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Research Development: A Career for the Planners, Strategists, and Figure-it-Out-ers
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Samarpita Sengupta


An oft repeated, but nevertheless useful and poignant infographic from the American Society of Cell Biology (ASCB) points to the fact that a traditional PhD to postdoc to academic tenure-track faculty career path is no longer the one that is most traveled. In fact, only 20 percent of newly minted doctorates, in all science and engineering fields end up with a tenure-track faculty position five years after graduation. It is also true, however, that newly minted (and not-so newly minted) PhDs are teeming with transferrable skills: project management, effective time management, leadership, communication skills, the ability to speak different “languages,” and many more. Those with PhDs can use these transferrable skills and still make an impact on science and scientific research. They embark on non-traditional career paths, such as science policy, science communications, and regulatory affairs, to name a few.


One such non-traditional career path that is often overlooked is that of a research development (RD) professional. RD professionals are the planners, the strategists and the figure-it-out-ers. They are the people who make big team science projects happen by guiding faculty, fellows, and students through the process of generating ideas, designing projects, setting up collaborations, seeking funding sources, preparing (writing/critiquing/peer reviewing/editing/project managing) a grant application, and assisting with successful execution of research projects, as well as completing a grant term or preparing progress reports and manuscripts. In addition, they spearhead strategic initiatives at the institutional level to hone research competitiveness in an increasingly competitive funding market.


A recent article in Science called RD professionals “enablers,” people who can efficiently use their “soft skills to help push research forward.” RD professionals serve as project managers, strategic planners, and even translators to assist in building multi-disciplinary teams. They gain the satisfaction of being actively engaged in the scientific process, ensuring funding for cutting edge research, building competitive teams, and having a finger on the scientific pulse of the institution. The best RD professionals are master jugglers of scientific fields and carry a strong understanding of the scientific method. They are a very valuable asset for a researcher, lab, or teams within an institution, and assist faculty with a diverse set of interests. An increasing number of institutions, ranging in size and expertise, are creating offices of RD and hiring people with scientific training (graduate students and postdoctoral scholars) to fill the positions within these offices.


In 2010, a grass-roots movement was started by an informal group of people to set up a community for RD professionals, with the objective of enhancing research within their institutions. Now an active professional association, the National Organization of Research Development Professionals (NORDP) has more than 800 members from across the country and beyond. NORDP supports professional development for RD professionals, helping them to grow the research enterprise in their institutions and catalyze new research and institutional collaborations. They provide opportunities for local networking and hold an annual meeting that is widely attended. They maintain mutually beneficial collaborations with several organizations. NORDP hopes to be a resource for all postdoctoral scholars and graduate students looking for a non-traditional career path in RD.


You may find NORDP members at your own institution who can introduce you to RD. At the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center (UTSW), the Neuroscience Research Development (NeRD) office is uniquely positioned as an RD office within a department. Although there are several individuals in different roles, the NeRD office is the only one-stop-shop for RD on campus. The NeRD office, led by Charlene Supnet, PhD, provides RD support to faculty undertaking neuroscience research primarily, and to other faculty members within UTSW on a fee for service basis. The office has two RD professionals, Charlene Supnet and myself, both former postdocs, who found their way to a career in RD by accident. Having realized the need for education and awareness for RD, we have launched the NeRD-Associate-in-Training (NeAT) program to give students, postdocs and staff within UTSW a taste for a career in RD.


Through education, awareness, outreach and support through NORDP and the NPA, a career in RD will continue to increase in appeal among the next generation of scientists.


Samarpita Sengupta, PhD, is a scientific research writer at the Neuroscience Research Development (NeRD) Office at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and the current liaison between NPA and NORDP.