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.

The Fallout from October Has Just Begun: Here’s What You Need to Know

United States Capitol BuildingSHUTDOWN FALLOUT

Congress has opened its doors for business again after a two-week political roller coaster ride. The impact of this legislative hissy fit, however is still being assessed. While the media has focused on the patients in Washington DC that weren’t registered for trials at the NIH (truly a heartache) and the researchers in Antarctica and other extreme climes, research administrators have feverishly worked to meet a crushing load of November application deadlines.

In addition, research administrators and faculty have worked to assess the impact of missed application reviews on previous submissions from the last cycle, and how this will impact the upcoming review schedules. Meetings for 200 review committees scheduled for October at the NIH were canceled during the shutdown, and the impact of rescheduling these meetings (and therefore bumping the schedule of awarding these grants and holding future reviews for the upcoming cycle) is breathtakingly frightening for academic institutions across the country. Fortunately reviewers stepped forward and have volunteered to make time to participate (as institutions like the NIH originally announced revised schedules several months out, causing widespread alarm). NIH reviews are resuming in January instead of May.

NEW PAYMENT MANAGEMENT SYSTEM AT NIH

As if the shutdown didn’t give us enough excitement to manage, we are looking to the new NIH payment images (1)management system which is going into effect as we speak. The new payment management system is a process that accomplishes 2 things. First, it allows the NIH to transition current domestic awards from PMS pooled accounts (type G) to a new type of account called a PMS type G subaccount. Second, it will allow the NIH to award all new grants and contracts as the PMS type G subaccount and allow the agency to administer all awards with new payment management rules.

Starting in November, notices of award will list the type of award (type P or G). To facilitate the transfer process, the NIH will transfer new awards into the new PMS system in FY14 (which has already started. In FY15, the NIH will transfer continuing awards.

hound dogSome changes to the management of awards and closeouts have already taken place, and if you don’t know about them, you should:

1. Depending on your institution’s standard operating procedures, the NIH policy previously afforded additional time for reconciling and closing out the award before completing the annual or final financial report. The new policy requires that awards be ready for closeout at the end of the award period for a prompt production of the annual or final financial report. If your expenses have not hit the proper account when they were supposed to, you will not have enough time to fix it at the end of the budget period or award period.

2. As awards shift from the old to the new payment system, competitive segments will be shortened for one year and new awards will be given new identifiers on the NOA. Get ready for some fancy footwork – tracking and reporting on these awards will be F-U-N.

3. Prepare to bid goodbye to unliquidated obligations from previous award segments/periods. Either encumber funds, and use them, or plan to lose them at the end of the budget period. PERIOD. The new FFR format calls out the unexpended balance from prior project period right up front. (They might as well call it “funds to cut from this project budget”).

4. Automatic carry forward can be requested – but funds are not permitted to be drawn down until they are formally approved and appear on the new NOA. (Read between the lines: carry forward isn’t so automatic anymore.)

These new requirements require a laser focus on direct charging salary to sponsored projects, and encumbering salary and project expenses appropriately to awards. Research administrators need to reconcile projects on a monthly basis to ensure that charges are hitting correctly to have the grants and contracts awarded to their investigators managed to a successful close.

AN END TO SEQUESTRATION?

Congress is talking now about how they will come together in January to pass a budget – and believe it or not, they are talking about adjusting the terms of the sequester. It’s hard to believe that sequestration is back on the table (for more information about sequestration, check out my previous post). Everyone seems to agree that the across-the-board cuts have been a disaster, but, as you can guess, nobody in Congress agrees on a way to restore cuts in a fashion that can be voted on to pass in both the House and the Senate. (Does this sound familiar?) While it would be fantastic to have improvements in sequestration funding, and there appears to be bi-partisan support for doing so, this seems to be linked to passing a budget in January, and if that is the case, I’d put money on the likelihood of another government shutdown.

The DOD would be a likely target for increased funding (relief of sequestration) but its hard to tell how the NSF, NIH, FDA or other agencies would fare given the history of divisiveness that exists.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

  1. Assess your investigators’ research portfolios now; analyze your investigators’ salary and effort plans using the proposed data and effort certified to project out their current commitments if you haven’t already done this.
  2. Analyze the salary and effort of staff in the laboratories or on the projects that your investigators support.
  3. Assess the status of your investigators’ applications, if possible, to know where they are in the pipeline. Create a projection based on likelihood of funding, planned applications and current funding.
  4. Work with faculty and staff to assess potential gaps in funding for your faculty and staff. Begin to plan and request appropriate resources to cover faculty and staff salary and research during any time when the faculty member is not covered by sponsored funding.
  5. Create a budget and plan to support the request, and work with the faculty member and his/her department to request support.
  6. Assess institutional resources available to submit new applications early – should it be that we face additional gridlock in DC. Plan with your investigators to do this, if possible. (Adios, December!)
  7. Keep an eye on DC politics – and hope that this time around it’s not as bad. (Check out these resources from my previous post.)

By using our unique resources and perspective, we can help our institutions support the faculty and staff that are performing research in a wide variety of fields that make our world a better place to live. This is a really tough time, and we need to step up and make it possible for the research community to concentrate on their work – and not on the political struggles in Washington.

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 grants.gov, 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.

Capitol Hill Showdown: What Will October Bring?

preparationI don’t know about you, but when I’m working on an application deadline, I’d like to think about helping my investigator submit a quality application – not whether the government will be open for business to accept the application on the due date.

Unfortunately, it’s mid-September, so that means our elected officials are squabbling again about whether or not they’d like to fund the federal government through the end of the calendar year.

Unfortunately, this political tango has very real consequences for scientific research – both the currently funded kind, and the research in-need-of-support kind. And for this go-around, we have another hurdle to face with an anticipated battle over the definition and scope of the debt ceiling. Our national legislators are seeking to tie this discussion to other mandates, such as reducing or eliminating funding for the Affordable Care Act, or adjusting the terms of sequestration. Regardless of the outcome, the effect is likely to create uncertainty in federal agencies, and if it goes on too long, could lead to belt-tightening.

This drama is likely to play out during the last few days of September, when Congress considers legislation to fund the President’s 2014 budget, or not. For the past 5 years, we have funded the government on continuing resolutions, which are a series of appropriations bills that have passed both houses of Congress and been authorized to fund the nation’s work for a period of time (from weeks to months, to a year). These appropriations bills are sometimes cobbled together and approved in chunks.

After we pass the first hurdle of keeping the government running (and can submit our applications), we must address the debt ceiling hurdle – which has a decision deadline of October 15, after which the Federal government goes into default on its financial obligations, and cannot pay its bills, such as student loans and Social Security checks. There is some discussion that prudent management of the deficit has given the Treasury some wiggle room for the November 1 pay period, but agencies that have “discretionary” payments are already starting to look at the next couple of months and plan for a battle in Washington.

The political environment is even more complicated – a primary election underway in the state of Kentucky has effectively silenced Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as a more moderate force between Democrats and Republicans in the Senate (as was the case during the last debt ceiling debate in 2011). Similarly, House Speaker John Boehner is in a difficult position between a very conservative wing in the House that is attempting to de-fund Obamacare as a condition for raising the debt ceiling and keeping the government open – which if the government shuts down, may cost him his Speakership.

What does this mean for research administrators?

If you are waiting for a non-competing continuation, a subcontract, or a notice of award – don’t hold your breath. Everyone is going to be in a holding pattern until this is sorted out. If your investigator decides to start work, be prepared to open pre-spending accounts, and direct charge expenses (conservatively) until you know what your funding will look like. Encourage your investigators to talk to their program officers and get a read on what’s going on at their funding agency. Monitor activity and costs closely to manage potential cost share commitments until funding comes through. Keep your PI’s and departments updated on developments – and while you’re at it, load up on the antacid.

Buckle up. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Be a Spreadsheet Superhero!

h84236603 YOU CAN BE A SPREADSHEET SUPERHERO.

It’s the heart of every budget – the spreadsheet. How it is written and constructed sets the course, not only of the few weeks it takes to submit the proposal – but of the years it takes to manage the project when it is funded. The spreadsheet starts off innocently enough, as a draft that one or two people (usually the PI and the research administrator) work to edit as the proposal is constructed. Carefully planned and well constructed – this can be a time when decisions are made, and documented to set the life of the project off on the right course. Or…not.

CREATING CALM OR CHAOS IN GOTHAM CITY

It’s quite common to learn research administration from the inside out – that is, you join a project mid-stream, and pick up the documentation that a previous team generated for you to work with. That means that your success in helping to administer the research in a department or division depends on the communication that has been left for you by the previous RA, and the internal budgets you’re responsible to manage. It’s more than just written communication – it’s the budget spreadsheets that allow you to help guide your investigators to make decisions about how their projects will be managed in the coming project period.

IT’S A BIRD…IT’S A PLANE….IT’S….EXACTLY THE ANSWER I WAS LOOKING FOR

So how does one become a spreadsheet superhero? It requires some practice and dedication, and a commitment to consistency – knowing that you’ll be serving your investigators long after you leave your position and move on to your next job if you take on this alter ego.

ATTAINING A SPIDEY-SENSE FOR SPREADSHEET SUCCESS

1. Always use formulas and references when budgeting in Excel. Hard enter numbers only when absolutely necessary. Make your spreadsheets work for you, and your investigators.

2. Ask your colleagues for the best budget spreadsheets out there – and if one doesn’t exist (rest assured it does) create one. Find one that works best for your investigators’ applications and use it consistently. Time and date stamp it. Improve it as you use it for each application.

3. Budget based on institutional base salary. If you don’t know what institutional base salary is for your institution, find out. If your spreadsheet doesn’t start or takes you off course from the IBS at your institution, you will be managing cost-sharing on the award if it is awarded.

4. Try very hard to help your investigators to break the habit of doing their own budgets. You can draft them and let them play with the numbers. Many investigators forget elements of budgets – and others don’t understand why certain costs need to be included. In all cases, they need to focus on the science, and that’s why we’re there, to help with the administrative aspects of the application. It’s hard for them to depend on us. Try to help them learn to depend on you.

5. Check your math. Have a colleague review your budget and justification, just to make sure. These things are often developed very quickly and often under pressure. It’s easy to make transposition errors, etc. Have someone with fresh eyes who has had a bit more sleep take a look at your work.

6. Spend a lot of time on the budget justification. Flesh it out for the PI, to help explain the nature of each expense. Include an explanation of the calculations involved if there is a question about how the funds are to be spent.

7. Include the names of individuals working on the project in your budget spreadsheet – even if they are not included in the official proposal documents. Simple details like this are very helpful when administering salary on funded projects.

8. When creating budget spreadsheets, put yourself in the recipient’s shoes – what does the reviewer need to see? Present the budget with that in mind and keep it clean and tight. Present supporting information in sheets behind the summary page of the workbook, linking totals to the summary page. Crowding everything into one page dilutes the information you are providing and adds to the reviewer’s job. (It can also increase the chance of error and cost-sharing.)

9. Use your spreadsheets consistently – for applications, award management (clinical trial tracking, grants management, contract management, salary and effort management, and reporting to investigators). Create roll up reports to identify areas of concern (projected deficits) and manage no-cost extensions prior to them coming due.

10. Create a shared repository for this information for the investigators you work with, as well as the business administration team and central office staff you interact with. As you maintain these records, they will serve to document the active management of your investigators’ activities, help you manage their awards, and hand off their accounts easily to the next person who steps into your role. And that’s customer service!

It’s not easy to keep up with these types of records, especially when things get busy – but its harder not to – especially when there is a need for the information. Take the time to learn Excel well, and share your knowledge and time with your colleagues. Spend the time to develop the systems and processes to support your investigators and develop the spreadsheets that will serve you – and them well – now and far into the future.

How Many People Does It Take To Allocate An Expense To A Sponsored Project?

ideaWhen Your Office’s Cost Allocation Processes  Resemble the Punchline of that Familiar Joke, it’s Time to Take a Look at Your Decision Methods

We recently had a situation in our office where a question was raised about the method of allocating an allowable supply cost to a sponsored project. The supply cost was $30. The “answer” generated more than one week’s worth of discussion involving the time of eight employees in three different offices. In other words, more than $30 worth of F&A was spent on deciding whether or not it could or should be charged as a direct cost on the award. (It was direct charged, and it should have been, it was the right thing to do.)

You’ve Hammered The Nail Down. How Many More Times Do You Need To Hit It?

This is not a discussion about whether or not we want to be compliant – this is a discussion about the BEST way to be compliant. The reality is, that there is often MORE than one way to allocate costs in a compliant manner, and the fact of the matter is that we can allocate costs as effectively as possible, following all the rules and guidelines provided by the funding agency and OMB circulars – and an auditor can still request to remove the charge for a particular reason on an audit. (They may, or may not be successful.) At the end of the day, we need to realize that we are going to make the best decisions possible, according to policies, decide who is responsible for decision making, and move on. So how do we do this, and how can we avoid the black and white thinking that so often comes along with cost allocation processes – and makes the process so PAINFUL and time consuming?

A Starting Place for Understanding Cost Allocation: Three Questions

1. Who decides if the charge goes on the award, and who reviews/approves this decision?

It’s been my experience that the best cost allocation decisions are made at the department level – they are usually initiated by the investigator, and followed up on by a research administrator, who determines how best to allocate the cost to the award – and confirms this with the investigator. The RA might consult with a central office, but a central office role is usually to review and approve the charge once it is placed on the award, and that’s the appropriate role for the central office. It’s good to make sure we’re charging the award appropriately before we’ve touched it – but the local department knows more about the research and how the award is being conducted. The investigator also knows their program officer’s expectations, and grants management officer’s guidelines about how the award should be spent.

2. What information helps guide the decision making process?

The OMB circulars, the award documentation, and the agency guidance regarding allowable costs, as well as institutional policies and procedures regarding cost allocation. Whew! That’s a lot of information that is sometimes contradictory – so where do you start? The most specific guidance for the award pertains first.

3. What documentation supports the decision, and how is this documentation generated and maintained?

There is nothing WORSE than cost allocation processes that are not consistently followed – think A21. Following processes that document purchasing, and the allocation of costs on awards and document these costs consistently so that administrators can follow your thought processes are vital (everything from always using formulas in Excel spreadsheets to entering in justifications to every computer system that you use to execute financial transactions).

Fundamental Knowledge for Successful Cost Allocation

  • The research administrator needs to know the units for accepting costs (this sounds trivial and simple, but it really is quite important). Are costs to be allocated by project, lab, employee, etc?
  • Roles need to be maintained – it is surprising how often central office staff regularly allocate costs to account codes that are inappropriate or feel that they know best how to allocate costs, when they know little about the research itself or the cost item being allocated.
  • The consistency principle for A21 should be (in my opinion) maintained by research unit – similar types of research. Again, this is something that departments know better than central offices – allocation of expenses for wet labs is going to be different than allocation of expenses for dry labs, or clinical research labs. Explaining this to a central office accountant is important to ensure the correct allocation method for the sponsored research account.
  • Allowability and reasonableness are usually easier terms to work through, based on the award information.

When in Doubt – Double Check and Documentgroup-of-small-business-people

If you have a particularly unusual situation, work with your investigator to talk with your central office, and his or her grants management specialist about the question to receive approval. Document the decision if it is favorable. It’s still no guarantee – but it’s a good indication that it’s an allowable cost. Document all of the justification material and correspondence for future reference.

The Best Defense Is A Good Offense

As always, the investigator is always in the best position to support his or her cost allocations when the budget and budget justification are well developed in the proposal stage, and his or her progress reports, financial reports, and updates are well tracked and presented. Our cost allocation decisions should make sense, and be defensible when we are asked about them by our internal and external auditors. And it shouldn’t take a village to allocate the cost of a $30 item to a sponsored project – because there’s more work to be done!

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.