Why I Chose to Pursue a Certificate in Research Administration

Megan Vanstone, Saskatchewan Cancer Agency

One thing I’ve always found deeply humbling in science is that the more we learn, the more we realize we don’t know. Every answer leads to more questions. The more specialized you become in a given discipline, the more complex you realize that discipline can be. My time in Research Administration has been no different. I feel like every chance I have to learn a new component of the field, the more appreciation I gain for how complicated it can be. Many institutions and funding agencies have placed a more recent emphasis on developing research partnerships. While this can certainly strengthen the quality of a research project, it can also pose difficult challenges for administering that research. When multiple institutions are involved, how do we appropriately assign risk? How do we distribute resources? Who covers the cost? To what extent do each of the partner institutions’ policies, regulations, and local laws apply? Collaborative research is so important for the advancement of knowledge; the challenge is in ensuring that our administrative processes can keep up.

                I’ve had the advantage of wearing many different hats so far in my career. I’ve been involved in grant management, research accounting, operational review, and policy development. Recently, I’ve carved out more of a niche in contract management. I think my diverse background has allowed me to gain a better understanding for how they’re all connected, and how one of the most challenging aspects in research administration is working together to ensure that our processes align. It’s not as simple as reviewing a Clinical Trial Agreement and assessing the legal implications for the institution. You have to understand the practical component of how you’ll deliver on the obligations imposed by the other party. This may require an understanding of funds management to ensure that the institution has the appropriate financial controls in place to administer the funds appropriately and meet reporting obligations; it may require an understanding of research ethics so that we can ensure that nothing being agreed-to in the contract opposes our duty to perform ethical research according to institution-specific, region-specific, national, or international standards; it may require an understanding of operations in order to ensure that the resource implications of the contract are available and appropriate; and it requires an assessment of the risk versus benefit for site-specific participation.

                This is why I’ve chosen to pursue a certificate in Research Administration. Despite working for almost a decade in this field, I feel like I’ve become even more aware of the gaps in my knowledge. It’s not enough to understand one component of research administration. In order to do our jobs effectively, we need to understand how the role that we play and the work that we do impacts the overall ability of the research project to proceed efficiently, effectively, and in compliance with all of the applicable regulations, contractual obligations, and institutional processes. The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know. But I want to know. I want to be able to improve my effectiveness in my job. I want to be able to contribute to improved research infrastructure. I believe that the way that we do that is to learn everything there is to know about this discipline, to evaluate the gaps in our knowledge, and then to focus our efforts on filling those gaps. We work in a field where people have spent a significant amount of time pursuing academics. We are valued for our knowledge. This can make it difficult to admit the limits of our understanding. We’re sometimes reluctant to admit that we don’t know. But it’s ok that we don’t always know the best way forward. Isn’t that why we chose careers based in academia to begin with? It’s the pursuit of knowledge that forms our passion, not the idea that we already know it all. Similar to the researchers that we support, if those of us working in research administration all took a bit of time to acknowledge how little we actually know, then dedicated the time to accessing resources to expand our knowledge base, I think we could all do our jobs more effectively. That’s my plan anyway!