Bringing it all together: high impact research management

The direct and obvious route isn’t always the one that has the most impact. The jobs that get the most credit and recognition aren’t necessarily the ones that make the most difference. The smartest people might not be those who make the greatest contribution. These statements are true generally, but one area in which they might be less immediately obvious is in academic research.

Activist_Manager

There’s a general misconception that researchers are the only people who really contribute towards scientific progress. But there’s a lot of incredibly important work, besides the research itself, that’s vital to producing important research, and such work is often underappreciated. We don’t realise how important other people working in academia are: people in administration, management, or communications. Their work is crucial; they bring it all together.

We also tend to think of these people as fairly interchangeable; that it doesn’t make much difference who fills these roles, as long as the work gets done. But someone who is motivated and interested in research can potentially make a huge difference in these roles, as they can add a huge amount of value as compared with someone who is not. So this could potentially be an avenue for some incredibly high impact work.

High Impact Management

In an earlier post, we talked about the idea of the high impact PA: how helping an already very effective researcher to be more productive by taking everyday tasks off their hands could arguably bring about more important research than you going into research yourself. Whilst this is a great illustration of how making a difference isn’t always a matter of what you do directly or about getting recognition, it clearly won’t suit everyone. If you’re really interested in a certain area of research it’s perfectly reasonable to feel that a job involving secretarial work and little involvement with the research itself would be unsatisfying – not to mention a waste of your talent and enthusiasm for the subject.

But it’s not a professorship, a PA job, or nothing. There’s a lot of work that research departments need doing more on the side of management and communications which involve a great deal more intellectual challenge and engagement with the research itself. Most of the ideas in this post came from a conversation I had recently with Sean O hEigeartaigh who works as an Academic Project Manager at the Future of Humanity Institute in Oxford, so a great deal of the credit for them goes to him. Sean is also himself a great example of someone making a huge difference in research through indirect means. I asked him a bit about his background and how he ended up in his current position at the FHI:

“I did a PhD in comparative genomics at Trinity College Dublin, and realised I had management abilities whilst running an arts organisation. When I finished my PhD I was choosing between doing a postdoc and the project manager role at FHI. I chose the project manager role in the end because I really believed in the importance of the work being done on the project, and it provided a niche where I could really make the most of my management and research abilities. It seemed like having both was fairly rare but could be really useful. The FHI is also somewhere that good management is particularly useful because it’s a small and rapidly growing organisation. The research conducted is also often quite unconventional, so having a project manager able to understand and communicate it sensitively is really important.”

What would this involve day-to-day?

To get a better idea of what jobs in academic management really involve, I asked Sean about some of the jobs he does and that need doing on a day-to-day basis in a research institute like the FHI. The main areas seemed to be:

  • Keeping track of and prioritising research within a department
  • Fundraising: looking for grant opportunities, preparing grant applications, talking to and negotiating with prospective funders
  • Organising and running events and conferences
  • Communicating with media and policy, public speaking
  • Managing budgets
  • Attracting new and talented researchers to the group
  • Coordinating and communicating with other research groups

Hybrid positions, combining research and management, could also be an option: it’s possible, like Sean, to publish peer-reviewed papers whilst working as a project manager in research. So if the idea of academic management appeals but you think you’d miss not doing direct research, you might be able to get the best of both worlds: having, say, 50% of the output of a typical academic researcher whilst also doing vital management and communications work.

It’s not just niche research institutes like the FHI that need project managers, though. These kinds of jobs are common and necessary in big scientific research institutes, too. For example, the European Bioinformatics Institute recently advertised for a Project Leader on a comparative genomics project. This Nature article nicely summarises the need for better management in academia.

Why could this be very high impact?

Freeing up time and improving management for a top researcher could be a way to make a big difference because you make an already effective person more effective. If you do administrative or management work for a whole research department, this effect could potentially be very large: say you’re managing a team of 10 researchers and in doing so you increase their output by just 15% each. Your indirect contribution to research output would then be 150% of what each researcher themselves contribute directly. That is, you’d be making more difference than the researchers themselves!

But it’s much more than just freeing up time and making people more productive. There are a number of other huge advantages you can bring to a research department as a skilled and dedicated project manager:

  • Communicating research to the public in a sensitive, eloquent way that enhances rather than damages it.
  • Working with policy makers to help implement research where possible or necessary.
  • Having someone to consider the bigger picture where individual researchers cannot, prioritising research and disentangling what’s important from what merely appears so or is interesting.
  • Taking important funding opportunities academics might not have the time for.
  • Helping institutes run a more diverse range of projects than they might otherwise be able to.
  • Dealing with meta-issues such as the effect of areas of research on the reputation of an academic or department.
  • Bringing more talented researchers into important fields who might have done less valuable work otherwise.

A key point here is when thinking about making a difference, you want to find an important job that you’ll be doing better than the person who would be doing it in your place. And it seems like there could be a huge difference between a research manager who simply puts in the hours but nothing more, and one who is willing to go the extra mile. Speaking to Sean about the difference this makes from his experience, he said:

“There’s a really big difference between someone who does the 9-5 and goes home, and someone who feels like they’re really doing something worthwhile that’s a benefit to the world. You can get a lot more value from the latter than the former.

Another important point is that this is somewhere that academia is competing with the business market. The skillset needed to be a project manager in academia is roughly the same as required for a similar role in business, but the salary structure in academia is fixed. This means that it makes it harder for us to get the right calibre of person for a position like this, because they could be better paid in a corporate setting. So someone who is altruistic or motivated by research can also make a big difference simply because they’re likely to be more skilled than someone without this motivation that would be doing the job otherwise. Someone who is willing to bring the same level of skill and initiative for a lower salary at a research institute brings a huge amount of return.”

Who might this suit?

This kind of job is the perfect opportunity to do something incredibly important whilst working in an interesting environment surrounded by inspiring people and ideas, and provides a lot of flexibility to do different things later on. Especially if you’re interested in intellectual ideas or considering going into research but unsure if it’s right for you, it may be worth considering this as a valuable direction that your future career could branch off into.

What specific kinds of skills or characteristics do you need for this kind of work?

  • An ability to prioritise
  • Good time management
  • An interest in and ability to understand the research being conducted
  • General enthusiasm
  • The ability to juggle a lot of commitments
  • Reliability
  • Diplomacy
  • Good salesperson and communication skills

This kind of skillset is probably quite rare: but this makes it all the more valuable if you think you have it.

Having either research or management experience is likely crucial to success in an academic management role. So if this is something you’re seriously interested in, it’s probably worth either getting a PhD or some management experience (or both, if possible!) – depending on specific position, as some will put more weight on research background, others on management experience. This is also good justification for getting involved in running student societies and charitable organisation whilst at University, rather than focusing purely on books and essays. This could be a great way to pick up skills in managing groups of people and making the most of limited time and resources, as well as learning whether this kind of work might suit you.


If this is something you’d like to find out more about or have any questions, feel free to email Sean (sean.oheigeartaigh@philosophy.ox.ac.uk) or myself (jess.whittlestone@80000hours.org) with any questions. The FHI hope to be hiring project management and administrative support in the near future, contingent on success in ongoing funding applications . We’ll post any positions that become available either here on the blog or advertise them through our mailing list, so watch this space!


You might also enjoy:

The high impact PA: How anyone can bring about groundbreaking research

How to do important research

How to make a difference in research: An interview with Nick Bostrom