Admin: drowning, not waving

I worked in admin before my science career, in many roles, in many sectors. I’ve worked as a corporate receptionist, oversaw corporate communications, worked in document control for engineering consultancies, and managed content translation requests for university students with learning disabilities. I’ve been co-managing an unfunded citizen science project for more than six years.

So I’m no stranger to admin and I have no grudge against admin professionals – they are essential!

But, in some cases, the admin sagas that academics are forced to star in are a bit much.

Universities hire admin staff. Even within our own departments, academics generally have access to department-specific admin, finance and technical professionals. So why is so much of an academic’s time taken up with enforced admin, when it’s not technically part of their job description, and they’re not trained to deliver the desired admin outcomes?

Note, I’m not talking about service here. Some people do conflate the two, and sometimes there is a grey area between them. But they are separate things. Service is an important and essential part of an academic’s role; it includes things like peer review, outreach, sitting on strategic committees, mentoring, designing new courses, and much more.

Admin, on the other hand, is not so much. Here I’m talking about the administrative hoops you have to jump through to literally do the research and teaching you’re paid to do, e.g.:

  • Travel approvals for research field work
  • Travel approvals for teaching field trips
  • Legal approvals for your successful grants (because you’re not allowed to accept a grant that you legitimately won without approval)
  • Applying for the Human and Animal Ethics approvals you need to actually do the research and teaching you’re being paid to do (Ethics approvals themselves ARE essential for a lot of projects, but the administrative processes and time (6-12 months++) that it takes to get these approvals for the most basic of projects are absurd – the project funding or teaching activity you needed the approval for is usually finished by the time you get the approvals to do the things you wanted to do…)
  • Field research permits for government owned/protected land, like national parks and reserves (my students and I have missed out on many a field site because of the months it takes to receive these approvals….I’m still waiting on requests I put in six months ago)
  • Organising approval for text book access
  • Purchasing teaching tools and software
  • Changing the content and assessments in the unit you teach every year
  • Filling out forms to sign off on normal exams, special exams and deferred exams
  • Filling out forms to request the purchase of essential equipment and supplies for research projects (even if you’re lucky enough to get a corporate credit card as a researcher, you usually have a very restrictive limit that doesn’t work for most natural sciences field projects)
  • Unreasonably detailed budgets for grant applications, that expect you to identify costs to the decimal places and include (or don’t include, depending on the grant) taxes, on-costs, inflation, insurance etc.
  • Ongoing progress reports and financial statements for grant-funded research projects, which you need to complete to get your next grant payment

Yes, these processes are valuable. In most cases, they are in place because a small proportion of historically dishonest and reckless people have caused a need for the overzealous processes we now deal with. But these are all things that could be done relatively quickly and easily by trained admin staff who have the expertise to do it all within a few days…rather than a few months.

Unfortunately, some universities outsource these responsibilities to academics. Yet most academics are not trained or savvy to deal with them, and neither should they be. It is not in our job description, and it is not an essential skill for our career development. Moreover, it literally detracts time and energy from the things that ARE in our job description, like teaching students, managing projects, doing research, supervising research students, thinking, reading literature, doing outreach etc.

You might be saying, just pay for a personal admin manager! Hire a lab/project manager to do it! Do what you want!

Most academics would love to! But this has to be justified through grant money and is generally only available to senior academics with privileges. (Would love to know if anyone has quantified the correlation between publication productivity and paid admin/lab assistance).

Academia and CorporateLife have been forced together over the last few decades. Probably not the best time to get together, because they are both going through their own existential crises. I think this has resulted in a frustrating experience for both sides. 

In particular, forcing academics to manage administrative processes restricts creative processes and mental wellbeing for both parties.

So what are the solutions? There is no single answer, but here are a few suggestions:

  • Design travel approval and expenditure processes that are quick and simple and suit multi-disciplinary academic research, teaching and outreach (i.e. field science, lab science, human-focused, non-human focused etc.), not corporate structures.
  • Design teaching policies that allow hired academics to adapt their teaching to a rapidly changing world.
  • Design institutional research ethics processes that provide clear criteria for fast-tracking low-impact projects.
  • Funding bodies increase efficiency of reporting requirements they expect from researchers. We can report progress and outcomes efficiently without spending weeks (that we should be spending collecting data to meet the grant objectives) writing pages and pages of token reporting text that never gets read beyond the funding body.
  • Funding bodies include a guaranteed small % funding for project admin that goes toward salary for a full time admin position to manage research admin at the institution.

© Manu Saunders 2020

8 thoughts on “Admin: drowning, not waving

  1. PK Read December 4, 2020 / 11:58 PM

    Couldn’t agree more – I see the (non-teaching) researchers around us deal with so much admin, and it takes a mental and emotional toll that detracts from the actual work. Almost by definition, if you are really drawn towards some kinds of work (scientific research, creative writing, etc.), you are might not be a gifted admin person who loves organizing the details.
    We visited Goethe’s house in in Weimar back in the day. One always wonders how these writer/philosopher/scientists were so prolific. Well – they didn’t do any admin. They had secretaries who slept in the next room, ready to wake and write down/copy anything that came into the great thinker’s mind. They had a staff at their disposal. They had wives/families organizing all the mundane details. It didn’t hurt that a lot of them were born to money.
    The bottom-line approach to academia was never going to go well. I hope some of your suggestions can take root and grow.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. cinnabarreflections December 5, 2020 / 9:21 AM

    Bang on! Much of it is due to ‘downloading’ in my experience. Upper admin, who are supposedly there to make the academic functioning of the university efficient and effective, download activities to faculty and departmental chairs. At least that seemed to be the pattern where I worked…..

    Liked by 2 people

  3. gsmythe72 December 5, 2020 / 1:39 PM

    Welcome to academia 2020 Manu 🙂 Having been an academic for 25 years I can assure you the admin load has gotten worse. Why? Because the corporate universities worked out they could get academics to do the admin for free (as part of their salaried postion) and not have to pay additional salaries to admin staff. That is, they could get rid of admin postions and shift the load to already paid for academic staff.
    Solution – governments need to stop treating tertiary education as a business and resume treating it as the social investment it is – and direct more of the tax pool to education.
    When will that happen? Not for another 25 years at least.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. michaelrwhitehead December 17, 2020 / 12:16 PM


    Interested to hear you also struggle with parks permits in NSW. I watched the last flowering season on my project march on while waiting for months on the permitting authority down here, despite their website recommending up to six week turnarounds. In the end I could do some if it illegally, but I would never recommend that to a student. It frustrates me no end that these parks administrators stand in the way of the very research that creates value out of their parks. And any member of the public can walk in unannounced whenever they like, but as a researcher we must specify when, where, and what ahead of time, and fill in reams of paperwork to pull four leaves off a tree.

    I would like to see society-based permitting agreements with parks for basic collections work. For example, the Aus Ent Soc would endorse members under a streamlined blanket permit for basic collections. That shifts some admin to society administrators, but membership fees or specific license fees could be raised to offset that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Manu Saunders December 17, 2020 / 4:10 PM

      Oh yes, it would be interesting to quantify how many researchers have missed out on field sites and/or had to collect data sans permit because of these delays. I honestly don’t understand the logic in trying to hold up research like this, especially when it’s for projects funded by the same/similar gov department! Great suggestion about the society contribution, that would be really useful


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