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