Careers for Young Scientists in Research Management and Administration


I would not encourage a researcher to go into administration unless they have decided that this is what they want to do. In other words, "taking a post on the Admin side" should not be seen as the easy way out for the postdoc who "cannot find a permanent research position."

Probably most young people who have prepared a Ph.D. fully intended to carry on in research. Some may have had university teaching as their goal. However, apart from academia and research itself (as well as the private sector), there are other careers open to young scientists. In fact, a willingness to explore your chances in a different professional environment can open exciting avenues of personal and professional development.

I have found both research administration and research management very exciting and rewarding, so please let me talk to you for a few moments about the qualities required.

  • Do you have good communication skills--which include the ability to listen effectively and often patiently?

  • Are you able to convey the objectives of complex scientific research projects in clear, easy-to-understand language? You will need to be able to do this when working on proposals or talking to prospective sources of funding or prospective clients of Technology Transfer.

  • Do you enjoy interacting regularly with people? A research administrator certainly cannot go off in a corner and work quietly on his own and over the Internet.

  • Are you self-motivated and prepared to work for people who are intrinsically selfish and ambitious? (Good scientists often are, and this is what makes them successful researchers.)

  • Are you prepared to learn a little about a lot of different fields as opposed to a lot about one specialty?

  • Are you willing to take on as much as you can--to take the load off the researcher and not ask them to fill in forms that you can fill in yourself?

  • How are your skills at organizing meetings, keeping them to the point, and following up on them?

  • Do you have good accounting skills and the ability to develop realistic budgets? Both are very valuable, as is some training in how to create and use Gantt and PERT (Program Evaluation and Review Technique) charts.

  • Are you good at delegating tasks and responsibilities to others? Are you supportive when they run into difficulties?

  • Do you have a clear position on the role of ethics in science?

  • Do you have a gender bias or a tendency to feel uncomfortable when working with people who are not from your own background?

Examining oneself honestly in the light of these and similar factors should be a first step in deciding deliberately whether to go into research administration.

Those of you who at present are full-time researchers, what do you think about changing a white lab coat for a dark suit? Many researchers consider that "flying a desk," as World War II pilots used to disparagingly call accepting a job on the ground instead of in the air, is a sign of scientific failure. There are two reasons why I disagree with this view:

  • First, many top scientists are successful in combining research, albeit limited, with key posts as directors of scientific establishments.

  • Second, both research management and administration can be highly rewarding, both professionally and personally.

Some researchers hope to be able to carry on with their research in their spare time or hope to prepare for a "concurs." This can be a slippery path to dissatisfaction. It would be much better to think out what you want to do in advance. Only go into research administration if you have decided that this is what you want to do--and are therefore prepared to make the effort to acquire the skills that will make you successful--at least for a period of time.

Research management needs people who understand what research is and how you do it. It has been said that whereas a researcher can gain management skills--although these should not be taken for granted--few managers ever gain research skills. If you decide to "fly a desk," you will be faced with several questions:

How do you find a job? Apart from advertisements in journals and newspapers, there are e-mail networks (such as the one operated by EARMA for its members at that provide information on openings. This is especially useful if you would like to seek a job in a different country from the one where you are residing at the moment.

How can a researcher gain management and administration skills? One obvious way is by doing a part-time MBA. At present I am doing one, which should take 3 years, on Technology Management with the U.K.'s Open University. My main motivation for making this investment in time and money is that I hope to take on new and greater responsibilities when I return to the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias in the Canary Islands at the end of my posting to the European Community. Moreover, EARMA is at present pursuing very actively the goal of setting up a European consortium consisting of a small number of outstanding universities and institutes, which will offer a certificate in European Research Administration that may in time become available as part of a specialized MBA program.

In view of the increasing importance of multinational partnerships, research administrators need to know how things are done in other countries. EARMA can complement this, because it has a staff exchange program that can provide you with an opportunity to spend some time working in the administration of a center in another country.

There is a growing appreciation of the increasingly contingent nature of any kind of career. Just because you're good at research (or anything) doesn't mean there will be a job for you in that field. And even if there is, there is no guarantee it will still be there in 5 years. So we ALL need to have multiple capabilities. Researchers should therefore learn from the outset to generalize their skills--appreciate what you can do outside your field by applying what you have learned in it. And acquire the skills that will make your other abilities more portable. In fact, financial literacy is a life skill that is also helpful when running projects. Communication skills are fundamental to being a human being--and make you a better scientist. Being able to manage people makes for better output from any group. Equipping yourself to do something other than research will actually put you in a strong position (because of your experience of research itself) to enter research management if you decide to go down that path.

Acknowledgements: The author wishes to express sincere appreciation for the valuable contributions of Jean Law, Richard Tomlin, Sigurd Lettow, and Sean McCarthy.

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