande, MD

How Doctors Think – Jerome Groopman, MD

On Doctoring: Stories, Poems and Essays – Edited by Richard Reynolds MD and John Stone, MD

Do We Still Need Doctors? John Lantos, MD

White Coat: Becoming A Doctor at Harvard Medical School – Ellen Lerner Rothman, MD

Mortal Lessons – Richard Selzer, MD

DNA – James D. Watson

Hospital: An Oral History of Cook County Hospital – Sydney Lewis

Science on Trial – Marcia Angell, MD

What’s your favorite regular news source? What book would you recommend to a colleague?