If I were to suggest that research administration is an unusually complex field, I doubt I’d hear much argument. Just look at the bewildering array of stakeholders the Office of Sponsored Research must answer to. Researchers, the institution itself, funding agencies of all stripes, compliance offices, professional organizations, third-party watchdogs—the list goes on. With that many moving parts—any one of them liable to change at any moment—it often feels like it would take a miracle to stay on top of everything.
These days, in our We’ve Got An App For That world, we’re well accustomed to technology promising us miracles. But when it comes to staying afloat on the ever-shifting seas of research administration, success relies not on computers but on community.
Which is not to say that computers are useless in the fight to keep up. No doubt there are many electronic resources that you use on a daily basis. There’s Google, for starters. Plus, some software tools (like a certain eRA solution I could name) will keep you automatically updated on opportunity revisions. Research administration circulars, newsletters and listservs abound, ready to fill up your inbox. But while these resources are important, they also amount to a firehose of information—sometimes more overwhelming than helpful.
Miracles notwithstanding, the best way to successfully wade through the deluge is to engage with the research community as much as you can. To do that, we recommend the following:
Attend conferences. In addition to the annual NCURA and SRA conferences, look up regional and user group meetings geared towards research administrators. Make sure you’re not a passive attendee at these events. Go with a gameplan—three sessions you can’t miss, five people whose brains you want to pick, two questions to which you’re determined to get answers. Interacting with the community face-to-face is an invaluable way to start building relationships and, simultaneously, a support network.
Participate in conversations. Panel discussions, workshops and listservs are all excellent ways to connect with peers. Take note—even though listservs may seem a bit impersonal at first, don’t discount them as a legitimate avenue for building relationships. Don’t hesitate to ask—and answer!—questions. The more people you get to know via the listserv, the more people you have to hang out with at conferences.
Call people. You know, like with a phone. I’m always impressed by how quick and easy it is to just pick up the phone to ask your questions of the relevant program or grant officer. In my experience, not only do these folks really appreciate phone calls, but you also come away from the exchange with your answers and what could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Build your on-campus community. Don’t overlook the value of your home office. If some of your staff goes to a conference or training, organize a venue for them to present on something they learned when they come back. If you have a Research Development office on campus, reach out and organize joint events. The more you can do to cultivate strong, communicative support structure at home, the better equipped you’ll be to handle the wider research world.
Full disclosure? No amount of community-building will make research administration easy. But good relationships within the community—whether you’re tapping them for help or just commiseration—can definitely ease the burden of putting out fires for a living.
What’s your favorite story about the research administration community helping each other out? Share with us in the comments section below.