A Day in the Life of an RA: The View from Down Under
Posted: Apr 17, 2019 - 12:00am
A Day in the Life of an RA:
The View from Down Under
I don’t mean “down under” as in Australia or New Zealand, but down at the unit level. You know, that place that comes in all shapes and sizes and interacts with central research administration? Yeah, that place!
The University of New Mexico’s (UNM) Department of Psychology is one such place. This unit employs one part-time Contract and Grant Administrator who’s responsible for all pre-award duties and many post-award duties. This is the role of Lindsay Ann Britt, CPRA. The good news is she’s not completely alone in her unit. A senior fiscal services tech handles post-award account management.
RACC took a look into Lindsay’s RA world, which includes active research grants, research centers, collaborations with non-profits and national labs--there’s a lot going on! Hear her story.
Lindsay: A typical day starts with checking the 20-40 emails she receives and filing those which require no action. Then I spend 1 - 1.5 hrs responding to emails and processing actions. I spend 3+hrs checking the status of upcoming proposals (i.e., making sure the Principal Investigator (PI) is on track, following the proposal timeline, and helping with budget preparation). The rest of my day is spent uploading grant proposal documents into Cayuse SP; working with our central administration on a proposal submission or checking the status of award actions in progress to make sure nothing is delayed.
Weekly. I meet with a PI for an hour to help them develop their grant budget.
Once or twice a month. I spend about an hour processing a new award, detailing terms and conditions (T&Cs) for the PI in a kick-off meeting, and entering the new funding into our dept award tracking spreadsheets. UNM also holds monthly RA Network meetings and monthly dept meetings. Whew, after detailing all of that it sounds exhausting! The workload in my dept is enough to keep me busy for 40 hrs/wk, even though I only work 27.5 hrs/wk.
Biggest Role Challenge: Making sure the PI understands the T&Cs they’ve accepted in a new award. I realized after my 1st year in Psych that the PIs were not reading the actual award T&Cs and did not understand them. My previous position was in our central office, so this was a huge shock for me. After several issues with non-compliance, I made a process change by developing a template for the kick-off meetings. This template lists the award details, including required deliverables & due dates and special T&Cs. The PI signs this and the award budget management plan after the kick-off meeting to confirm compliance. Over the two years of this new process, we have significantly reduced T&Cs issues, PIs have embraced the tool as a quick reference sheet, and I can use it to speak directly with PIs on award management.
Biggest Learning Moment: PIs don’t like RAs. When I moved from my position in the central pre-award office to the dept level, I was shocked to find that most PIs had a very bad taste in their mouth for the central pre-award office and RAs in general. This was due to central RAs being so focused on getting the proposal correct and submitted on time that we forgot that we were dealing with a PIs life-work or a research project that is near and dear to their heart. Solution: Now, I directly interact with PIs and see firsthand the way in which they hold their research with the highest regard. I began asking the PIs about their research and to have tours of their labs, which made them trust me a whole lot more. Most of them said that it finally felt as though someone cared more about getting their research funded than just making sure they jumped through all the administrative hoops.
Aha Moment! I had always heard that asking a PI about their research is a great way to spark a professional relationship with them, but I have never seen that happen until I came to my dept. While my job is to make sure the proposals and awards follow sponsor solicitations and T&Cs, we are dealing with human people, the same as us, not just a bunch of electronic files to rummage though and point out the deficiencies. This entire experience taught me that there is a person behind the research I am responsible for trying to get funded and I should always remember that.
Future Plans. I love working at the dept level because I get direct interaction with the researchers and enjoy learning about their research, and knowing that I had a role in making this ground breaking medical research possible. One complaint to working in a dept is that I only get experience with a limited number of sponsors as opposed to almost any sponsor you could think of when I was in the central pre-award office. 10 years from now, I hope to be a manager in a Sponsored Projects Office at a large university and well on my way to becoming a Director of a Sponsored Projects Office, my career goal. (If I had my pick, it would be at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln-- go Huskers!)
Best Advice. The best advice I can offer other dept RAs is to get to know your faculty and the research they do. You’ll get a much better sense of what they need in order to successfully complete their research, and it also shows the faculty that you care and want to do your best to make them successful. This takes the professional relationship to a much higher level and provides a great deal of mutual respect for one another and the role each person plays in research. With the respect of the PIs, it is much easier to help them manage their proposals/awards and ensure compliance.