What does managing researchers mean? Herding cats, or facilitating chaos?

Nadine Painter, Institute Manager of the Australian Rivers Institute

Neither, but the analogy often provides people outside of academia with a little bit of insight into what I do for a job.  I’m the Institute Manager at the Australian Rivers Institute.  So, what does that mean?

Nadine Painter

It means that I and my amazing administrative team (BIG shout out to Susan, Chrys and Jimmy) support over 160 researchers and students to do “all the science things”. Our aim is to minimise the administrative burden on them, so they can just get on with “all the science things”.

As administrators we’re not as interested in the science things, science isn’t my strong point, it pretty much confuses me…. I’m the one looking like a rabbit in the headlights when I’m listening to a scientific talk.

On the flip side I’m a really good administrator , so really it’s a marriage made in heaven – if everyone follows the rules of the relationship. “And, how likely is that” I hear you say?  Well I’ll fill you in.

ARI is an absolutely fabulous place to work, and I work with an amazing group of professional and academic staff.  You see, the scientists in ARI are mostly environmental scientists, (with a lawyer here, economist there, and a couple of engineers) which means they are typically well grounded, reasonable, nice people, who love the environment and nature, and have a real passion to change the world for the better.  I really admire their drive to change the world, I’m a big fan.

I often think administrators are considered by academics as the formidable “red-tapers”, “rules makers”, “regulation enforcers”, “deadlines demanders”, “email swampers”, and  “THE supreme naggers”.  I’m pretty awesome at this stuff, I consider myself at the Olympic level now with this skill set, but I must say, that the researchers and students in our Institute have a great deal of respect for what we do, and who we are as individuals  –  we’re definitely winning!

Universities, just by nature, are big complex organizations, with structure and process and rules. We have lots of process in place, we move like an ocean liner, not a speedboat, and this can be excruciating at times, not only for researchers and students but administrators too.

To help ARI navigate the administrative labyrinths, I have introduced another layer of internal processes in ARI, BUT I did it for efficiencies (…. this will help you, I promised!). Just a little snapshot of the kind of things (that all those forms I ask researchers and students to fill out) contribute to in 12 months.  This all happens in Mission Control in our sky office on level 4 of the Sir Samuel Griffith Centre.

  • Lots and lots (and LOTS) of staff appointments (from casual appointments, creating new positions, assisting with writing position descriptions, advertising positions, contract appointments, adjunct appointments, and (our all-time favorite), visiting scholars and academics with the associated many and varied visa applications, letters and emails that entails);
  • Provide support to our Directors, and try to make their work lives less stressful, get them to meetings on time, organise meetings, documents, budgets, travel, papers, reports, emails, ANYTHING to make things go smoothly;
  • Onboard staff and students (making sure people have a desk, computer, building and laboratory access, pens, pencils, paperclips, paper – you get the drift);
  • Induct staff and students, manage fieldwork risk assessments, laboratory audits and inspections  – yep, it’s our job to make sure that you don’t hurt yourself, anyone else, or blow anything up;
  • Make sure there is milk, tea, and COFFEE available at ALL times.
  • Manage the operational budget, making sure it’s distributed fairly and managed well so that we get the best bang for our bucks, and that we meet all our University imposed KPI’s (that’s admin jargon for Key Performance Indicators)!
  • Organise a plethora of seminars, meetings, workshops, committees, training, morning teas, drinks and nibbles and other functions;
  • Make sure the research staff and students have access to vehicles, vessels, satellite phones, GPS, and anything else they might need to do “all the science things”;
  • Approve lots and lots (and LOTS) requests for equipment, travel, conferences, computers, and all the gear needed to allow the sciencey people to get on with “all the science things”;
  • Organise the annual staff and student retreat – no 1 priority!
  • Answer lots and lots (and LOTS) of questions, queries, and emails, and provide advice on anything and pretty much everything;
  • Make sure the intranet, internet and marketing materials are on point;
  • Run interference – this is a big part of what we do!;
  • Keep an eye on all the research project budgets, so we never get to that “uh oh” moment; and,
  • Keep a sense of humour. At. All.       Times!

So the marriage made in heaven works.  If it weren’t for the academic staff and students, I wouldn’t have this amazing job, and if it wasn’t for the administrators, the research staff would be so bogged down with administration they couldn’t do the “all the science things”….. They are the ying, and we are the yang.

On a more serious note, I’m grateful to work in an environment where there is genuine respect for professional staff.  Sure, it’s often challenging for us in Mission Control, not everyone plays by the rules in the marriage, and it can get tricky, frustrating and stressful, but I like to remind myself that we are contributing to something much, much bigger, and I try not to sweat the small stuff. The research that is undertaken in ARI has the potential to be world-changing, and it’s great to be part of that.

So even though, sometimes the science ones and the administrative ones are on completely different planets, we (mostly) make it work, and we (mostly) make it work well, and that’s something for us all to be proud of.

I’m super proud of our Institute, what we have achieved together, and what will continue to achieve in the future.


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