RAAAP: research administration as a profession

Simon Kerridge, Director of Research Services, University of Kent, UK

Published 22 August 2016

I have been a research manager and administrator for the past 22 years and currently lead a team of 25 research administration professionals in the Research Services department at the University of Kent. Research management and administration is a profession that is often difficult to explain to people outside the sector, and sometimes even to those within the sector. What we do is support the research endeavours of our respective institutions, but this is a multi-faceted area, which includes:

  • proposal development
  • finding funding
  • contract negotiation
  • finance management
  • policy interpretation
  • ethics reviews
  • student development
  • systems development

... and the list goes on. We are seen as the experts, providing service, but not being subservient, to our academic colleagues.

Researcher at work

However, it has not always been this way. Twenty-five years ago, ARMA, the now 3,000 strong UK’s professional association of research managers and administrators was just forming. Back then it was a loose association of people that supported researchers, and everyone thought that no one else did a job like them. It felt like you had to turn your hand to anything, be a jack of all trades but master of none.

As the research policy landscape developed, funders started demanding more from the researchers that they funded: more collaboration, more demonstration of impact, more self-assessment, more governance, more transparency… more administrative burden. Institutions have realised that having specialist research administrators is the most effective way forward. This way, academic staff can be freed (as much as possible) from the burdens of, as Anders Forssell would put it in his book The Administration Society, 'amateur' research administration, and concentrate on what they do best: their core activities of teaching and research.

Don’t get me wrong, some academic staff are good – really good – at research administration, but is it a good use of their time? Is it an effective use of resources?

The situation in the USA is very similar, although they are in many ways ahead of the UK, not least in terms of history – and it is not often that you will hear a Brit admitting to that! In the US there are two main associations: the National Council of University Research Administrators (NCURA), and the Society of Research Administrators - International (SRA-I). NCURA is nearly 60 years old and SRA-I a mere 50. And the history of the development of the profession in the US, as described by Beasley in his chapter on The History of Research Administration and in the seminal Research Administration Management book by Kulakowski and Chronister, is akin to that described for the UK – increasing professionalisation and recognition of the value of specialist research administrators. A niche area of expertise had grown into a profession with qualifications available to those wishing to cement their career paths.

It seems likely that those associations now growing in other countries will have similar experiences – but how can we be sure?

To approach an answer to this question, I embarked on a research project with a few international colleagues: Research Administration As A Profession (RAAAP), funded by NCURA (more information can be found on the project website).

The aims of the project are two-fold: to take a snapshot of the profile of research administrators across the globe; and to determine what skills are needed to progress within the profession. The hypothesis being that technical skills are sought after for those wanting to become research managers and administrators, but that in order to 'move up the ladder' softer skills such as communication and cultural and diversity awareness are more sought after. It is hoped that our analysis will enable research administration leaders to develop their staff, and for proactive junior staff to plan their own future.

I lead the project alongside Stephanie Scott (Director of Communications and Outreach at Columbia University, US) and we are helped by an international steering group of Patrice Ajai-Ajagbe from the ACU, Jan Andersen and Susi Poli from EARMA, Janice Besch from ARMS, Cindy Kiel from SRA, and Deborah Zornes from CARA.

We have developed a questionnaire to ask research managers and administrators about their skills, attitudes, job descriptions, years in the profession and educational background. In addition to examining these skills, it asks about how individuals entered the profession and should provide a snapshot of our profession worldwide.

The questionnaire has been sent to the members of 12 associations around the world:

  • ARMA (the UK Association of Research Managers and Administrators)
  • ARMS (the Australasian Research Management Society)
  • BRAMA (the Brazilian Research Administration and Management Association)
  • CARA/ACAAR (the Canadian Association of Research Administrators)
  • EARMA (the European Association of Research Managers and Administrators) 
  • NCURA (the US based National Council of University Research Administrators)
  • NORDP (the US based National Organisation of Research Development Professionals)
  • RMAN-J (the Japanese Research Management association)
  • SARIMA (the Southern African Research and Innovation Managers Association)
  • SRA-I (the US based Society of Research Administrators International)
  • WARIMA (the Western African Research and Innovation Managers Association)
  • and of course ACU!

Take the survey!

Overall, the questionnaire has been sent to approximately 21,000 research management and administration professionals around the world and, at the time of writing, we have well over 2,000 responses – more than enough for very robust statistical analysis.

In terms of the overall picture, we have responses from over 50 countries across more than 20 associations, some of which have sufficient responses for analysis at the group level which will, we hope, provide some interesting comparisons.

The survey closes at the end of August and it will then take a while to analyse these responses and determine what we can conclude with statistical significance. There will also be some qualitative analysis of the free text responses, which are also likely to prove to be insightful.

We hope to report back with the summary analysis in a future issue of Realising Research. We will of course make our full report freely available online, as well as the (anonymous) dataset, should anyone else be interested in using it for their own research. If you can’t wait for the next issue, you can always catch up on progress by browsing the project website.

In the meantime if you have any comments, queries or suggestions then please do contact us. Our details are on the project website.

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