Pitt Seed Funding Envisions Professional Training and Credentials for Research Administrators

Jennifer Woodward, vice chancellor for sponsored programs and research operations
Jennifer Woodward, vice chancellor for sponsored programs and research operations at Pitt.

Every successful research project has a multi-dimensional life of its own. Beyond the discovery work of the researcher(s), hundreds or even thousands of financial, legal, policy and regulatory steps must be carried out for the effort to be a true success.

While the researcher has likely been trained in his or her field of discovery, the research administrator – who is tasked to complete the administrative tasks – has typically grown into the position without a similarly defined career path.

Jennifer Woodward, vice chancellor for sponsored programs and research operations, is committed to minimizing this gap in professional development.

“I’m a member of the faculty, and a research administrator, so I understand this need from many angles,” she says. As national data reveal, research faculty can spend 44 percent of their time on administrative tasks, time spent not actually conducting their research. That national statistic alone reveals the importance for researchers to have administrative professionals to partner with.

To imagine the amount of time and energy that includes, consider that in FY 2022, Pitt researchers submitted more than 4,300 research proposals, and in that time frame, more than 1,600 new grants were awarded.

For research administrators to gain additional skills and expertise, or professionally advance, often their only options are to relocate to another unit, or even leave the university. As hiring managers know, losing a valued employee goes beyond financial and productivity costs. Continual movement negatively impacts the training of research administrators and the consistency of knowledge and skills.

Woodward believes a solution lies in true professional training and credentials -- a master’s degree and certification program in research administration through the Katz Graduate School of Business.

In fact, she believes in it so much that she wrote a winning Pitt Seed proposal to that effect. She was first awarded Pitt Seed funding in 2018 for a national feasibility and market analysis study that validated that the market and interest are ripe for additional education in this field.

Pitt Seed funders believe in her, too. She has just advanced to the latest round of funding -- one of just ten selected to receive $75,000 to create two dynamic and self-sustainable online programs to launch in Fall 2024. She has a year to accomplish her proposal deliverables and then to pitch the project to be one of two “Golden Ticket” Pitt Seed projects. In mid-2023, the two winning projects will receive up to $500,000 each in a pilot program to scale up the project.

She envisions programs that are interactive, offer a high-level of learner engagement, and focus on fulfilling an educational niche not offered by any other academic institution for research administrators. A self-sustainable financial model is her ideal.

During this one-year phase, the project team (from the Senior Vice Chancellor for Research, Katz Graduate School of Business, Provost, University Center for Teaching and Learning, and Human Resources areas) will develop curriculum content to be submitted through the University’s curriculum/degree review and approval process.

What makes it unique, and she hopes attainable for research administrators already in the workforce, is creating micro-credentialing, leading to certificates that can be stacked, as part of a master’s degree track.

“Research administrators can be a bridge for a researcher – offering skills and expertise, or serving as a facilitator, a project manager, or, at times, a needed communicator,” she said. “This initiative can help everyone succeed and acknowledges the professionalism in these positions.”