Working in research administration can certainly be rewarding, but it’s not what you would call a low-stress gig. The Office of Sponsored Projects is a fast-paced, high-pressure environment—and little wonder, given the gauntlet of approval steps that every proposal has to run, prior to submission.
Being a successful research administrator—while maintaining a healthy blood pressure—relies on a number of factors. In an ideal world, you’d start with a supportive and responsive management team. Clear, well-established workflow procedures are essential too. Good proposal management software can, of course, be a lifesaver. But often those factors are out of your control.
Fortunately, there are a few professional habits you can cultivate on your own that have the power to completely transform your workday.
Find a Balance Between Structure and Flexibility
Keeping your schedule and to-do lists organized is a must. However, it’s important not to plan your days so rigidly that there’s no room for the eleventh-hour emergencies that inevitably arise.
The trick to finding the right balance is managing every task starting the minute it hits your inbox. Create email filters to automatically sort your messages and eliminate low-priority clutter. Set reminders and follow-up notifications to keep your plates spinning. And most critically, classify every task and message according to the status of its related project. You want to be able to tell, at a glance, where you stand on any given proposal. That way, if (when) you have to shuffle your priorities to accommodate a last-minute crisis, you can quickly determine which tasks can be back-burnered and which cannot.
For the cost of a handful of hours of setup, these habits can get more time and less stress into your daily life. Just remember to keep these systems up to date, if you want to keep reaping the benefits.
Give Everyone the Time of Day
On many campuses, the Office of Sponsored Projects is thought of as a black hole—an empty, soundless void into which all proposals must be launched, hopefully to be heard from again. Lack of transparency in research administration is a common problem with lots of unpleasant side effects.
Fortunately, the remedy is pretty straightforward: Respond to everyone, right away. This is not (at all!) to suggest you should try to answer everyone’s questions as soon as they email you. But if you reply right away—even if it’s just to say you got their message and you’ll be in touch later in the week—you’ll be amazed how much smoother things will run. With even this minimal level of communication, it suddenly gets easier to keep expectations reasonable and anxieties under control.
On a related note, learn to love your email’s CC field. The more you can keep people in the loop as a proposal or award moves through the approval process, the happier everyone will be. Best of all, you’ll get fewer stressed-out voicemails.
Share with the Class
Sometimes, working in research administration can feel pretty isolated. It’s easy to get buried under your own private mountain of paperwork. Putting in an effort to connect and collaborate with your colleagues, not only makes for a less lonely work environment, but it can also help you, and the entire research admin team, function much more effectively.
There are two big professional advantages to improving your team dynamics. For one thing, if your team communicates well and regularly, then one person’s victory can mean victory for the whole team. Suppose you come up with an ingenious new method for tracking proposal progress. When you share your new solution with your colleagues, the entire office benefits.
The other big plus to an open, supportive team is knowing that you can ask for help when you need it. Cultivate a solid team calendar. Keep in touch about each other’s workloads. Know when you can ask for backup and when you should volunteer to help out.
Organization, communication, teamwork—these aren’t rocket science. But I promise, if you put some time and effort into these aspects of your office life, you’ll see results.
What habits or organizational tricks keep you sane, as a research administrator? We’d love to hear from you in the comments section!