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Research Program Management: Life as an NSERC Program Manager


OTTAWA--NSERC (the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council) is the federal government agency responsible for promoting and supporting research in the natural sciences and engineering in Canada. We do this in a number of ways, mainly by awarding scholarships and research grants through peer-reviewed competitions, but also by building partnerships among universities, colleges, governments, and the private sector.

About 200 employees work at NSERC, and like many other large and medium-sized organizations, we started moving to a team-based structure several years ago. There are three main divisions at NSERC that deliver our grant and scholarships programs, and I am one of two team leaders in the Scholarships division.

I manage a small group of nine employees, which includes five program officers and four program assistants. The largest program we deal with is our postgraduate scholarships and fellowships program, where we receive about 3000 applications each year, and award about 1500 scholarships and 200 postdoctoral fellowships. My team also handles an international fellowship program, an industrial postgraduate scholarship program, and another through which Ph.D.s apply to do a postdoc in a government lab.

Each member of the team has their own distinct set of tasks and responsibilities, with each program officer assigned one or more programs that they are expected to manage, and on which they report to me. Team members do work independently, but there are by necessity areas of overlapping responsibility, and each member of the team is expected to be familiar with all the programs in our portfolio.

My role as team leader is to make sure that all of the team's duties are carried out as effectively and efficiently as possible, and to provide the team with the support and tools they need to do their work. This means I wear many different hats as coach, mentor, arbiter, father-confessor, editor, human resources consultant, and go-between with staff and management. It also often means fending off other demands on their time, usually for projects and assignments not directly related to our program delivery.

I would describe a typical workday if I could, but I'm not sure what a typical day would look like. Each day starts by answering my voice and e-mail messages, and this can take up to a couple of hours some days. Like most people, I feel like I spend too much time in meetings, but given the number of issues we deal with, and the number of people that are involved in the process, most of these are unavoidable.

We don't usually hear from students until they have a problem, either with their application or their award. The program officers and assistants deal with the most routine of these, and I usually only have to deal with complex cases, which are always more interesting. Nobody wants to hear that they're not allowed to apply for a scholarship, that they didn't get an award, or that there are restrictions placed on what they can do with their award. For the most part, these are Canada's best and brightest students, and many have not yet experienced this sort of rejection in their academic careers. I try to be as flexible and fair as I can, like allowing a 2-year-old, faxed copy of transcripts from a Serbian university, because the university cannot produce or mail an updated version. Or letting a student interrupt his scholarship for 8 months, instead of the usual 4, so he can take a research position with a company in his field. Or accepting an application 3 weeks after our deadline because a courier company lost the package.

Staffing seems to take up a pretty big chunk of my time as well. I regularly sit on interview boards, either to fill a vacancy on my team or to help out with another team leader's recruiting. Program officers have to be bright, adaptable, scientifically literate, able to work under pressure, and play well with others. This type of person is not always easy to find, and they also tend be in high demand, and therefore more mobile.

The best part of my job is when I get to leave the office and go out and interact with those in the research community we serve. We do an annual pilgrimage out to the universities each fall to speak to as many students, administrators, and researchers as we can, both to tell them about our programs and to find out what is going on, and where we should be going.

I ended up at NSERC by accident, and I am still here 13 years after starting out on a temporary assignment. I like my job because it's challenging and interesting, and although I am not directly involved in science and research, I still feel like I'm contributing to the cause.

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