Lessons from Downton Abbey: or, five reasons why your School’s research administrator is just as important as your supervisor

This piece was written by my ex-RMIT colleague and friend Dr Sarah Stow. Sarah has a PhD in English Literature and has been working for a long time, at a high level, in university administration and has learned about academia from both sides.

Sarah is currently doing a project management role at the School of Graduate Research at RMIT specialising in higher degree by research policy and practice. I miss working with Sarah very much because she is both smart and fun. In this post Sarah shares her wisdom on staying sweet with your research administrators…

Screen Shot 2014-03-03 at 7.44.29 pmConsider Downton Abbey.

We all fantasise about being ‘upstairs’ with the Earl of Grantham swapping delightful stories over tea but who it is that keeps the house clean, fed and comfortable? Who is it that knows how things really work? Who is it that gets things done?

Right, the staff. And in this there is a truth: your research administrator is just as important as your supervisor.

Let me be clear. I am not suggesting for a moment that research admin staff are servants. Their work is valuable, necessary and important but, like the staff in Downton Abbey, it is often invisible.

Everyone agrees that the role of the supervisor is crucial to the research student experience. Universities spend a lot of time and money developing and managing supervisor registers and providing professional development for staff to improve their supervision skills. There is mountains of advice for candidates about selecting and working with a supervisor. And while I agree that a good supervisor is important, I think fostering a relationship with the research administrator in your school or faculty is equally essential to ensuring your candidature runs smoothly.

Here are the reasons why:

1. They know processes

Back in the late 1990s I was a PhD student in the US. As an international student, I was clueless about how American universities worked, and because I was from an English-speaking country, I was pretty invisible. No-one recognised me as someone who would need cultural practices and assumed knowledge spelt out for them.

Our departmental secretary was a woman called Carole de Mangin. She had been at the university since the dawn of time and had seen everything under the sun. She didn’t suffer fools and gave a very good impression of someone who thought graduate students were a complete waste of time and effort.

But she was a mine of information and, even though she scared me to death, I repeatedly sought her advice, curried favour and treated her like the gem that she was. And more than once she revealed invisible processes and rules to me. In her eyes, I was a clueless, almost exotic creature (she’d no more consider coming to Australia than she would fly to the moon) but she knew, and I learned, that without her my life as a graduate student would be a lot harder.

2. They know deadlines

I’m married to an academic and a lot of my friends are academics and—and I say this with love—most are hopeless with deadlines (editor’s note: yes. I am one!). They forget them and they ignore them. Sometimes they seem oblivious to the fact that time exists. On the other hand, your research administrator can typically reel off important deadlines without drawing breath.

3. They know details

I work in RMIT’s School of Graduate Research and frequently work closely with research administrators. I am astounded by the knowledge of arcane policy detail. You will (probably) only do one PhD. Your research administrator has known hundreds of students and helped many of them manage complex and difficult situations. If you do find yourself needing detailed advice about policy or procedure, ask your administrator. They may have seen it before and if they haven’t, they may know someone who has which leads me to my next point.

4. They know other administrators

If they don’t know the answer to your question, or have a solution to your problem, your administrator will know who to ask. There are usually networks for administrators in universities and this gives them an opportunity to share their experiences and seek advice of their colleagues. This is an untapped resource.

5. Their main priority is helping you through your candidature

I was having lunch the other day with a friend of mine who is an HDR administrator at RMIT. She was telling me a long, complicated and ultimately distressing story about a candidate. By the time she had finished telling me the tale of woe, we were both shaking our heads in disbelief. And then she said something really important. She said: “I always tell candidates that my only job is to protect their candidature.” I’d never really thought about it before but it is true. Candidates and their candidatures are the principle focus for research administrators.

So, spare a thought for the humble research administrator who like their Downton colleagues, keep the clocks wound, the tea served and everyone (mostly) happy.

Do you know a research administrator who should be recognised for being an outstanding support for researchers in their school or faculty? Name them in the comments! Let’s show the research administrators in our lives some love people 🙂

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29 thoughts on “Lessons from Downton Abbey: or, five reasons why your School’s research administrator is just as important as your supervisor

  1. Well said Dr Sarah. As a doctoral student, I have come to the realization that we cannot do without research administrators. In my faculty, we have one called Ushma; she is very friendly and helpful. As a foreign student, she has helped me a lot. She will always say: ”I am looking forward to your (timely) submission and Viva”.

  2. Not so much research administrators, but our professional staff here at the University of Newcastle, School of Design, Communication and IT are incredible. They helped me throughout my candidature and provide awesome support to the academics here (I’m now a full-time academic).

    Love them and couldn’t do my job without them.

  3. There are several people that have helped me through my PhD program and I don’t think they get enough credit. I love articles like this that acknowledge the people behind the scenes. Thanks!

  4. I don’t know how anyone gets a PhD without being friendly with their PI’s and department Admins. They know who to ask and when to ask. They know your advisor’s schedule and when you are likely to catch them for a chat in a pinch. My admin was awesome. Some 17 years after I got my degree, he was still doing me favors. When my son (who was born while I was a grad student) worked in a lab in my old department for a high school summer, only the admin (who was still the same) knew who he was. We have different last names and of course he was all grown up. He kept the secret until we were ready for the (humorous) reveal and he kept an eye on my son making sure things went smoothly for him. No better gift.

  5. I even rang from overseas to Oz to be calmed down when I felt stressed. Robyn at Macquarie University, Sydney.

  6. Karen Smith at the ANU Schools of History and Philosophy is a true star. She knows the processes inside out and looks after the interests of HDR candidates. She’s patient despite the fact that some of us are seriously challenged by paperwork!

  7. What a fabulous post! And so true…. I’d also like to add that for those doing their research in a lab, the technicians are similarly vital-but-invisible. Get that relationship right, and you will be repaid many times over!

  8. The reference to Downton and servants as analogous to administrators at a university (then the mad back pedaling) just shows how pervasive this degrading of the professional jobs done by university admin staff really is. What we do is not in fact ‘invisible’ but highly visible, in the communications, the web presence, social media, any publications and the actual premises, as well as the organisation of teaching and examining. Everything that you see and recognise as the university presence is probably produced in some way by an administrator. We are not in charge of tea, there are catering staff for that. If you want to appreciate administrators at your universities, begin by considering them as colleagues, whose work is done as professionals, not as endlessly supervised ‘servants’.

  9. Faculty Administrator Robyn Ficnerski and her team in Arts and Education at Deakin Uni were a faultess support to me during my candidature. Thankyou Robyn!

    Kim Dunphy

  10. I know for sure I would never have made it through to Dr. Kath if it was not for the intelligent, caring and professional expertise of Mr Brian Walsh in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT, along with Inger (in the days when she was still at RMIT) and the wonderful Sarah.

  11. Here at Salford Business School, our operations staff are the much-loved and highly skilled team that are crucial for our success. Here at Salford Business School, we have Michelle (Shell) Jones, our PostGraduate Support Wonderwoman who looks after the PhD students, plus many other superb colleagues: Sarah Robinson, Carol Prestbury, Charlotte Johnson, Jackie Curtis and our Head of Operations, Jennie Hinsley to mention a few. Don’t forget all the professionals, whose expertise is critical and core to a University: marketing, alumni relations, international development, student recruitment and support, the library and IT teams, estates management, staff development and fundraising. These are all highly valued and skilled colleagues who ensure our University is a vibrant and supportive environment for our students.

  12. As a research administrator I feel valued and appreciated by the colleagues and students with whom I work. I absolutely do NOT feel humble. I find this description wholly inaccurate and being likened to a servant in Downton Abbey is downright degrading. If this article is supposed to make me feel appreciated in my job then it has failed. Administrators are a very valuable commodity and should be treated as equals not as subordinates. Thank you to Anonymous above for their comments which inspired mine.

  13. What does one do for support when your university has multiple campuses nation-wide but has just closed the administrative department on several of these campuses, relegating all candidature admin to one (distant) campus in a southern state? Can’t just pop in to ask a question – and candidature officers are decidedly curt in their reply emails when under an increased workload. The same obstacles apply to all the other channels of advice PhD students may take for granted at other universities.

  14. Alison Francis and Mary Walta in the RMAP program at ANU. Tirelessly kind and helpful – I would never have got my PhD done without them.

  15. As a Dean of a Graduate School, I strongly endorse Sarah’s great advice, but would add a couple more points.

    6. Unlike academic staff who are often not there (for good reasons,like attending to their research, delivering papers at conferences and so forth), professional staff are always there — from 9 to 5 (and often after 5), they answer emails, they pick up the phone, and it is generally possible to pop into their offices and get a quick and accurate answer to your question straight away.

    7. HDR candidates can confidently rely on the advice and support of the professional staff dedicated to HDR candidates, because academic staff sure do. In all of my roles, as a supervisor of candidates and in leadership roles at school, faculty and now at university level, I am only as good as the team of professional staff who back me up. I have been most fortunate to have worked with some of the best in the business — who give me great advice fearlessly (i.e. don’t simply tell me what I want to hear), always remind me that it is all about the students, and make me appear more efficient and capable than I am through their professionalism and dedication. And, in my experience, HDR administrators are about the best of the lot!

  16. Sue Stevenson in the School of Social Sciences at Monash University is a treasure! She is an invaluable, irreplaceable support for all us HDRs here!

  17. A very poorly chosen analogy. There are many that could have been used here – but to draw parallel between research administrators and the staff at Downton Abbey is degrading. Organistional structure at universities is very vertical however it need not be in the attitude towards staff, like it is in this post. Looking down upon. All staff are working towards a common goal (regardless of their pay grade) and administrators would be better SERVED by their management approaching them from a flatter organisational viewpoint. I would also add that research students don’t need to be told of the value of their admin contacts – they are already aware. Perhaps this post should be re-written and targeted towards management level.

  18. Jenny Jarrett at UNSW Law is a godsend! So prompt and efficient and she really goes out of her way to minimise red tape and to make processes work smoothly and logically. And on top of it all she’s warm and kind and makes all the HDR students feel supported and cared about. She’s universally loved – couldn’t do it without her!!

  19. I got excited when I saw the link to this post, and wanted to share it with our magnificent HDR administrator before I even clicked on the link. But I stopped short when I saw the Downton Abbey reference. These people have PhDs! They might be administrative, but that doesn’t equate them with servants. Too bad Lord Grantham doesn’t have a personal secretary, as that would probably be closer to what the author was aiming at here.

  20. Fantastic post!! I dealt with a few HDR administrators during my candidature at Monash University. I had a couple of issues during my canditure (one which resulted in me taking an intermission) and the HDR Administrators were there with me every step of the way, always a sympathetic ear and a strategy or solution. Forever grateful to those women who helped me get through a pretty tough time in my life and made it just that little bit easier.

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  23. Dear all, I’m currently a Honours student at my uni, currently in the beginning stages of my project at an institute that has strong links with my faculty. I’d really appreciate your feedback and honest comments on the following dilemma I’m facing. I’m really interested in the area I’ll be undertaking my research in, however, I feel like my research experience is being hampered by my institute’s administrator.

    Unfortunately, I feel like I’m currently experiencing “preferential mistreatment” by my institute’s senior administrator. Firstly, she promised that she’d find me a desk so I can “feel at home” and keep my belongings whilst I have lab work two weeks ago (as I dropped by to inform her of my enrolment as she had not responded to my emails), and told me to return on Monday. She seemingly forgot about my existence when I showed up today, and informed me that as Honour students we weren’t allowed to have desk areas. However, all the other Honours students’ who enrolled this week (I began my enrolment and completing my induction paperwork two weeks ago) managed to get their individual spots today, so she ended up squishing me into a small desk (half the size of the other students).

    Similarly, when I politely asked her if she could provide me a desktop so I could work at the institute (two weeks ago as well), she informed me that she no longer had any on offer, and would “try her best”. However, two out of the four Honours students who were seated today had computers and filing cabinets, while I had nothing, except for a plain desk and a chair.

    Thirdly, she hasn’t bothered responding to any of my emails that I’ve sent her with regards to the inductions she’s asked me to complete across the last two weeks, and when I showed up in her office (she always said “feel free to drop by if you have any questions” – but I could tell how much she didn’t like seeing me), she only started opening my emails and printing out the relevant attachments…

    I can’t help to feel if I’m making a big deal out of this or if I’m asking for too much. I thought I’d be treated fairly and everyone would be provided with the same amount of equipment, as we’re all Honours students starting off at the same time. I do understand that resources are strained and she most likely couldn’t allocate me with what I needed, but I didn’t feel that it was fair that I started my paperwork and had informed her early on of my enrolment and of my needs. I feel like I’m being treated as a “left-over”. I have been polite and respectful to her throughout this whole period, and I feel sad that I’m being treated this way.

    Please let me know, I would really appreciate anyone’s comments. Thank you.

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