Mixing administration and research: academic positions off the beaten path

Laura Diaz-Martinez

After seven years as a postdoc at a research-intensive medical center, I decided it was time to spread my wings and begin the search for a new job. In hindsight I probably should have started earlier! At the time, I knew I liked teaching, research, and communicating science to others. The obvious choice was to apply for a tenure-track faculty position, but I was aware of the current state of hyper competition for these openings (Thanks COMPASS for raising awareness about this!). So, I decided to expand my search and include non-tenure-track positions that were in line with my interests. In total, I applied for 29 positions: 25 tenure-track faculty, one non-tenure-track instructor, and three non-faculty positions.  I received follow ups from a handful of the tenure-track positions, mostly at small universities, and for the three non-tenure-track positions. Because the hiring timelines for non-faculty and faculty positions are so different (mainly in the sense that faculty searches drag on forever while non-faculty positions are decided very quickly), I found myself in the interesting position of having a non-faculty offer on the table while being in the limbo of interviews and waiting for the faculty positions. I was forced to decide right then and there between two risks: the risk to go into a non-faculty job that sounded interesting but I had really no idea of what the day-to-day entailed or the risk of waiting for a unicorn (the coveted faculty job). The answer turned out to be something in between, thanks to the power of negotiation.

The interview

The position I was offered was Associate Director of the Campus Office of Undergraduate Research Initiatives at a minority-serving institution. The role of the office is to engage undergrads from all majors in research, and they needed someone with interests in working with students (check), research (check) and who could manage several programs and a team of three staff (absolutely no prior experience in this… uncheck). The initial interview was over the phone with three interviewers. I was asked typical questions about my research and teaching experience. Then they switched to questions about my managerial and administrative experience. I was direct and stated my lack of experience but my willingness to learn. They also explained that this was a weird position where I would have a dual appointment, one as Associate Director (a staff position) and the other as Research Assistant Professor in the department most aligned with my discipline. However, my job duties (and pay) would come exclusively from the staff position; the research position was only because this position required a faculty appointment.

A couple of days later I got a call to schedule an in-person interview at the institution. The on-site interview was very similar to any academic interview: two days at the institution, a presentation on my research, interviews with faculty and chair from the department where my joint appointment would be located, interviews with the office director and staff, and with leaders from the Provost Office, which oversees the undergraduate research office. The interviews were very enjoyable, and I got a better glimpse of what the job entailed and the possibilities this position could offer.

The negotiation

About a week after coming back from the interview I received a formal offer, and decided to schedule a phone call to negotiate the offer. The issue was not the job or the pay/benefits, but I wasn’t ready to give up on my own research. So I decided to fight for it. Based on the fact that I was going to be appointed as a Research Assistant Professor, I asked if it would be possible for me to actually establish a small research program. I ended up successfully negotiating an 80/20 appointment where I could devote 80% of my time to the duties of the undergraduate research office and 20% of my time to pursue my own research. Of course, the research part came with no start-up or dedicated lab space, since it was not a tenure-track position. That is, I had to negotiate lab space with faculty who were interested in collaborating with me, and I had to find my own funding for my research project. But hey, I could still do some research!

The first two years

I have been in this position for two years, and I do not regret the decision. The learning curve for managing and administration has been steep, but I discovered skills that I didn’t know I had. A key factor in my success has honestly been the constant encouragement and mentoring from the director, who has really ensured that I can always go to her with any questions. Without her support I would probably have gone crazy dealing with the maze that university administration can be. I also do not regret my decision to keep doing research, even though at times combining the two roles can be stressful and chaotic. However, the 80/20 ideal actually turned out to be more of a 100/30 because I spend basically 40h/week working on office-related stuff, and then working in the lab about 10-15 h/week on top of that. But I enjoy it and have three very talented students (undergrads) doing research with me.

The job day-to-day

My main job is to provide opportunities for undergrads to get involved in research. This includes: overseeing research programs for undergrads (currently four different programs, ~80 participants), leading workshops and other activities for undergraduate researchers, providing advice and feedback to the students in our programs (e.g., reading their research reports and giving them feedback, which I love!), writing grants to keep funding for our programs alive or to establish new programs, collaborating with faculty to design new research programs or research courses, keeping track of all undergrads doing research on campus (around 400 each semester), providing research participation statistics to departments and administrators, overseeing the staff in the office, overseeing marketing efforts, establishing and maintaining contacts with faculty, administrators, other university entities, alumni, community partners and potential donors, and everything else related to undergraduate research that comes my way.

In order to do all of the above, I basically work 8-5pm in my office and have lots of meetings: once a week with the office staff, every other week with the director, and as necessary with faculty, administrators, etc. I probably spend about 10 h/week in meetings. This is the most difficult part of the job for me because I am an introvert. The rest of the time I meet with students individually or as part of our activities (~8h/week), search for grant opportunities, and write grant proposals. I write about 4-5 proposals per year, promote undergraduate research at campus events, and do administrative tasks (approve this, sign that, figure out how to do X) or management tasks (troubleshoot issues arising with the staff in charge of those tasks, communicate with all departments on campus, escalate or de-escalate issues as needed, write reports).  At the end of the day, I go to the lab and have lab meetings, teach my students new techniques, discuss their projects, and write grants to get money for my own research.

The wisdom of retrospective view

For anyone interested in a position like this I would recommend the following:

  • Seek out some administration/management experience during your postdoc. For example, volunteer to manage one of your mentor’s grants so that you learn about dealing with granting agencies, reporting requirements, learn about university structure and get experience interacting with people in administrative positions (purchase office, grants office, human resources, etc.).
  • Get some experience in science communication and outreach. Several federal funding agencies (the National Science Foundation most notably) require that research grants have a ‘broader impact’ component that can be achieved by bringing your science to the community. During my postdoc I volunteered with a faculty member at my institution who had a program that brought microscopes to kindergarten classrooms and with the ASCB to set up a booth at the USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, DC. These experiences were not only good to add science outreach to my CV but also tons of fun! (You can read about the ASCB experience here).
  • Teaching experience is crucial. Even though my position does not involve teaching (aside from workshops I do for the students), all of what I do is in the context of an academic institution. More importantly, I collaborate with faculty extensively and lead efforts to convince faculty to incorporate research into their classes. Therefore, having teaching experience really helps. This is something that is not easily achieved during a research-focused postdoc. I recognized this need for my career plans early on and taught a course at a community college while also doing my postdoc. It was a crazy semester, but I learned a lot. There are also less time intensive education activities you can participate in, such as the programs organized by the ASCB’s Education Committee.

A little something to keep in mind

Engaging undergrads in research is fun and is becoming more common at universities. Most colleges/universities now have an office for undergraduate research, and many institutions are pushing to transform the traditional labs into so-called Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences (CUREs), where students conduct research as part of the course. Because of this, many universities are now asking tenure-track candidates about their experience and willingness to conduct research with undergrads, and there are institutions offering new postdoc positions (e.g., ‘teaching postdoc’) where the postdocs teach the research labs and also conduct research. These positions allow the postdocs to gain experience in both research and teaching. Honestly, if I could do my postdoc all over again I would opt for one of these teaching postdoc positions as it would have prepared me much better for the career I have chosen.

About the Author:

Laura Diaz-Martinez is Associate Director of the Campus Office of Undergraduate Research Initiatives and Research Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences at The University of Texas at El Paso. She is also an active ASCB member and former member of ASCB’s COMPASS.