Certified Research Administrator Program Raises the Bar on Research Excellence

In the summer of 2012, when Kimberly Horn joined Milken Institute School of Public Health (Milken Institute SPH) as associate dean of research, one of her primary goals was to develop new platforms to build a stronger research culture and community within the school.  Knowing that administrative staff are critical elements of research infrastructure, she began working to create a community among the school’s grants and research administrators. Most of the administrators across the school’s six departments had never met each other, and Horn saw the value in bringing them together to share resources and knowledge.

“The first meeting included over two dozen staff—the excitement and commitment to learn and share was so great we decided to meet regularly,” Horn says. Under Horn’s leadership, the school established its first formal learning community for research administrators, naming it the Learning Community of Grants Management Administrators (GMAs). With ongoing input from staff, the Learning Community of GMAs has grown to include formal training opportunities where grant and research administrators can pursue advanced certification as a Certified Research Administrator (CRA). The CRA certification is a third-party designation given by the Research Administrators Certification Council, and is the gold standard for research administration, Horn says. The CRA initiative at Milken Institute SPH, made possible with support from the Office of the Dean, recently assisted several research administrators to prepare for and pass the strenuous examination.

Staff members who recently earned the CRA certification include Adina Bora, grants management coordinator; Theresa Chapman, pre-award grants specialist in the Office of the Dean; and Keisha Woods, center finance administrator in the Department of Health Policy. Those staffers join Laura Davis, senior research operations director in the Office of the Dean, who has been certified for nearly five years now, and Stephanie Sylvester, manager of fiscal operations from the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics. This raises the total number of CRA-certified Milken Institute SPH staff members to five.

Horn says that having more CRAs on staff will deepen the capacity of Milken Institute SPH to carry out innovative research on growing public health problems. She says that when administrators focus on the requirements for a smooth grant proposal and management that frees up investigators to focus on the research itself.

“The CRA program speaks to the growing culture of collaboration and our staff’s commitment to providing a valuable service to our researchers,” Horn says, adding that it is no small accomplishment to become certified.

The CRA exam, offered through the Research Administrators Certification Council, has a strict set of requirements and requires candidates to learn a substantial “Body of Knowledge” that includes project development and administration; legal requirements; and nuts and bolts of managing a large research project. The certification is valid for five years, during which time those who hold the credential must attain a minimum of 80 hours of continuing education activities in order to be considered for recertification. In addition to covering the cost for staff members to sit for the exam, the Office of the Dean also offers training awards to support CRA-certified staff members’ requisite continuing education activities.

It takes an average of four to six months to prepare for the exam and to make the process easier a group meets weekly to study together. Staff members who have earned their certification come back to mentor those who are still preparing to take the exam. Four additional staff members hope to take the exam and earn their certification later this year.

So far, the process gets great reviews from staff members who have already taken and passed the exam. “Obtaining the Certification in Research Administration demonstrated that I have achieved the fundamental knowledge to be a professional research or sponsored programs administrator,” says Bora. “I’m really thankful for this training opportunity and the support the program has given me through the exam process.”

Ultimately, Horn would like to have at least one CRA in each of the school’s six departments, saying, “This initiative shows the commitment of our school and Dean Lynn R. Goldman to advancing the competency and excellence of our research staff.”  She goes on to say that she has been thrilled with the progress of the CRA group so far. “Our staff is raising the bar for research administration and succeeding. I am continually impressed with their commitment to learning.”

To learn more about the CRA training program, please email Laura Davis at lrdavis@gwu.edu