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University Research Administration: Benefits, Not Bureaucracy


My journey from Ph.D. researcher to academic research manager was one of serendipity. After I finished my Ph.D. in immunology at Queen's University, if you had asked where I expected to be in 2004, I likely would have answered academic or biotechnology industry research. I received a number of postdoctoral fellowships from the Canadian federal government and health charities, and I pursued a research career until 1995, when my colleagues and I identified a novel marker of HIV infection.

Few research options

We patented and licensed this through the University of Toronto's technology-transfer office, Innovations Foundation (IF). Public funding for academic research was in decline; more importantly, the number of tenure-track faculty positions was also declining. I saw few research career options beyond being a grant-supported research associate working for a faculty member. So I joined IF in 1996 as a manager of the life science and biotechnology patent portfolio.

Hanging up my lab coat for a suit and tie opened up a number of career options. These options broadened further when I took an MBA, studying part-time while working at IF. After that, I held positions with the Canadian Arthritis Network (executive director of business development) and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (director of partnerships). In both these positions, I developed and managed partnerships for academic health research involving domestic and international funding partners from the public, private, and voluntary sectors.

My experience in government and academia and my close association with the private and voluntary sectors put me in a unique position to assess career directions. In charting my career trajectory, I found that the most important question to ask was, "What kind of organization would make for a satisfying career choice?" Each sector offers its own challenges and opportunities, and all sectors have rewarding career opportunities. Yet the cultures of these four stakeholder sectors in research--public, private, government, and voluntary--are quite different from each other, and each has its own advantages: flexibility, work-life balance, money, accountability, corporate citizenship, future career opportunities, travel demands and opportunities, and so on.

After a lot of personal reflection, I realized that I needed to belong to an organization that was connected not just to shareholders, but also to a greater social good. I was thus drawn to the academic and voluntary sectors. The voluntary sector is connected directly to populations, animals, and environments at risk. Academic research is curiosity driven, not market driven, and responds to the search for knowledge and understanding in areas as diverse as health, culture, social constructs, astronomy, education, economics, particle physics ... a list of topics as diverse as the human imagination. Education is connected directly to society's future.

In time I chose, and was chosen for, my current position as director of the Office of Research Services (ORS) at York University. As director, I head a group of eight central research administration professionals and work with eight more decentralized, faculty-based research officers who facilitate obtaining external funds for research. Our main tasks include identifying sources of research funding, assisting in the preparation of research proposals (including ethics review), ensuring that complete applications are submitted on time, and coordinating the post-award process.

Our central goal is to participate and succeed in external funding competitions. We have developed three key words that describe what we do and how we will be measured: funding, results, and impact. Research funding drives new research results, which, when connected to users of research, will result in social, economic, and cultural impact.

What is a typical day like at ORS? There is no typical day! Each day I have strategy meetings in which we work to integrate ORS with other aspects of the university and with the external funding environment. Each day I have meetings with faculties and/or departments, investigators, research partners, or research units each seeking funding. Each day I have numerous consultations on active grants, contracts, and applications. Each week I am engaged in discussions with external funding agencies. And each day I answer more than 60 e-mails.

Key skills: time management and diplomacy

The most frustrating part of my day is dealing with the volume and demands on my time. Key skills in this job are an ability to manage and prioritize multiple tasks, time management, and diplomacy ... especially when dealing with faculty who are frustrated by the low success rates in many funding competitions.

The most rewarding part of my day is working with faculty to identify research-funding strategies, and hearing about the diversity and richness of York University's research faculty. Lately I have met with faculty engaged in research on bullying, visual processing, criminology, molecular biology, dance medicine, gender and work, 20th century Canadian social history, labour, the homeless, and many others. Each of these researchers is creating new knowledge and advancing understanding of the world around us. This connection to the growth of our culture, society, and economy is all the motivation I need to face up to the challenges of working in such a dynamic environment.

In the past, many offices like this one have been designed for a grants and contracts process that evolved to serve the tradition of single investigator, single institution model. Today the funding environment is substantially more complex, including partnered, multidisciplinary, multi-institution projects, applications often with funding from multiple sources and sectors. Research administration is developing into a more sophisticated field--research management--with a focus on assisting faculty in managing the fiscal side of their research endeavours, preparing high-quality applications, and translating research results into social, cultural, and economic impact, as well as new funding opportunities.

University research administrators came from many disciplines, via different administrative routes, and had a variety of backgrounds. It is not uncommon now to find many academic research managers with a PhD because knowledge of the funding-and-research cycle is critical to meeting the needs of faculty in an increasingly complex and competitive funding environment.

If you are interested in finding out more about this challenging and rewarding career, contact your local university's research administration office, technology-transfer office, or university-industry liaison office. In addition, you can find more information and many resources through the Canadian Association of University Research Administrators and the Society of Research Administrators International.

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