The Path to a Career in Research Administration: Building Upon Existing Skillsets with the Research Administration Certificate Program
Author(s): Kristie McVicar
Despite working alongside researchers in academia for nearly twenty years, I am very new to the Research Administration profession. Like many other research administrators, my path to the profession was not linear – I always knew I wanted to be a part of academic research, but the roles I filled, and research programs I was a part of, varied greatly over the years.
As an undergraduate student, I knew that academic research existed, but I had no idea of all the work occurring behind the scenes of a successful research project. When I was offered a position as a research assistant the summer after my freshman year, it was my first exposure to funding applications, milestone tracking and reporting – the exposure was limited, but it allowed me to gain a very basic understanding of some of the processes involved in academic research. I joined a different research group my second summer and stayed on as a research assistant until I graduated. As the professors I was working with gained new funding and increased their research programs, I felt great satisfaction knowing that in a small way I had helped support their work. Over the following years, I remained a part of academic research, spanning several disciplines and filling various roles from graduate student to project manager.
With each new role came exposure to new situations and development of new skills – one Principal Investigator (PI) introduced me to grant writing and creating a budget, another involved me on a project management committee, and another introduced large-scale multi-year projects with numerous stakeholders. Over time, it became clear that certain skills were key to effectively supporting a research project, including but not limited to time management, communication, problem solving, teamwork, budgeting, and attention to detail. It also became clear that a research project is a group effort – the PI often relies upon support from their own staff, but also their institution’s research and financial offices. As my career progressed, my interaction with staff in these offices increased and it because clear that their role in a successful research program was pivotal.
Deciding on a Career in Research Administration
About one and a half years ago, while evaluating long term career goals, it became clear that I wanted to continue supporting research, but I decided to make a switch from supporting PIs with individual research projects to supporting research at the academic institution level – several different roles in university research offices appealed to me. I enjoyed grant writing (especially when proposals were successful!), creating budgets, reviewing contracts and providing good customer service and support to PIs. I knew that I had a good foundational skillset to work in the research administration field, but wanted to be able to clearly demonstrate this to potential employers, and fill any knowledge gaps in my training and professional development.
My Experience with CARA and the Research Administration Certifice Program
A quick google search of essential skills for research administrators returned a professional association I had never heard of – the Canadian Association of Research Administrators (CARA). It was immediately clear that this association would be an amazing resource to help me further develop my skills as I worked toward the shift in my career. The webinars offered are very informative, conference sessions contain an abundance of job-relevant information, and there are published resources available from others working in the field. When I learned that a certificate in Research Administration was available through Mohawk College and CARA, I was instantly interested in enrolling. Offering education, networking, and mentorship, this program was sure help me achieve my identified career goals, while also demonstrating my commitment to continuing my career in supporting academic research.
While still early on in the program, I am already very pleased with my decision to enroll. My instructor has treated me with respect and understanding as I worked through the coursework while starting a new job. The course has been presented clearly and in easy-to-manage modules, and being able to access learning materials at my own pace has been crucial to completing the requirements while also working full time. Participating in the Research Administration Certificate program has been very a very positive experience so far. In my opinion, the certificate program provides potential research administrators with a competitive advantage when navigating the job market, not only by offering education and professional development, but also demonstrating to employers know that the candidate intends to support research in one capacity or another and is serious about establishing themselves as a professional in the field.
The path to a career in research administration may differ from person to person, but the foundational skillsets are likely similar; completing a certificate in Research Administration will ensure new research administrators acquire all desirable skills regardless of previous experience. Networking, the option to participate in professional mentoring, CARA webinars, and annual conferences are also great opportunities for new research administrators, and foster life-long learning in the profession.