Simon Kerridge

Director of Research Services, University of Kent.

Former Research Assistant in computer science at Durham University and the University of Sunderland.

This story comes from our What do research staff do next? project, investigating the careers of research staff who moved from research posts to other occupations and employment sectors. You can use these stories to better understand how these researchers transition, what careers they have and their reflections on the transition process and current career paths

Simon Kerridge

Research staff experience

My posts evolved from full-time research assistant to full-time research development officer over a period of about a decade. For several years I had a job that combined both roles.

I returned to Durham University in 1990 three years after completing my BSc there. I’d left to set up a software company with four fellow graduates. We lasted three years, but it transpired that none of us was Bill Gates (however, we did not lose money, so that is perhaps better than many start-ups?).

Back at Durham, I joined the tail end of a project funded by the Post Office. It was looking at the maintenance of, and training of maintenance engineers on, one of their large and complex post sorting machines. This was a sort of stop gap before I headed (i.e. first in the door) three research assistants on the collaborative Science and Engineering Research Council-Department of Trade and Industry CONSENSUS project with Cambridge Consultants (now part of Arthur D Little) and led by British Aerospace (BAe). The project was to develop a real-time distributed artificial intelligence system framework which BAe hoped to use in product development.

After that my boss was successful with two EU funding applications so my employment continued and I ended up being the technical lead for Durham with more or less the same team. These projects involved a lot of European travel to visit the various partners in Holland, Germany, Spain, Ireland and the UK. Perhaps my greatest achievement was when one partner pulled out (due to being bought out and the new owners not wanting to engage in the project): I managed to find a replacement industrial partner and brought them in to the project.

In 1994 my boss moved to the University of Sunderland to become their first Director of Research Development; the projects moved and so – before long – did my job!

Transition to a new career

About nine months later my boss petitioned the University for an assistant post – a Research Development Officer – I applied (it was a permanent position, and a natural extension of what I had been doing) and got the job.  In effect, I applied to work for my current boss; I just followed him as he was great to work for. I’d become a ‘Research Manager and Administrator’ (RMA) without a conscious decision to be one!

However, as the University was quite small in research terms, I had the opportunity to continue with research projects too.  In parallel with being an RMA I was still a researcher on a number of EU projects and indeed in 2000 was the principal investigator for an EU ESPRIT (SUPPLYPOINT) project.  So, in effect, it was a gentle transition.  And actually not uncommon; of the four funding development officers who work for me at the moment, two moved from research positions.

The most challenging aspect of the transition to new role, initially, was having to wear ‘professional’ clothing and footwear! 

Other than that, being an RMA is pretty close to being a researcher; it is perhaps a bit ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’. My background certainly helped in connecting with researchers.

Current job

A few promotions later, I lead an office of 25 staff looking after the research support for the University of Kent. This includes: promoting and advocating for research with funding opportunities etc.; costing and pricing and funding proposal support; contract negotiation; and post-award financial administration. I also work with senior academics and other colleagues on various parallel activities such as ethics and governance; research information management; research strategy; Research Excellence Framework submission, and so on.

I love it; as Director I do something different every day. One day I might be helping cost a funding proposal to a science research council. The next I could be looking at policy on open access publishing in the humanities, or resolving ethics issues with an overseas funder, or arranging an public outreach event with astronomers.

Highs are undoubtedly helping academic colleagues to win research funding. I am vicarious!

Lows are the converse; and wading through the quagmire of university processes to get things done…

Competencies old and new

My research assistant experience was very helpful for an RMA role; I’d project managed internationally, worked with industrial collaborators and so on. I was used to being adaptable and trying new things. 

Having ‘been there and done that’ is great for my job.  If a colleague is having problems with a grant bid or a collaborator, say, being able to share how you tackled it is really valuable. Although I was never an ‘academic’ I can certainly converse in their terms – that really helps.

Even so, in my early days as a research development officer I had to learn how to make the best of these advantages. I’d come from a very active, ‘can do’ research group and expected things to happen in the same way. Meeting resistance from academics and other staff was very strange! I gradually came to understand that colleagues had all sorts of different perspectives and agendas. In time I learned the influencing skills and political (small ‘p’) awareness to work successfully across the institution.

Reflecting on my career path

I never really had a plan. I followed a great boss…and here I am.  Moving from research to RMA is almost a no brainer.  If you are sick of the ridiculous hours and just want long hours but still want to stay in touch with research then RMA is for you! It’s great; and the variety can’t be beaten.

One of the other great things about RMA as a career change is that you can test the water before plunging right in. As a researcher you can get involved with departmental admin and grant bids and see how you like the experience. And although my hybrid role in the 1990s when I continued to research part-time would be extremely unusual these days in a central university research office, such roles are still to be found in departmental research support.

It’s also given me broader opportunities, for example to use my computer science background. I developed several systems to improve research management processes, which was very satisfying. Although that was a few years back, RMA still provides scope for creative IT specialists.

I’ve also long been involved in my professional association (once I found that there was one); the Association for Research Managers and Administrators (ARMA). I especially enjoy its international dimension. ARMA works with its counterparts globally on practical projects for mutual benefit, such as an international wiki for research managers.

I suppose every job is what you make of it; but certainly moving from being (an adequate) researcher into Research Management and Administration was the best move I ever made. I guess I must enjoy it, I’ve been doing it for 20 years now…

Suggestions and advice

Research is not the only thing that you can do.  All those skills you have developed (some without even realising it) can be applied to many other areas.  Just widen your perspectives and grab every opportunity with all three hands!