February 2012 Issue • Volume 40 • Issue 2

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Applied Sociology

Social Scientists and Research Development:  What Do Research Development
Professionals Do?

Gila Budescu, The Rockefeller University, and
Barbara L. E. Walker, University of California-Santa Barbara

The concept of Research Development (RD) has existed for three decades, and select academic institutions have even created RD offices during this time. Over the last five years, precipitated by the economic downturn (and subsequent decline in overall research funding) and the increasingly complex and collaborative nature of research problems, RD programs have spread to more universities, colleges, and research institutions—large and small—that span the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education index.

The National Organization of Research Development Professionals (NORDP) is the leader in this burgeoning area of research administration. Through our new and rapidly growing peer network, NORDP members develop and implement cutting-edge approaches and best practices to support researchers in pursuing strategic research initiatives. Work within our individual institutions and our RD network is expanding the boundaries of traditional faculty and institutional approaches to organized research and to capturing research resources.

RD professionals catalyze new research, enable interdisciplinary partnerships, facilitate research excellence, and support a culture of collaboration. Data from the 2010 survey of NORDP members indicate that RD is a diverse profession driven by a multitude of needs and expertise. Members represent a broad spectrum of disciplines, ranging from the biological and biomedical and life sciences, social sciences, engineering and mathematics, humanities, physical sciences, to business and management, design, and law. Additionally, 41 percent of our members have social sciences training, 46 percent of our members have PhDs, and 60 percent of our membership has been working in RD for seven years or less. (For more on the survey of NORDP members, see www.nordp.org/assets/resources-docs/2011-nordp-numbers.pdf.)  In the last two years, there have been more than 100 postings to the NORDP Job Board, a testament to the vibrancy and value of our growing field, and the priority placed on it by academic leadership.

The Making of Two Research Development Professionals from the Social Sciences

Gila Budescu: I relocated to the United States in 1992, joining my spouse in a Midwest university town. I had two young children, a PhD in Organizational Behavior (OB) from Technion in Israel, training and work experience in psychology and anthropology, but no job.

A university town is an exciting intellectual environment for PhDs, especially those pursuing academic careers. It was less so for a new PhD considering an applied career. Nonetheless, a short while after my arrival, I came across a job listing for a Coordinator at a university’s NIH-funded facility for research in biophysics and in computational biology. I applied, outlining my academic credentials, organizational knowledge and insights into the nature and operation of service organizations. I promised to bring in a unique set of management skills informed by my academic training, my research, and my consulting accomplishments. Just in case, on the way to the interview, I stopped at the public library to find out about computational biology and biophysics. These fields, as I learned, tackle broad and complex research problems that rely on team efforts across disciplines.

The interview was short. The facility director, a renowned scientist, only asked about my management perspective and appeared enthusiastic about having an OB PhD supporting the non-science oversight of the facility. His open-minded and thoughtful approach remained unchanged during my 11 years at the facility, empowering me to perform independently, grow on the job, and develop and nurture a team with a common vision and a productive climate of collaboration and excellence. Over time, my work included not only team and relationship building, but also seeking and disseminating funding opportunities, creating and sharing new knowledge, providing training, offering guidance on grants requirements, conducting qualitative and quantitative evaluations of service quality and stakeholders’ satisfaction, and other entrepreneurial efforts; in short many of the functions performed by today’s RD professionals. Toward the end of my tenure in this position I also contributed as a co-investigator on a significant award made to the facility, combining my onsite experience with my previous training in social science research methodology (e.g., the design, administration, and analysis of software user surveys; the evaluation of software products and support). My next positions allowed me to similarly integrate practical experiences with—and take advantage of—my formal training. I am now the Director of the Sponsored Research and Program Development Office at Rockefeller University in New York.

Barbara L. E. Walker:  Despite a passion for social science research and analysis, I have never been excited about teaching. After receiving my PhD in cultural geography at University of California-Berkeley, I began my job search with uncertainty about pursuing a tenure-track career. Several job and post-doctoral applications later, I accepted an NSF Post-Doctoral Fellowship at UC-Santa Barbara. I have always loved writing grant proposals because of the way that you can lay out a beautiful and elegant research plan that is not complicated by the realities of field work, the drudgery of coding data, and all the other nuisances that make the best laid plans go awry.

Initially intended as a stopover on the way to the tenure-track, my post-doc turned into a series of increasingly larger and more collaborative research programs and grants. I continued to apply for teaching positions half-heartedly, but several factors kept me in Santa Barbara, including a consistent flow of funding that supported long-term fieldwork and a competitive salary, along with strong cultural and family ties to Southern California. Over the next decade I received close to $1 million in research funding, and my proposal writing skills had been honed through the submission of countless proposals with a variety of interdisciplinary collaborators (a drop in the bucket compared to research funding for “hard” sciences, but evidence that there are abundant funding sources for social scientists, even for someone whose focus is on social theory and qualitative methods). My research career also sharpened my knack for academic administration as well as my ability to organize and execute complex academic programs that serve faculty and students.

The arrival of three children in short order coincided with a job opening in the UCSB Office of Research for a Director of RD specializing in the social sciences, humanities, and fine arts. Established in 1987, UC-Santa Barbara has one of the oldest Research Development offices and one of the few campuses that employ a RD professional exclusively for the social sciences, humanities, and fine arts. Recognizing that there are myriad opportunities for research funding in these areas, and increasing interdisciplinary opportunities calling for collaborative projects that combine hard sciences with social sciences, humanities, and arts, my office provides multiple training opportunities and other programs that catalyze proposal development and submission. Ironically, I do a lot of teaching now. I teach an annual graduate grant-writing course, a faculty grant-writing seminar series, and several workshops on various aspects of grantsmanship. Sharing my expertise with my colleagues is fun and rewarding, and it is exciting to learn about and contribute in a small way to the range of brilliant research topics being pursued on my campus.

Lessons Learned

The design/adoption of smart, proactive, and relevant organizational solutions to meet strategic and routine challenges at the forefront of R&D administration depends on multi-disciplinary integration and knowledge crossover. Brought together, administrative positions, open-minded leadership, and a social science PhD can lead to fertile and mutually beneficial partnerships that foster individual, professional, and organizational growth. It can provide a unique and exciting context for testing and applying aspects of social science theory, principles, and methodology. Social science PhDs can bring fresh and innovative views and ideas into research institutions creating worthwhile and lasting intellectual and practical impact.

Job Requirements

A recent discussion on the NORDP listserv focused on what qualities universities look for when hiring a research development professional. The most common traits mentioned were: the ability to write and communicate well; an understanding of academia and the field being served; experience in getting grants, especially involving large multi-investigator grants; administrative/process/project management skills; political savvy to foster relationships with sponsors and/or key individuals within sponsoring organizations; and most of all, a desire and enthusiasm to do the job!

When applying for jobs, identify those elements of your training and background that can add significant value to the position and the institution. Be confident about your abilities. Work with leaders that respect your education and understand that it could benefit the organization. Identify colleagues, peers, and networks who will support you and your efforts and advocate the need for them. In an RD position, speak with the investigators and learn and respect their research needs. Have the capacity to translate investigators’ needs into simple, intuitive, and cost-effective solutions that would be meaningful. Increase investigators’ funding success, yet minimize the administrative burden on them. Be able to reflect, anticipate, evaluate, align with institutional priorities and changing funding landscape, and change course if/when needed. Supporting today’s academic research enterprise and sustaining excellence can be accomplished through true partnerships, flexibility, and reason. Social scientists have much to contribute.

Does Research Development need social scientists? Absolutely. Explore the NORDP site and Job Board for positions and other career opportunities. See www.nordp.org.

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