The grants office and the RA generalist: Parallel life-cycles and development at small PUIs.

Author:Cuhel-Schuckers, Amy
Position:Research administrator - Primarily undergraduate institution - Report - Abstract

Abstract: If you are a grants or research administrator working at a small predominantly undergraduate institution, have you ever wondered where you stand in relation to other similar institutions? Have you thought about what you need to do to get yourself, your office, and your institution to the "next level" of outreach to or support for the faculty? Have you asked what are reasonable benchmarks or milestones to which you can aspire in leading your office?

In this article the authors focus on two parallel cycles of development within a small grants office at a predominantly or primarily undergraduate institution (PUI). One cycle is the development of the office itself as it is shaped by the institution, faculty research activity, and intramural and extramural funding priorities. The second cycle is the development of the research administrator as the professional grows and matures. The authors will walk the reader through the phases of development as they are influenced by challenges and milestones characteristic of successful research development.

Keywords: Challenges, Grants Administrator, Life-cycle, Milestones, Predominantly Undergraduate Institution, PUI, RA Generalist, Research Administrator, Research Administration Generalist, Small PUIs


The authors attempt to address a gap that researchers Derrick and Nickson (2014) identified. Derrick and Nickson suggest that future research on how "research management teams" differ "between universities and other research organizations" (p. 34) should empirically analyze characteristics of successful research management, identify those strategies and structures that are deemed successful, and highlight how they might vary between different types of institutions. As a first step towards an empirical understanding, we attempt to define and then frame this discussion from the perspectives of grants or research administrators at small PUIs. Such research administrators may have more than one role, may be operating as a "one-person shop" or as part of a small team, and may have a reporting line, or lines, that typically range somewhere between the Advancement/Development office and the Provost's/Academic Affairs office.

The primary audience for this article is grants administrators at some of the smallest, often private, PUIs. The article may also be of interest to research administrators at PUIs supported by research foundations, or PUIs that are large enough to have both a central office and departmental structure. Additionally, research administrators at large R1 institutions with a desire to support PUIs in their geographic area may find this article of interest.


Because individuals at PUI institutions who oversee grant-related activities or who make hiring decisions at such PUIs are often unfamiliar with the "research administrator" (RA) terminology, the terms "grants administrator" and "research administrator" will be used synonymously, recognizing there are some limitations to this equivalence.

Additionally, although there may be other definitions, for the purposes of this article the authors will define PUI institutions using the National Science Foundation's (NSF) definition: those "that award Associate's degrees, Bachelor's degrees, and/or Master's degrees in NSF-supported fields, but have awarded 20 or fewer Ph.D. /D. Sci. degrees in all NSF-supported fields during the combined previous two academic years" (2014, para. 7). The breadth of the NSF PUI definition, however, allows this category to include not only those institutions that have undergraduate only enrollments, but also institutions with quite sizeable undergraduate populations, institutions that also award applied doctorates (e.g. EdD, DSW), or have a sizable Master's degree program, and institutions that may be part of a larger state-supported system with access to resources from a central grants office or research foundation.

Therefore, while not intending to be definitive, the focus of this discussion is on small PUIs. We define small PUIs as institutions with an undergraduate enrollment of 3,000 or less, that are independent, and that do not have the research administration benefits, resources, and structures available from central offices off-site. We further frame small PUIs as institutions that have a strong research-oriented and grant-active faculty and staff.

These smallest institutions, quite often private, also generally have a strong complement of both faculty research and institutional grants sourced from public and private funders. This means that grants at small PUIs may be organized through a Sponsored Research Office (SRO) under the Provost's Office/Academic Affairs division, through a Corporate and Foundation Relations (CFR) office under the Advancement/Development division, or through some combination of the two. The nature or title of these offices vary and may be called offices of sponsored research or sponsored programs, CFR office, college grants, or simply the grants office.

As the title of this article suggests, the focus of this discussion is on the foundational understanding that grants-related structures at small PUIs have the strong possibility of, and often clear need for, growth and change. Regardless of an institution's annual volume of grants or size of awards, if an institution receives federal money, that institution is required to comply with all applicable federal rules and regulations.

Background and Expertise

We base our findings on the authors' own experiences at PUIs with varied types of research administration structures. Each author is currently working at a small PUI that generally fits the profile described above.

Amy Cuhel-Schuckers started her career in research administration as an assistant grant writer at a community action agency in western New York State, and subsequently worked first as an institutional grant writer and then as a grants development specialist at a public PUI (approximately 5,000 undergraduates, with about 500 Masters students). The Office of Sponsored Programs there was supported by a state-level research foundation, which operated in some ways as a central office. While at that public PUI, the pre-award operations were integrated into a "life-cycle" model encompassing both pre- and post-award operations with four staff members. The author earned Certified Research Administrator (CRA) and Grant Professional Certified (GPC) certifications in that context. In 2012 she transitioned to Franklin & Marshall College (F&M), a private completely undergraduate national liberal arts college (approximately 2,200 undergraduates) as the Director of Faculty Grants. At F&M, she supported the integration of a newly merged institutional (Foundation and Corporate Relations) and faculty grants pre-award team resulting in the Office of College Grants with reporting lines into two divisions. Post-award matters were handled by the institution's finance department. The Office of College Grants continues as a blended office and is currently undergoing a second level transformation into a colocated life-cycle model, with reporting lines into three divisions: Office of the Provost; the Office of College Advancement; and Finance and Administration. As part of that transformation, she has been promoted to the Director of Faculty Grants and Compliance Resourcing.

Cam Martin-Tetreault started her career working as a Development Officer for two small not-for-profit organizations in Maine before specializing as a Grants Officer at Bowdoin College, a small, private, predominately undergraduate institution (1,790 students). Hired as the Assistant Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations and reporting to the Senior Vice President for Advancement, the 2 1/2 person office was charged with the management of all pre-award and stewardship for external grants from private and public granting organizations. A dedicated grants manager based in the "business office" was and remains responsible for post-award financial responsibilities. In 2011, in response to the growing complexity of grants administration and compliance, the College supported a new Office of Sponsored Research Programs, based in the academic dean's division, dedicated to faculty research grant support and research compliance. In addition, the Office of Corporate and Foundation Relations was also moved to Academic Affairs so that the "grants office" is currently staffed by a Director of Sponsored Research, a Director of Corporate and Foundation...

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