Are academics good (research) administrators?

MurielSwijghuisen-smDr Muriel E Swijghuisen Reigersberg is a visiting fellow at the Music, Mind and Brain Centre, Psychology Department, Goldsmiths’, University of London.

She has a doctorate in applied ethnomusicology focussing on Australian Aboriginal choral singing. Her current research looks at the relationship between music, health and wellbeing from an ethnomusicological, cross-cultural perspective.

Muriel is also a research development officer and occasional acting head of research office at Goldsmiths’, University of London. In this capacity, she oversees the University’s UK grants portfolio, sits on the University ethics committee as a full member, and works on the implementation of the UK government’s open access mandates (among a great many other things). She is on Twitter as @murielSR.


Now, there’s a question.

Being both an academic with a doctorate who still conducts her own research whilst holding down a successful post in research administration, I might be qualified to offer a perspective.

My career trajectory also provides an immediate answer to this question, which is: ‘Yes, academics can be good (research) administrators.’

In my experience, however, academics are not all good at research administration. The reasons for this vary from a general antipathy towards engaging with what is seen to be a form of oppression and managerialism to a genuine personal inability to deal with bureaucracy.

Let’s face it: some people are just terrible at paperwork. And being terrible at paperwork tends to have very little to do with whether you are an academic or not. It’s a personality trait.

In my 09:00-17:00 administrative world, I have often come across the suggestion that ‘our academics’ (sometimes you’d think they are a different species altogether) are incapable of filling in forms accurately and in a timely fashion. Why might this be, I then wonder? I seem to manage form-filling quite well, despite my academic handicap.

Another vague and somewhat circular argument that’s put forward is that academics should not be expected to engage with administration because of their brilliant academic status. Being a Dutch social scientist based in the UK, I question whether the British class system is responsible for such attitudes here. When I spend time with my academic peers at conferences and other such events, I am regaled with tales of woe recounting the oppression, ignorance, and administrative managerialism they face. The usual culprits responsible for causing this lamentable hardship are ‘the University’ or ‘Central Services’ – whoever, or whatever, they are. The world of administration seems to be a faceless mystery to many academics.

To demystify this world a bit – my world of being an academic and administrator – I’d like to offer a more nuanced perspective.

The image and identity of ‘the academic’ has been grossly (and willingly in some cases) over-romanticised and reified of late, despite what some, usually older, colleagues in both the administrative and academic professions might think.

Scholars these days definitely don’t sit in ivory towers among fluffy clouds contemplating their subject materials, immune to the daily grind of the world below (if they ever were). The lack of job opportunities, cut-throat academic career trajectory, tenure track system, student feedback, league tables, and national research excellence frameworks introduced by governments means that many academics work far more than their contracted hours and suffer from stress and job insecurity.

Whereas the corporate world might reward such commitment and overtime with excellent pay and other perks, no such benefits are forthcoming in academia (certainly not in the UK [nor in Australia! ^@tseenster]).

Higher education and a lot of research activity are still funded by the public purse and, as such, universities and national funding bodies have a responsibility to offer the tax payer transparency, quality, and value for money. Academic workloads have also increased exponentially.

For the average academic, the expectation is that they engage in teaching, marking, knowledge exchange, research, and…administration. Loads of it.

Riding to the rescue comes the (research) administrator: In the UK, and from what I gather elsewhere in the world as well, governments have been keen to introduce measures that help justify public (and other) expenditure, as well as strategies that allow for the measuring in some quantifiable form, research productivity, quality, and more recently research impact and public engagement.

This fixation on transparency, Big Data, quality assurance, and impact has meant a rather large amount of additional reporting, paperwork and administration for any university.

Research administration, as a result, is forever becoming more complex. Due to this increasing complexity and volume, it is now possible to get qualifications in research administration. In the UK, for example, the Association for Research Managers and Administrators (ARMA) has introduced a qualification in research management.**

At the same time, many higher education institutions are beginning to realise that in order to be research intensive it is imperative they invest in both academic research capacity, as well as suitably qualified research administrative staff. After all, who else will have the expertise and capacity to process the buckets of paperwork that are necessary to evidence compliance with new government regulations and legislation? Given their workloads, it’s not academic staff, that much I know from experience.

So, engagement with administration often has very little to do with administrative talent: it tends to be a question of time, resources, and delegation, as well as areas of expertise.

Suitably qualified research administrators have expertise to share that can help academic research endeavours tremendously, if applied well.

As an administrator, my main role is to assist my colleagues in ensuring that at the grant application stage I foresee and deal with any and all practical hurdles they might encounter before these problems occur. This means that once the researcher gets the grant, they can happily begin their research without having to retrospectively deal with budget deficits, methodological problems, or contractual skirmishes. They’ll be able to deliver excellent research outcomes in an ethically robust way. My role requires an extensive knowledge of:

  • funding body application guidelines and reporting requirements;
  • numerous electronic application submission systems; and
  • contract management and grant writing techniques.

In addition, (research) administrators can help with ethical clearance; intellectual property and copy right management; data protection and management issues, and other issues. A good research administrator should be a facilitator and professional equal, not an unquestioning servant or dictator.

What better person to undertake such a task than someone who is also a researcher themselves, and has an enthusiasm for (and understanding of) research and the academic enterprise?

This brings me to my final point:

From where I am sitting (perched on the uncomfortable fence between academia/administration), this social and perceptual division between administrative and academic job remits and identities is artificial and unhelpful.

Nowadays, many well-qualified early career researchers are choosing research administration as a career option or alternative to the cut-throat, unstable world of the academe. They are extremely capable of supporting research activities and some, like myself, are still active researchers in their own right. They have the skills, intelligence and empathy to contribute significantly to the success of research activities.

Similarly, many senior academics such as pro-wardens and heads of department are also administrators, whether they like it or not. They manage people, departmental budgets, and grants. They also report on, facilitate, and monitor research activities within their university.

In addition, many funding bodies expect principal investigators to be the person responsible for grant management, too.

So, who are we kidding? To be successful in their careers, academics nowadays have to be good administrators.

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** Similarly, the Australasian Research Management Society (ARMS) has recently implemented an accreditation process.

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One Response to Are academics good (research) administrators?

  1. Koren says:

    Hey there, I came across your blog and read the post above… a very interesting read. I am a languages (Italian & TESOL) secondary teacher in WA struggling to get a regular gig, doing my MEd part time (coursework TESOL, having done a couple of research units). I’m looking into applying for an entry level part time research administration position here at a local uni, could you give me any tips on doing my application..?. Do many people move into Research Admin from the humanities? I like the sound of it – having some project work elements. Am I right? I figure if I am successful it maybe what I’m looking for now with two kids (8 yo and 2yo). I have worked previously in social/youth work policy, but I’ve never really heard that much about research administration as a career..

    Like

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