Why Research Administration?

scienceIn the world of available careers, “why research administration?”

It’s been an interesting year for my career. After my PI left for a glorious new job on the California coast, I had a number of job offers—all of which were more glamorous than staying in my departmental role. International travel, exciting new startups, and even ownership in a company that’s 5 minutes from my house. And yet, I’m still here. Why? Because I cannot think of a single thing that is more important in this world than pediatric research.

I know what you’re thinking—if pediatric research is so important to you, then why don’t you become a researcher? In order to fully explain it to you, I’ll have to show you some data—because that’s how we do it over in research.

In the last 25 years, there have been over 50 new research regulations and over 20 revised regulations which have directly impacted the conduct of research under federal grants and contracts, according to the Council on Governmental Relations (COGR). I understand to the non-research mind that doesn’t sound like a lot—only 50 new and 20 revised? But each of the new regulations and restrictions have lead to unimaginable implementation, interpretation, and management kerfuffles (and yes, I said kerfuffle). Frankly, it’s a Christmas miracle that any research gets done at all anywhere, let alone for kids.

Several groups have done studies to look at how all these changes affect the investigators and study teams. Here is a summary of the information from Mark Dutton:

The National Science Board (NSB) published the report Reducing Investigators Administrative Workload for Federally Funded Research in March of 2014 naming the top reported burdens:

  • Financial Management
  • Proposal Preparation and Submission
  • Required Reports – Progress and Others as Required
  • Effort Reporting

Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) published survey results in 2013 in the report Findings of the FASEB Survey on Administrative Burden naming the top burdens:

  • Proposal Preparation and Submission
  • Personnel Management
  • Effort Reporting
  • Financial Tracking and Reporting

Federal Demonstration Partnership (FDP) published the report 2012 Faculty Workload Survey which focused on how faculty conducting research spent their time when focused on their research efforts:

  • 7% on Active Research
  • 4 % on Proposal Preparation
  • 6% on Post-Award Administration
  • 6% on Report Preparation
  • 7% on Pre-Award Administration

As you can see, the percentage of time that faculty spend conducting research vs. doing administrative tasks is a cavernous trench of unproductivity.

That is why I choose research administration—for the kids.

If I can help to close the cavernous trench of unproductivity for my investigators by handling some of the paperwork, that means actual research gets accomplished, cures get found and millions of kids are leading healthier and longer lives.

And in the end, that’s the most important thing.

How to Define Your Personal Core Values and Why it Matters

Hundreds of reports have been released confirming that millennials are more motivated by personal values and aspirations than by career advancement. If this is true, it begs the question-what are your values?

Everyone has heard the quote, “because if we don’t stand for something, we shall fall for anything.” So I ask of you, dear professionals, what is it that you stand for? What are your personal values? Could you name them all?

I was intrigued by the question: Could you name all of the personal core values that you believe in, and would this knowledge alter the way that you approach your work?  And so, as a dutiful and diligent researcher, I spent weeks drafting and redrafting to define the list of core values.

#1: You will need a thesaurus.

The first thing that I found was that it’s nearly impossible to represent a core value with just one word. Words have certain connotations, and you will find that you need to get very specific. In order to truly get to the heart of the issue and understand the emotion or action, you will need to use a group of synonyms. For example, which is better and more meaningful:

  • Eloquence
  • Eloquence, Expressivity, Cleverness, Quickness, Wittiness

#2: Write now, rank later.

It is hard to write down your core values, and even more impossible to write them in the order of importance. It’s like the chicken and the egg question, both family and loyalty are core values–but which comes first? Don’t worry about ranking your core values, just write down as many as you can think of and go from there.

#3: Consider your personality.

If you get stuck, consider taking a personality test online and see what your results are. Often these types of exercises help us to clearly articulate our fuzzy thoughts onto paper.

#4: Put things in categories.

Take a look at your list and begin to place things into broad categories. For example, think of the broad themes such as excellence, integrity, wisdom, beauty, and discovery.

 #5: Refine, edit, and finalize.

Once you have a good solid list and 4-5 categories, go back through and edit everything. Weed out any duplications. Rethink the word useage. Try to rank your categories in order of importance.

Here are some examples to get you started:

Have you taken the time to define your core values? What did you learn about yourself and how did it change the way you approach your work?

Lean “Leader Standard Work” Sheets in Research Administration

Organizations around the world are adopting the Lean and Six Sigma methodologies, and this includes the Leader Standard Work sheet. The Leader Standard Work sheet is a double-sided printed sheet that you carry with you and take notes on throughout the day.

This sheet acts as many things—your daily/weekly/monthly to-do lists, reminder of organizational goals, and coaching notes for your employees. Chances are good that, for better or for worse, you are already doing all of these things in other systems. We all have our to-do lists and upcoming projects reminders. This sheet brings all of those pieces together in a unified format.

The purpose of the Leader Standard Work sheet is to build a framework around your position, improve processes, and to help you become a better leader. If done correctly, you should be able to hand this piece of paper to someone brand new and they would have instant knowledge of what you do. Think of it as preparing notes for your backup when you go on vacation—everything you do is written down in one place.

Unfortunately, the usual template that comes out of the box from your employer usually doesn’t fit the life of a Research Administrator. We have a different sort of daily work that, at times, is inconsistent and 90% variable from day to day. But do not despair, with only a few changes we can turn the standard Leader Standard Work sheet into a useful tool for the world of research leadership.

The most common fields within a Leader Standard Work sheet are generally not applicable to us and what we do. I took the standard form, and created an entirely different form taking inspiration from the Passion Planner, the concept of a bullet journal, and the teachings of the Lean and Six Sigma methodologies.

My Leader Standard Work sheet includes the following fields:

  • Monthly Commitments (i.e., Orientation for new researchers)
  • Weekly Commitments (i.e., Tracking proposal development and education communications)
  • Daily Commitments (i.e., Submissions audit, tomorrow’s meeting agendas, to-do list audit, team rounds)
  • Research Proposal Development & Submissions
  • To-Do List
  • Follow-Up Items
  • Projects/Goals On Base (i.e., working on right now)
  • Projects/Goals On Deck (i.e., working on next)
  • Projects/Goals In the Parking Lot (i.e., working on in the future)
  • Cross-Training and Escalations (i.e., for specific direct-report employees/trainees)
  • Professional Development Goals
  • Good Things That Happened
  • Not-To-Do List (i.e., Do not tell trainees what to do-only ask questions and coach them)
  • Personal To-Do List
  • Space of Infinite Possibility (i.e., Quotes, doodle drawings, anything)

Front Page:

Back Page:

Does your company use the Lean system and the Leader Standard Work sheet? If so, how have you adapted the template to match your needs in research administration?

Creating a File System That Works: The Ultimate Research Administrator’s Guide


Have you ever created something that wasn’t immediately useful for any reason other than to just understand a process better in your mind?

I always think about my brain as a huge cavernous warehouse with giant floor-to-ceiling filing cabinets full of random information. Random papers spewing out of some corners, slowing falling down at random moments. Every now and again, I try to reorganize the filing system of my brain and put things back into perspective. I LOVE to create folder hierarchies to organize complex systems. (I know, it’s crazy and I should probably see someone about this obsession, but it does prove to be useful.) There’s something about putting it all down on paper—organizing every single facet of a detailed process—almost as if you are setting up the filing cabinets in your brain to store and organize all this information. Am I making sense?

So, recently I took it upon myself to try and organize the world of research administration. If you were to make a filing cabinet and folder system for ALL of research administration—what would it look like? There are so many options, so many moving pieces, so many different departments. It’s truly overwhelming how many different ways you could take to organize the folders and categories.

So, let’s start small. Let’s define the boundaries. First, this is designed for (and from the perspective of) the Research Administrator. (So, for the PIs in the audience, this is way too detailed for your needs.) Second, the purpose is simply for information management and comprehensive comprehension. I chose to think of this project as the outline for a book titled, “The Research Administrator’s Bible.”

The Research Administrators Certification Council website was a huge help to me during this process. If you are attempting a similar project, I would recommend checking out their “Body of Knowledge” at:  http://www.cra-cert.org/bodyofknowledge.html.

Now, to get started we have to sketch the biggest buckets of research administration:

  • Research Administration
  • Funding identification
  • Proposal Development and Submission
  • Budget Development
  • Sponsor and Public Interface
  • Legal Requirements
  • Award Management
  • Fiscal Management and Compliance
  • Reporting and Closeout
  • Resources

Yes, I know, there are a MILLION different ways you could categorize this…but we must start somewhere! So now that you have your broadest and biggest buckets, it’s time to take a deeper dive into the tiniest cracks. Now, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that this is in no way a complete list and still needs a lot of work, but here’s what I’ve come up with.

Click here to Download:  The_Research_Administrators_Bible

If perhaps, you’re a weirdo like me and find this useful, let me know in the comments section and tell me how you used it in your work!

Stop Paving the Cow Paths

photo-1454179083322-198bb4daae41As a leader you probably do this every single day without realizing it. I know that I do – it’s called process reengineering. Taking the work instructions and figuring out how we can make it better, leaner, and more productive. Ask yourself every single day: How can we take each of our workflow processes and make them better?

Reengineering strives to break away from the old rules—involves recognizing and rejecting them, and then finding imaginative new ways to accomplish the same work. This reconstructive work cannot be planned or accomplished in small bits—it’s an all-or-nothing proposition with an uncertain result.

If you’re going to dissect the workflow in front of you and build something new and better, you have to go all-in and you have to go whole-heartedly, accepting what you do not know.

Some key principles I’ve found to be true:

  1. Organize around the outcomes, not the tasks.
  2. Have those who use the output of the process, perform the process.
  3. Absorb information-processing work into the real work that produces the information.
  4. Treat geographically dispersed resources as though they were centralized.
  5. Link parallel activities instead of integrating their results.
  6. Put the decision point where the work is performed and build control into the process.
  7. Capture information once and at the source.


Further Reading:

“Reengineering Work: Don’t Automate, Obliterate” by Michael Hammer at https://hbr.org/1990/07/reengineering-work-dont-automate-obliterate

A Leader’s Guide to Just-In-Time Training

When there’s a tight deadline, several things need to happen all at once. And, in a moment of crisis, the two most important things are leadership and education.

You need to know what needs to be done, and you need to know how to get it done.  But all too often, we as leaders focus on the managing more than the education. We hate to delegate—especially in a time of crisis, because we feel we do not have the time to switch into teaching-mode. There simply isn’t time to teach, it just has to get done correctly as soon as possible. But this is a critical mistake because it is that moment when employees need the education most.

Unfortunately, just-in-time training is often most needed when it’s the very hardest to implement. In these moments when anxiety is at its highest, our brains shuts down and it becomes difficult to make cognitive decisions. Anxiety makes it difficult to plan and organize for a long-term project, and yet this is often exactly what we need to do.

I’ve done a lot of reading on just-in-time training, and here’s what I have found.

There are basically six teaching modes depending on the situation and what you’re trying to accomplish, and they can be broken down into three main categories: competence (how to do something), character (way of being), and technique (way of doing.) All three of these can be broken down further two separate teaching styles, for a total of six ways to approach education with an employee:  training, coaching, encouraging, mentoring, performing, or managing based on the problem.

Competence (How to Do):

Training is the most basic stage where you give fundamental and technical background, this is what we most often think of as training—a crowded room with a PowerPoint show.

Coaching is more of an interactive experience where the employee is given space and room to come up with their own solutions.

Character (Way of Being):

Encouraging an employee is when you give them tools to build constructive workplace habits and practices.

Mentoring takes it a step further and you’re helping to develop an employee’s career path.

Technique (Way of Doing):

Performing is when  you’re giving instruction to complete a specific task. This is closer to true “just-in-time” education and will based on the leader’s ability to provide knowledge soon enough that the employee can apply it successfully, but late enough that the employee doesn’t need a full-blown training session.

Managing, is truly the heart of “just-in-time” and is focused solely on performingand not on knowing which, for most of us, goes against our nature.

The next time that you’re facing an educational moment, pause to think about what approach best fits the situation. Do you need to impart knowledge? Or simply get a task done within the next hour? Undersanding your teaching style and the many options available helps you to become a stronger leader and mentor to your employees.

For additional reading, I recommend Dr. John Kenworthy’s article “What’s the difference between coaching, mentoring, and counselling? at: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/whats-difference-between-coaching-mentoring-dr-john-kenworthy?trk=hp-feed-article-title-share

Is my Masters Degree Worthless?

From the end of the tunnel standing in the clear sunshine of graduation, the educational system seems broken.

When I look back on the past 19 years of my education, the lessons that I remember the most are the classes which taught me how to interact with the world and the people around me—to truly appreciate differences, to recognize brilliant inspiration, and to trust my intuition. And yet, not a single course on this cardstock transcript is named “Curiosity 101” or “Trust your Gut.”

In preparation for a recent interview, I contemplated the inevitable question “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” And my answers were not formed in a classroom. I have a knack for identifying other’s motives and defusing a conflict before anyone else even notices what’s happening. I crave creativity and will act with imagination and conviction. I will use my intuition to understand the goal, to see it from every possible angle, and zoom down to the relevant (or irrelevant) details to better understand the path to success. My weaknesses? I’m rarely at complete peace with myself—as a perfectionist, I always think there’s a better way, a better state, a better option down the road.

When I look at these answers, I cannot help but wonder if my 19 years of education contributed more to my weakness than to my strengths. And, to me this is a tragic, terrible conclusion. The educational system was created with the intent to impart wisdom, knowledge, and to prepare our youngest citizens for a worthy and contributive life as Americans. And yet, today’s Bachelor’s degree has become a perfunctory requirement that amounts to four years spent without energy or enthusiasm because it is expected.

America houses some of the most brilliant minds in existence today, and so I ask you: How can we turn homework reports and assignments into creative fodder for Science or Nature magazine? How can we fix a broken educational system? How can we reshape expectations?

How can we fix what we have broken?