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Robert - research funding manager
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Name: Robert
PhD discipline: History
Area(s) of work: Academic research support administration
Year of graduation: 2003
Date of Interview: 17/06/2008

Now Playing: Robert - research funding manager
Robert describes his work as a research funding manager in a post-92 university, and how having a PhD has helped in this role.

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Can you tell me what is your current position?

At the moment I am a research funding manager in a larger (post '92) university in London and it's largely concerned with supporting its external income to various funding bodies, could be research councils it could be charities, could be any number of other things within the university. It's disseminating information about funding opportunities and helping to put together bids both in their academic content and in terms of the finances and things like that.

How long have you worked in the organisation?

Just over three years.

Can you tell me what your job involves?

It's largely – the main thing is supporting bids for external research income for the university, applying to different funders. It could be research councils or charities or any number of other funders, government departments for instance. And so I circulate information about potential funding bids and then support the academics in putting the bids together in terms of the academic side, the form filling, the case for support, the finances, all that sort of thing. There's also a lot of other tasks to do with research support including a lot of work with things like the research assessment exercise and what's coming in now, which is the successor to that which is called the Research Excellence Framework. I also deal with things like the university's research ethics policy with research strategy and university research policy more generally.

So it's very broad and takes in a lot of aspects of research support within the university dealing with our relationship with external bodies and its own internal policies. It's the kind of job that in a larger research office, aspects of it would probably be handled by a lot of different people because we have quite a small research office and have to cross over an awful lot. It means I have my fingers in a lot of different pies at any given time.

Can you give me an idea about your main responsibilities? 

Well the main one as I said is dealing with outgoing funding bids and that is probably what takes up the largest single part of my time, probably not a majority of my time but the largest part of it.

How many bids might you be working with at any one time? 

It could be four or five at any given time and in fact it frequently is, although those might be very different sizes. Some of them could only be for a few thousand pounds some of them could be for hundreds of thousands. And I would as an example of the way that these things flow through I could for instance start off by seeing information about it on a funder's website or an e-mail list, distribute that to people within the university who might be interested, take queries from those people about terms and conditions and things like that and end up spending quite a lot of time sitting down with the person who's interested in bidding and actually working through what the bid entails, and how they might respond to it. What kind of things they might put into a proposal and then helping with putting it together financially and then making sure that it gets seen by all the relevant people within the university before it goes out. We have different sorts of thresholds so if something is say over a quarter of a million pounds it needs to be signed off by a certain person within the university, whereas if it's smaller than that there might be different hoops that the person has to jump through. That would be the kind of general way that something that would have evolve.

Do you have a typical day?

Not really no. A lot of it's very cyclical, we would end up doing very different things depending on where we are in terms of what funder's deadlines are for one thing, any particular calls for proposals that have come out, but also we have pressures put upon us by external constraints like the timetables around the research assessment exercise for instance, or studentship calls or if there's things within the university like important meetings coming up to do with policy or strategy or things like that, that would very much dictate what me and my colleague are doing at any given time.

There are certain things that are always common. As I say we nearly always have some bids on the go at least on the back burner. But a lot of it – it's difficult to talk about a typical day because of how cyclical the work is. There are certain things that would recur on you know three monthly basis or annual basis or kind of more infrequent than that. But the work load does tend to vary greatly. There are times when we're a lot more busy than at other times and it's all quite – in a sense quite reactive, quite self managed you know, we're often reacting to external deadlines or other external pressures and there tends not to be very much Management with capital M in the sense of head of departments or whatever saying this is what you should be doing. At this given time you've got to be quite flexible and quite reactive.

How is your department structured and who is in your team? 

I share an office with one colleague who has more responsibility for policy stuff than I do although that's not an absolute distinction and we tend to cross over quite a lot. She also manages four other staff in the department who are responsible for research degree admissions and administration. Above us we have a director of the graduate school although that post is currently vacant because the incumbent retired a little while ago and we're still waiting for a replacement to be appointed. The director of the graduate school manages the research office which is me and my colleague and the four research degree staff who she supervises. The other half of the graduate school deals with administration for taught Masters programmes and although they're ostensibly in the same department we have very little overlap and our functions are quite separate from that side

Above the director of the Graduate School there's the deputy vice chancellor who my colleague and I both work quite closely with on university research policy, and strategy stuff.

Do you work on funding bids across the disciplines?

Yes

And what is involved in putting together a funding bid?

First of all there's the initial dissemination of the call for proposals and then in some instances we can actually get involved quite heavily before people have even decided whether to put the bid in because there are certain schemes where funding might be limited and it wouldn't be in the university's interest to have several bids effectively competing with each other from the same institution, so we might arrange meetings between different groups who are interested in applying for the same funding stream in order to see whether they have any common ground and they can collaborate. We would never say – I would never say to people you can't do this but if there are instances where it looks intractable I would refer it upwards to the Deputy Vice Chancellor who might have to – we've only had to in a couple of instances – but might have to arbitrate and decide which would go forward. Then after that we would work, we would read through the proposal as the academics working on it came to us with it, and help them with form filling and calculating the cost of the proposal working out the finances. And things like that before eventually the bid is submitted and goes to the, depending on its size, goes to the Deputy Vice Chancellor, the Director of Finance, or the Vice Chancellor for final approval before it goes out of the university to the funding body. So the whole process, although some people do tend to be a little bit last minute with it, the whole process can be three months or so from the initial call for proposals being announced until the bid is submitted. It can be quite lengthy.

And are the projects that are proposed for individual work or group work or both?

The majority would be group work. I mean the research councils now are much less inclined to fund individual work than they used to be. They're often – there are things like fellowships or research leave schemes where it's by definition individual work, but all of the research councils now place much greater priority on collaborative work and funding groups of investigators.

And so do the groups approach you as a group or do you have to assemble the groups?

They would almost always approach as a group. The principal investigator would be the person or the head of department that's interested in bidding would be the person who put those groups together. There are instances where we might try to put two groups together if there was – if we knew that a research council was only going to make 10 awards across the country then clearly it wouldn't be advisable for this institution to be putting in two or three different bids. So in some instances we would gently try to coerce different groups to work together. That's not something that tends to happen all that often because the specialisms of different groups of researchers within the university tends to be fairly distinct so if there was a call on say immigration from Eastern Europe or something there would be a finite number of people within the university who might be interested in that anyway. But generally we wouldn't be the people who are actually assembling groups to work on something, no.

Do bids tend to be weighted towards the sciences and social sciences?

Very much social sciences in this institution. We don't have much of a research base in the physical sciences. We don't really do the kinds of things that the physical science research councils would be interested in, with a few exceptions. But this institutions research base is predominantly social sciences, to a lesser extent, humanities and then the hard sciences would be some way behind that.

Can you describe what your physical work environment is like?

I share an office with one other person, it's a fairly large office which is fairly pleasant to work in, far more so than some of the other places I've worked. The other people with whom I have to interact on a day to day basis are all along the same corridor. I do quite often go to the offices of various academics who might be interested in putting bids together. Sometimes I would go to them, sometimes they would come to me but there is space in my office for people to come and meet, come and have discussions if they want to. And it's generally a fairly good working environment - Physically.

And what are working conditions like?

Generally fairly good. We all get on pretty well. The biggest problem in this line of work in terms of working conditions can be short notice periods, can be people who might have been working on bids without telling us, turning up at the last minute expecting help with something and it can be quite awkward. Sometimes you can end up, it can get a little bit confrontational having to tell people that they should have spoken to you about something two months before a deadline rather than five minutes. The five minutes isn't an exaggeration, it's actually happened to me before that something has had to be e-mailed somewhere at five o'clock and I've heard about it for the first time at five to five. that's an extreme example but that's the worst, that's really the most difficult recurring situation. There are obviously other things that are fairly fraught and deadline driven, particularly dealing with things like the Research Assessment Exercise which is you know a bureaucratic nightmare that went on for a very long time and I think you would find anybody who had to deal with that in any university saying pretty much the same thing. I mean it can be stressful and the workload can vary massively from day to day and from week to week. But I think a lot of those things are outside of the hands certainly of people in this department.

It can be an uphill struggle sometimes trying to ensure compliance across the university with the regulations that we have about how you go about bidding for funding. And sometimes communications between other departments and my office are not as good as they should be but working conditions generally are fine.

What are your working hours and are they flexible?

It's fairly flexible. It doesn't go much beyond nine to five normally, although there have been instances obviously when it has gone beyond that, but I wouldn't say that's particularly regular. My colleague who I share an office with and I can cover for each other fairly well in most instances and so we don't really need both to be there or arrange cover separately if we're not going to be around. It's fairly flexible and the working hours aren't a problem.

Obviously there are instances where I've had to stay late to work on something and there have been a few instances when I've had to bring work home but that's not a particularly common occurrence.

And how autonomous are you?

Very. Most of the kind of constraints on my work derive from external deadlines and things like that rather than from kind of management. The job has to be fairly reactive and fairly flexible and I guess the autonomy that I've got is a function of that really. Being kind of tied any tighter a schedule than I have or being expected to be in a particular place at particular times any more than I am at the moment would probably have a negative impact on my ability to react to things that I have to react to, so it's – I think compared to most other university support roles it's actually very autonomous.

Does your job have any connection with the subject area of your PhD?

With the subject area itself, not at all, no.

But do you feel that you're using your PhD experience in any way in your current job? 

Indirectly I think, yeah. Although it's indirect I still think it's quite important in that I think it would be much more difficult to do this job without any first hand experience of research and of how research works within universities. And also I think inevitably you gain some knowledge of things like research funding and bidding and things like that in the course of a PhD simply by being in that environment. A lot of the things I do that aren't directly related to funding I think also benefit from me having a PhD in terms of some of the research policy stuff and dealing with things like the RAE and generally dealing with the relationship between research and other aspects of the university. I think it's all informed important but perhaps slightly difficult to quantify or pin down ways.

Would a PhD be vital for your job?

It wouldn't be vital but I think it's very useful. I think I've noticed in the last few years that there seem to be more and more people in the kind of positions I'm in who have PhDs and increasingly adverts for the kinds of job that I'm doing will say that a research degree would be helpful, it would be desirable but not essential. But certainly I wouldn't say that the majority of people doing the kind of roles I do have PhDs but it's a sizeable minority and it certainly seems to be more so now than it was a few years ago.

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