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.

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.

Welcome in the New Year with a Resolution to Practice Relentless Follow Up and Artful Handoffs


Whenever I talk about research administration. I use images of athletes in an Olympic relay. The principal investigator crosses the finish line, but we run our laps with the PI to ensure a clean finish. The metaphor isn’t perfect, but several aspects of it are right on the money.

1. It takes a team to get the baton across the finish line.

2. The work we do has to be done fast, and accurately under pressure. We have to be able to think clearly and to perform at top speed (with a lot of demands on us). The casual observer tends to think that all that takes place is a runner, running fast. However –  the speed, skill, timing, and performance required to perform under these conditions is extraordinary. The contributions of research administrators are often similarly stealth-like.

3. We depend on others to perform well and to do a good job in order to be successful in our work, and others depend on us for their successful performance. Athletes who compete in the Olympic relay are trained to only look forward – and to rely completely on their teammates to deliver the baton in their hand at the right time. They practice the hand-off over and over to ensure it is solid, and a quick takeoff to run the next leg of the race.


Facilitating the process of research administration means keeping on top of follow up. It’s not easy when there are a billion things in progress, but you need to ensure that you’ve done everything possible to get your PI across the finish line, while fostering teamwork and a helpful sense of responsibility.

Practicing Relentless Follow-Up

1. Don’t wait for others to get back to you. The responsibility for follow-up is always on you. (That doesn’t mean calling every hour on the hour – be reasonable. But mark your calendar, and ensure you track your communication to get a response.)

2. Remember that people are busy. Do not be offended if you’re not receiving a response, just reach out to them again.

3. Customize your communication to ensure a response. If you know someone doesn’t read their e-mail right away – call them. Or if their preference is e-mail, do not leave a voice mail message. This creates frustration and may delay a response.

4. Eliminate barriers and facilitate the process of responding to you. Provide your contact information in your communication and ensure the person you are trying to reach knows the best time to contact you. If you want them to sign a form, attach it to the e-mail. If you are asking them about a project they need to look up, provide them with the reference numbers, so they don’t need to search for them.

5. Communicate your message very clearly, and provide the appropriate sense of urgency and direction. Here’s a tip – use a very clear and bold e-mail header (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen PI’s not respond to an e-mail because the header was gobbledygook. Try “Need your response by 5pm Monday 1/7/13.”)

Practicing Artful Hand-offs

Picking up a project in the middle of the process is a little like picking up a great book in the middle of the story and starting to read. What’s just happened? Who are the main characters? Where is the action and The Handoffwhat’s important for me to know?  When you have to learn all of this new information AND meet a deadline, it’s a lot to worry about and and lot of pressure to get right!

Your colleagues have to trust that you’ve done great work! How do you meet their expectations and help them get up to speed quickly? How do you practice artful hand-offs?

1. Do your very best work – by the book. Follow the rules and guidelines for the application you are submitting. Completing a budget in excel? Use formulas instead of hard entering your numbers. Provide detailed references. State your assumptions. Provide a cover memo with the issues and special concerns that the next person will encounter when picking up your project. Help that person step into your shoes and understand how you did the work you did.

2. If you encounter questions or barriers, try not to leave them for the next person to discover. Handle roadblocks as they arise and document your work.

3. Walk a mile in their shoes. If you know – what will the next person need to do with the work you produce? Approve it? Review it? Build on it? Use track changes to indicate how your colleague can build on what you’ve developed. Use an e-mail to help address any concerns or questions they may have in advance of a review for approval.

4. Be available and respond if there are questions. How many times have you received a project or assignment and been completely lost – and not been able to ask the person who produced it one single question? It’s essential to take responsibility for your part in a project until it’s completed, even if your part is out of your hands.

5. Remember – best alone, better together. Work done in teams is a product of people bringing their expertise and experience to a project to accomplish a common goal. Everyone has valid and important contributions to offer – and it’s a process of negotiation – between rules and processes and expertise to bring the project to the finish line. Everyone has an important part to play.

Being a trustworthy and valued team member means delivering solid hand offs when the work is hard and the timing is tight. Developing these relationships in the heat of the deadline is a valued skill, and takes hard work and dedication. But it’s worth it.

There’s always room to improve follow up skills and the artful hand-off – and these are valued skills in every aspect of our work life as research administrators, when we interact with central offices and our investigators. Starting off the New Year with a renewed effort to follow up and hand off more thoughtfully is a wise decision!

Happy New Year!

Which Comes First? Business Administration or Research Administration?


You might think that we’d start off this discussion of research and business administration with a metaphor that has no actual scientific answer – and I’m happy to say that we seem to know which came first. The chicken.

So can we answer the question at hand – business administration or research administration? Which comes first? I think we can.

Research administrators cannot operate successfully in the world of academics and medicine without business administrators first performing their essential responsibilities. It’s that simple. Business administration comes first. It is true that there are complex and close interactions, but at the end of the day, when it comes down to it, in order for research administrators to do their jobs successfully, business administrators first have to do their work well.


  1. Faculty appointments and position funding are the responsibility of business administrators, and managed jointly with research administrators due to their impact on effort reporting and sponsored research compliance.
  2. Business administrators manage department accounts that cover “over the cap” salary cost-sharing, the portion of administrative time that PI’s cannot cover on grants, the funds that are available to cover research staff who are not fully funded on grants. Without business administrators managing department funds successfully (and these days, carefully) investigators could not keep staff employed and research administrators would not be able to manage sponsored projects successfully.
  3. The process of ordering and accepting supplies, equipment and services is a business administration function that impacts sponsored research. Business administration staff often consult with research administration to check on an order placed by a lab tech or a research assistant to make sure that the costs are being allocated correctly, but these business staff are directing the purchasing process in order for the research administration team to later reconcile the purchases with the investigator.

While these processes are intricately related, we know now that – like the chicken and the egg – one is  present before the other. It is also important to realize that, like the chicken and the egg, business administrators and research administrators need to support and work together to ensure a successful outcome.

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.

Hardly eHarmony – Your First Date with a PI

We just finished a very large grant on Friday with an experienced investigator at our institution. It was a three week odyssey of late night phone calls and e-mails. We had never met her or worked with her prior to this project, and to say it was stressful was an understatement. We had a wonderful time working with her, and worked very hard on her behalf. But at the same time that we were putting together an application, and learning the science, we had to learn to work together at top speed, and make very few mistakes in the process.

We pride ourselves on being able to anticipate and stay one step ahead of our investigators’ needs – and it’s a bit harder to do that when you’re learning to work with a new investigator, especially in a situation when both of you are under a bit of pressure.

What do you do, when you’re getting to know a new investigator, and the first project or two you work on is an application or a progress report with a short deadline?

  1. Ask the investigator about their research. Take a moment to have the new PI tell you about their work. It’s important to hear the investigator explain their work in their own words.
  2. Take the initiative – volunteer to take on aspects of the application or the report and ask the PI how often you should check back to share drafts, review work, and ask for input.
  3. Be transparent about your thinking – state that you’d be happy to draft the consultant letter for the PI’s review, state what you think the role of the consultant is on the grant, ask what the PI normally pays consultants, and ask if the PI would prefer to send the letters to the consultants directly or if they would like to be copied on your correspondence. When you are transparent about your thinking you help the PI know how you work and that you will completely address the issues they care about. They don’t have to worry or follow up on the small issues.
  4. Look for subtle cues and hints about their communication preferences – in the environment we work in ( a medical school) we learn clinic schedules quickly, and by the volume of e-mail, you can pick up when an investigator likes to communicate. For this proposal, my investigator’s peak time was 8pm on e-mail. I was always on e-mail at 8pm each night.
  5. Ask questions – what do you need from me? Deliver results, even simple results to build confidence. Addressing low hanging fruit builds confidence that you are the person he or she can trust and it helps the relationship to gel quickly.
  6. Be available as much as possible during crunch times. For the short duration, you’re in it together – and you’re the resource for your PI on this application. Be available as much as you can and you’ve earned the biggest gold star ever.
  7. Smooth out any rough patches with honesty and directness. Learning how to work together quickly is never perfect and snafus are bound to happen – it’s understandable. They are harder to handle because everyone is tired and stressed out. Address them, fix the issue and move on.

What steps have you taken to put a new PI at ease as you’ve jumped into the fray? What worked, and what did you learn? Do tell!