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Research Program Management: Much More Than Paper-Pushing


WASHINGTON, D.C.--When people ask me why I left the lab for a position managing a grants program, I tell them honestly: cutting cryostat sections drove me to it. My enthusiasm for scientific discovery was significantly tempered by the daily grind of repeating protocols, surgeries, and experiments, and by my second postdoctoral fellowship, I was fairly certain I did not want to pursue a career in academic research. It then took me nearly a year to explore other job possibilities in my geographic area. The search involved a great deal of Web surfing and a large number of informational interviews with scientists and some nonscientists who held policy and administration positions in biomedical research. Finally, I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time, and I learned about an open position through one of the individuals I had "interviewed."

In my current job as director of research and education at the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA), I am involved in a wide range of activities. On paper, my primary duty is to manage PVA's Spinal Cord Research Foundation, a small, private, nonprofit organization that funds grants in--no surprise--spinal cord research. Since my background was in the plasticity of the damaged nervous system, and I had recently finished a postdoctoral fellowship in spinal cord repair, this position was a perfect match for my research background. Nevertheless, I was still hesitant. Although I was looking to leave behind the tedium that can characterize research protocols, I didn't have a practical sense of whether an administrative position would be any better.

While I will admit it took some time to become accustomed to the different pace of life outside the lab, I find my present position much more challenging and rewarding than my years spent in the lab. Perhaps this is because I never reached the point at which I was directing my own research group. I prefer to think it is because I enjoy learning about the work that is taking place simultaneously in many different laboratories, rather than focusing on one highly specialized research topic.

One of my favorite parts of the job is helping grant applicants. Depending upon the time of year, I can spend a great deal of time on a number of different grant-related tasks: counseling potential grant applicants on the suitability of their project for our agency, reviewing and abstracting current grant applications, helping my staff locate appropriate grant reviewers, assisting previous applicants in revising their proposals for resubmission, and reviewing progress reports of current grantees. These activities are particularly rewarding when I can assist an applicant or grantee in improving their proposal or the research they are conducting.

As my grants management duties are only part of my job, the rest of my time is spent on a number of other activities. These range from working with PVA's government relations staff on legislative issues that impact biomedical and neuroscience research, to writing lay articles on the progress in spinal cord research and fielding phone calls from members of the public who have questions about advances in the field. I also try to attend as many professional meetings in my field as possible, both to publicize our funding program and to keep myself abreast of developments in the field.

Thus, a typical day might include a few hours of grant-related activities, a legislative hearing on a biomedical research issue, an hour or two of writing articles or reports (for either the PVA leadership or an outside audience), and perhaps another hour or so responding to e-mails and phone calls from potential applicants and the public. I also spend some time each day on management, staff, and budget issues that arise within my office.

The two skills that are absolutely necessary in my position are a high level of organization and the ability to juggle multiple projects and multiple deadlines. My specific position also requires the ability to interact well with people with many different levels of education--from lay people to scientific experts. Similarly, the ability to write about technical or scientific topics for a variety of audiences is also a very helpful skill.

Although these abilities would be beneficial to have for most jobs in grants administration, the skills necessary for specific grants manager positions probably vary considerably from organization to organization. For example, the grants administrators for the National Institutes of Health are more specialized, i.e., one group of administrators manages the scientific review process, other administrators plan programmatic activities for the various institutes, and a third group of individuals handles the often controversial science policy issues.

An additional requirement of many administrative or management positions is the ability to handle personnel and budget issues. In the laboratory, I was never in charge of more than one other individual--typically an undergraduate research assistant. I have found that one of the most difficult and challenging aspects of my position is the supervision of a larger staff and a budget in the millions of dollars. I am learning as I go, but I was definitely unprepared for this aspect of the position.

It is no secret that many scientists--and nonscientists--think of administrators as simply "paper-pushers." It is true that I handle (and recycle) a lot more paper these days than I ever did standing at the lab bench. But I find helping our small organization make the best use of its funding dollars, and stimulating an interest in spinal cord research within scientific circles, PVA, and the public, a challenging and rewarding experience.

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