Science administration: what’s that?

Sep 23 2017 Published by under alternative career

watchingforsunbreaks is a research administrator living in the pacific northwest. After getting a PhD in biochemistry, she switched to a career in research administration and hasn’t looked back. In her free time, she enjoys cooking, photography and travelling the world.


When I went to grad school, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. During my undergraduate studies, I really liked working in a research lab. It was more fun to run experiments than study out of textbooks, so I figured I should just go get a PhD. Well, I got one and then realized I still didn’t know what I wanted to do. By the end, I was burned out. Instead of jumping into a postdoc, I decided I would take a break, try to find a job still related to research and de-stress. If I missed the lab in a year, I’ll try to go back, but if I didn’t, then I needed to move on and find an alternative career. Suffice to say, I didn’t go back to the lab and now several years later, I’ve ended up in a career path I never really thought I would be in, science administration.

Maybe I’ll go into how I got started in this career in another blog post, but for this one, I’ll just try to describe what Science Administration is, how my research background is useful and some pros and cons of the job.

Science administration – what is it?

I think of science administration as having two broad components, research administration and program administration.

Research administration covers everything related to grants, contracts, and sometimes project specific work if it is a large award encompassing multiple projects and multiple sites. People are often divided into pre-award and post-award, where pre-award is all about finding sources of funding, getting research proposals together, putting together a budget and making sure applications conform to not only sponsor requirements but also institutional requirements. Post-award is everything that goes into making sure once a proposal is funded, that the money is spent in accordance with the terms and conditions of the grant and that the project progresses in a timely manner.

Program administration is more generalized, more similar to admin you would find at any organization encompassing personnel onboarding/offboarding, providing support and guidance for program activities such as seminars and recruitment, and financial support for core funds (money that does not come from external sponsors). Program administration roles are often more strategic, looking into what the needs of the department/program or institution are and how to working toward fulfilling those needs through a mix of institutional resources and sponsored funding.

Do I use any of my science training?

Short answer is not really. Vast majority of science admins don’t have a science background at all. This is changing, though. Since I started in this career, I’ve seen more and more people with science backgrounds and even a few more PhDs starting in this field. I’m not sure if that’s in part due to there just being too many graduates in biosciences who are looking for alternative careers, or if the field itself is professionalizing more and thus looking for people with more science background.

While I rarely use my research training, I do find that it is helpful. I can look for funding opportunities that are more directly related to the work my faculty do, I lightly edit their research proposals (though more with postdocs than with PIs), I can put together budgets that are more in line with the actual project and not just based on generalized estimations. But mostly, I think it helps with just being able to anticipate the questions faculty have and be a better conduit between them and sponsors since I’m familiar with how they work and their thought process. I can speak in their language and that makes them more comfortable and confident in me, which then allows me to be better able to help them. There are lots of science admins who have no science background who are great at their jobs, so this is definitely not a necessity.


  • My values are aligned with the goals of the institution I work for. It might sound hokey, but the fact that the goal of the organization I work for is to cure cancer is really important to me. I still feel like I’m contributing to a cause I believe in even though I’m not doing the hands on research anymore.
  • Good work/life balance. I have regular hours and I rarely take my work home.
  • Good colleagues and work environment.


  • It’s boring sometimes. I’m always looking to learn more but most of the time, the work is not particularly challenging.
  • It can be hard to advance. People in this field tend to stay and hold on to their jobs for a long time since the pay is decent and the job is stable, so there’s not a lot of opportunities to advance within the organization.

That’s a pretty quick and dirty introduction to science administration. For researchers looking for an alternative career path, I think it’s definitely worth considering.


One response so far

  • peirama says:

    Thank you for sharing! I enjoy hearing about a wide variety of careers and I have not heard much about research administration before.

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