Research Administrator

Robert P. Lowman, PhD

People sometimes ask me how I got into research administration. From the tones of their voices, I never know whether they want to learn how to pursue a similar vocation or whether they want to watch for early warning signs in their own careers. The fact is, research administration can be a rewarding and challenging employment decision — and one that allows you to apply psychology nearly every day.

To clarify, my office provides pre-award services to the entire university community, including all schools and colleges in health affairs and academic affairs. We help faculty and graduates students:

  • locate possible sources of support for their research,

  • advise on proposal preparation,

  • review and approve proposals for extramural support on behalf of the chancellor,

  • negotiate research contracts,

  • publish the university's research magazine,

  • handle the university's intellectual property,

  • facilitate the spin-off of start-up companies based on university technology,

  • administer an internal program of small research grants for human subjects and laboratory animals in research, and

  • engage in what is sometimes called federal relations.

There is no degree program that prepares one to become a research administrator. Nonetheless, a background in psychology isn't bad. While serving as scientific affairs officer at APA in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was senior editor of the first edition of APA'S Guide to Research Support. In preparing this volume, I became aware of a simple fact: psychologists receive research support from almost every federal agency in the research business. No other discipline has its funding as widely dispersed. As a result of APA experience, I left Washington, D.C. with one or more contacts in almost every federal agency in town, an attractive attribute for a research administrator.

APA also taught me a lot about management: how to do it right and wrong. It presented valuable budgeting experience, and it exposed me to a diversity of personalities, ranging from the majority of psychologists who are delightful folks with whom to work, to the cantankerous minority you'd rather forget. APA even made me aware of a wonderful specialty society that I highly recommend to other psychologists in management positions, the Society of Psychologists in Management (SPIM).

But that only begs the question. There must been some character flaw that caused me to leave a tenure-track position at a good university to work at APA in the first place. No, I can't blame the university; this is a problem that goes all the way back to graduate school.

At Claremont Graduate School in the early 1970s, training was undergoing a metamorphosis. From a fairly traditional program, Claremont was developing a distinctive specialty, which it called Public Affairs Psychology. Based in part on the Lewinian notion of directing psychological research to the study of social issues, Claremont wanted to prepare psychologists to conduct policy-relevant research and to learn (as G. A. Miller, PhD, wrote in 1970) "how best to give psychology away." I received the first Public Affairs Psychology doctorate.

My ideas about the value of research have changed a bit in 20-plus years. I valued research in psychology disproportionately in those days. Today, I realize that research in every discipline is important and that basic research probably holds more promise to enrich our society and guide public policy than a lot of research based on social relevance. I have come to cherish research universities as unique entities, easy to destroy and very difficult to build.

Most importantly, I have come to appreciate the relationships among disciplines. A lot of what psychologists consider psychology, sociologists consider sociology, epidemiologists consider epidemiology, nurses considering nursing, or those in business or even engineering consider business or engineering. This does not diminish, psychology, but it does cause a reconsideration of the role of psychology in modern research. Increasingly, in interdisciplinary research teams, I see psychology playing, not only its usual substantive role, but also the role of knitting other disciplines together. Psychology is a linking discipline. One might consider an analogy between psychology and the gluon, that tiniest of subatomic particles thought to provide the force that binds quarks together.

Because interdisciplinary research is of increasing importance in science today and is likely to be the most rapidly growing sector of science in the coming years, research in psychology should have a bright future. Those outside the field already recognize this role for psychology; perhaps that is why psychology receives research support from almost every federal research agency. I know it contributes to the satisfaction I derive from university research administration.

(Originally published in the November/December 1994 issue of Psychological Science Agenda, the newsletter of the APA Science Directorate.)