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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