Research administration requires a balance of interpersonal skills and organizational skills. Attention to detail and time management skills are invaluable when working as a research administrator, as is the ability to build strong relationships and communicate effectively across disparate teams.
Depending on your area of expertise, many paths can lead to becoming a research administrator. Angela White-Jones, the program director for UCF Online’s Master’s in Research Administration program, shares her journey from grant writer to research administrator and how she’s translated that experience into her classes in the research administration program at UCF.
Did you know you wanted to pursue a career in grant writing and grant management?
When I first started my master’s program, I intended to go into research or government affairs and public policy drafting policy measures, getting legislation through — that was my primary interest at the time. I took a grant class and was working for the Bureau of Early Intervention Services with the state of Ohio. We had a program called Help Me Grow, which provided early intervention-related services for children from birth to three years old and their families.
We were trying to get our ascertained funding for the program, and my bosses at the time knew that I was taking a grant writing class. It started with my bosses finding out that I was taking that class, and then they were like, “Hey, can you come and help us with this because we don’t have any idea about grants or grant writing?” That’s how I fell into grant writing — I happened to be taking the course.
At the time, I think grants were still a bit nebulous, and people only knew them as something where you would just sit down at your computer, type it out, send it off and see what people would say. Grant writing has grown so much as a profession since then, whether it’s through sponsored projects, which is what we work on in research administration, or if it’s through the traditional fundraising methods, nonprofits and nonprofit management. So, no, I didn’t initially intend to be involved in grants.
After that first start, what made you want to continue a career in grant writing?
I think truth be told, I still wasn’t sold on grant writing. I liked what I did as far as helping people and enabling services to be provided for those who needed them. Helping people was what I was drawn to, but even after I graduated, I wanted to go into more government relations type of work. When I got my first job after my master’s, it was in advisory services with KPMG— that’s essentially consulting work — and in our group, it was with the state and local governments and nonprofit areas. Many of our clients were cities and counties and municipalities, or maybe people serving the public good.
I always wanted to work in and for the public good, but I was doing more consulting work right after finishing my master’s program. I had a bit of a brief detour working in crisis communications and management before I landed at a place where I could hone those grant skills. I found an opportunity with the Dr. Phillips Center for Performing Arts to manage grants, and that part of my career kind of took off from there.
What was the pathway from being more generalized to being more specialized in grant and contract management?
It was that particular position with the Dr. Phillips Center for Performing Arts. I think what I liked about that role was that it was a direct provision; the money went directly to help people.
I always wanted to go into public service and to help people. I wanted to feel like my work meant something — that I wasn’t just a cog in the machine and I wasn’t just going to work every day.
When I got into contracting, I think that satisfied more of my draw to the government relations side of things. At that time, getting into contracts was kind of my way to facilitate what I like to do in that arena because I still had a fascination with how you could put together contracts and terminologies regarding that, reading it and ensuring that everything was in proper order and identifying any loopholes. I even loved the negotiation aspect of contracts, that fed me in a different way than even grants, whether it was writing them or managing those as well.
What were some of the challenges that you faced throughout your career?
There are a lot of do’s and don’ts when it comes to great writing, contract administration, grant administration and monitoring these processes, depending on what angle you’re looking at.
I probably found the most challenges when I was younger in the field, especially as a grant writer with the explicit purpose of fundraising. When I first started to do it, we were going through a recession. My task was to engage in grants for a capital campaign — capital campaigns are designed to gather money or ascertain funds to build buildings or for repairs or retrofit or what have you — but in this case, we were building a building. We were building a multi-million dollar building and doing that in a recession when you know your competitors are asking for funds for feeding children and helping the homeless and reading programs and education programs. It’s tough to do when people hold their pennies, so that was probably the most challenging thing. In hindsight, I see things that I could have done, ways to frame it and the story that I could have told, but I think that just comes with experience.
When you’re writing a grant — and this is different from if you are on more of the administrative and management sides — it’s all about the connective tissue. It’s all about telling the story and making people relate to your story because, ultimately, you’re asking them to provide a sacrifice of their funds. Whether it’s an individual or family foundation or a corporate foundation, you’re asking them to give of themselves monetarily wise. It’s about sharing the story and the mission of the organization or the project or the research proposal and proving that there’s some value to it and some public value. That is something, as a younger writer, I didn’t quite understand. I got there, but at the time, it didn’t quite dawn on me that’s what you needed, creating the story was the secret sauce.
It sounds like it’s all about finding that connection point where people can relate to the project.
Yes, absolutely. I would tell my students that regardless of whether your sponsor or your funder is again a family foundation or a corporate foundation, or if they are a National Institute of Health or a national science foundation, you’ve got to provide the value. You’ve got to tell people why it’s important to make this investment. Whose lives will this change? Who will this help? And why are you the person, or why are you the entity to do that? If you can articulate that in your writing, then you’ll be pretty successful.
What led you to start teaching as part of the master’s in research administration program? Was teaching always a goal?
Truth be told, I think it was a goal. When I was a college senior, I had a professor in history who told me and encouraged me to get my doctorate because he mentioned that there weren’t a lot of black women that earned their doctorates and that the field, no matter what field I decided to go into, just in general needed more. They needed more perspectives and more participation with those perspectives. And I said, “Oh, okay,” and put it off. I went to get my master’s, and some people said the same thing when I was nearing the end of it. Again, I was like, “Oh, okay,” but at the time, I was burnt out on school, so I wanted to work.
I did not get my doctorate until a few years later, and part of that was because there was such a push to get that degree because I loved the research. I loved reading, and I did really like to teach because that’s what I often did even at work. I was good at explaining things to my colleagues, and I was good at hearing different sides of an issue, different ways of thinking and synthesizing that into an idea or a specific set of thoughts.
Once I graduated and received my doctorate, I still worked and continued to work for a little bit but had teaching on the brain. I loved it. I loved being in the classroom. I loved talking to students. I love getting feedback. They taught me as much as I taught them when I was doing GTAs while earning my doctorate.
When the opportunity came to join UCF and the MRA program, I felt like it was the perfect blend because it was a unique program that mirrored my own unique path from interprofessional employment and what I was doing. I could talk about grants and contracts and other areas of research administration extensively. It was a great opportunity to be able to meld that together, my professional experience, with the opportunity to teach it and to learn from other people as well.
I think that’s what we should be doing as professors, as instructors, we learn from our class. So many of our students in the MRA program, they’ve worked in research administration for years, and they have their own styles. They have their own path. They have their own experiences, and they’re able to share those experiences as well. Getting my students to that point to where they’ve got that “a-ha moment” that they can apply what’s being taught in class to their jobs and where they’re growing as a result of that? To me, there’s nothing like it. It’s the greatest feeling.
How would some of the skills you’re teaching in UCF’s Master’s in Research Administration program have helped you in your career?
Of course, there’s the actual content knowledge provided and in hand knowledge about government relations. We have a course that talks about the different policies implemented. As research administrators, you follow a set of federal guidelines, and they flow down to whatever your entity is. There is a specific sort of policy that we must adhere to, so knowing that and getting very familiar with those policies on top of things like budgeting, technology, transfer, and intellectual property discussions, which is also important for me as a researcher on the other side, like not just hearing my instructors teach about it, but also engaging in those processes myself as a researcher and as a research administrator. You’re learning a lot of the technical side from it.
From a personal perspective, the program teaches you to be very well-rounded. You can understand and manage different projects, proposals, and sponsor opportunities, whether you’re in a department office or managing something in the central office for the school. You’re using organizational techniques. It’s helping your writing skills. It’s helping the critical thinking process. It’s also about building networks and relationships because, again, you’ve got students in class that come from several different states, several different institutions and we don’t all do things the same. What works for someone in Texas may not work for you in Florida, or it might work, and that’s what we’re here to talk about and synthesize.
You might be thinking about engaging in a particular project, and your classmate has already undertaken something similar. You’ve got somebody that you can learn from, that you can maybe ask questions. We are branching out and showing that research administration is more than just the field. It’s a profession, and it’s an academic practice. We’re continuing to build on this entity known as research administration from field to profession and from profession to even academic practice. I think it will be very neat to see that growth in the next five, ten years.
Have most students coming into the program already worked within the field, or do you have students coming in straight after earning their bachelor’s program?
Most of our students have already worked in this profession. I see a bit of an uptick in the number of students coming to us straight from a bachelor’s, some straight from a master’s program. However, I would still say that 95 percent of our students are experienced research administrators or have been working in the profession for a while and are working in the profession full time while in school.
Do you have any advice that you would give to incoming research administration students, whether they’re experienced professionals or undergraduate students coming straight into a graduate program?
For those coming back to school, especially if they’ve been away and after a long absence and they’re professionals, I would say breathe and have a really good sense of time management because you can’t get everything done in a day or at once. And communicate. I would say that for both an experienced research administrator coming in and someone fresh out of undergrad, communicate, and communicate with your professors and instructors. If anything is going on, let us know immediately and don’t wait because we can try and help you as best as possible and work with you. But other than that, I would say time management is very important and having fun. The process can be a lot of fun, and what you learn in class can be interesting. Take what you can out of it and apply that.
For those who are new to the profession and fresh out of their bachelor’s, they may be in that school frame of mind, so they’re not as jilted in terms of the work that must be done or what is expected, although it does increase as you get into a master’s program. I would say to those students, take advantage of the people around you, of the years of experience of both your instructor and classmates. And if you’re interested, if you’re coming to research administration from a new perspective and not having done it as much, or at all, really pick the brain of your classmates. See what they do. See what their interests are in. Read their discussion posts.
Often, at least in my classes, I offer discussion postings, and people will bring their experience to the discussion postings. If you’re a novice in research administration, this is an excellent way to see the perspective of people doing it in real-time. Take advantage of that. See if you have an affinity towards research integrity. Do you have an affinity towards the pre-award, post-award, central office, departmental work, clinical areas? I mean, there’s so much to do, and there’s so much that runs the gamut.
Look at how that works and build your network, build your relationships. Because we’re an online class, sometimes we can get in our silos, and we can stay there, but I would encourage students, especially people new to the profession, to get out of their silos and start talking to people. Email somebody. Email your classmate. Ask them if they want to just speak offline, just in general, about what it is that they do. You can get a lot of information from people that way. We can be our own mentees and mentors.
How do I get started with a Master’s in Research Administration?
If you’re interested in pursuing your master’s in research administration through UCF Online, you can contact the UCF Online Connect Center to speak with a student success coach about how to get started, or you can fill out the form on our program page for more information about the program.
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