College of Liberal Arts

Research Administration in Liberal Arts: What's a Grants & Contracts Specialist?

Wed, Jun 11, 2014

In May, the College of Liberal Arts Office for Research and Graduate Studies sent its three-person Grants Services team to the regional meeting of the National Council of Research Administrators (NCURA) to present on the office's innovative approach to grant administration in the College. In front of a packed conference room, Senior Grants & Contracts Specialist Kathy Thatcher, Foundations Specialist Melanie Morgan, and Post-Award Specialist Vivian Smyrl explained how clarifying internal processes at UT Austin, improving communications with other offices and constituents, and enforcing a timeline for preparing proposals improved the grant submission process in the College. 

The College's approach was novel for many of the Research Administrators in the room, who represented small and large academic institutions across the southwestern region. The fact is, faculty and non-research staff at colleges and universities are typically unaware of the research administration infrastructure that supports a large percentage of our activities. This "invisibility" of the profession is one of the main challenges that Liberal Arts Grants Services has worked to overcome. 

Research Administrators, or Grants & Contracts Specialists, as many of these professionals are dubbed at the University of Texas at Austin, assist faculty, research and programmatic staff, and graduate students in finding, applying for, and managing awarded grant funds. The varied responsibilities of research administrators protect both the university and Principal Investigators (PIs) from potential ethical, financial, and legal concerns.  

In offices across campus, research administrators facilitate compliance with research ethics policies that uphold standards for human subjects research, animals testing, working with infectious agents, potential conflicts of interest, and more. They study federal policies and philanthropic trends to understand changing funder preferences and requirements. They collaborate with other offices on campus to gather often esoteric institutional information required by granting agencies, and they contact program officers to clarify sponsors' interests and requirements. When a grant is awarded, they approve grant contracts, receive funds and set up accounts, and, later on, assist with required reporting.

Liberal Arts Grants Services provides grants assistance in the College of Liberal Arts in collaboration with university-wide research administration units. Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Studies Esther Raizen launched an office reorganization three years ago, hiring new staff in re-designed roles with specialists in federal and foundation funding. As part of the reorganization, the office instituted an internal timeline to allow for better service to grant-seekers, streamlined relationships with other research units on campus, and honed communications strategies.

The NCURA presentation focused on how these practices have increased both the number of grant submissions and the grant success rate. Thatcher, who focuses on federal grant submissions, discussed how transparency in the submission process is important. "It shouldn't be a mystery!" she said to the group, suggesting that both the internal steps for submitting a grant and the complex UT and federal policies that inform the guidelines can and should be explained to faculty and Principal Investigators clearly. 

Morgan, who focuses on foundation grant submissions and communications strategy, discussed two cardinal rules for email communication: don't spam, and present information in a clear and predictable format. The Liberal Arts Grants Digest, a weekly email listing upcoming grants opportunities in the humanities and social sciences, is an example of this strategy. By sending the email once a week at the same time, Grants Services avoids overwhelming grant-seekers with email. The format of the digest is also designed for skimming—it is easy to read and is replicated on all grant announcements from the College, allowing faculty, research staff, and graduate students to get the information they need from the email quickly.

The Liberal Arts Grants Services presenters also discussed how collaborating with other offices on campus enhances performance. In addition to keeping lines of communication open with central offices like the Office of Sponsored Projects, Grants Services launched a Research Support Network (RSN) within the College. The group of departmental research administrators in the College of Liberal Arts meets annually for a professional development lunch and presentation. Members of the group connect to collaborate on grant proposals and learn from one another.

Collaborations between research administrators both within and outside of the university are integral in maintaining the quality of administrative support UT Austin researchers and program directors have come to expect.

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