RAT Pack celebrates its role as university's 'front line of defense'

"We live and die by grants," says Jonathan Links, vice provost and chief risk officer for Johns Hopkins University as he speaks to more than 100 research administrators gathered at Homewood's Glass Pavilion Thursday morning for the 2018 Research Administration Training Program Recognition Breakfast. "Not getting a grant is a risk, and you guys are our front line of defense."

Links was one of three speakers at the event, which celebrated the graduation of the eighth cohort of the university's Research Administration Training Program, fondly known as the RAT Pack.

Founded in 2008 and spurred on by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the full-time program was designed to help bolster the administrative resources needed to manage sponsored funding at the university—and to fill the dozens of vacant research administration positions at any given time. After 15 to 24 months, the program's graduates emerge with the skills, experience, and training necessary to begin a career in research administration.

"One of the biggest benefits of the program is expanding your network," says program coordinator Alison Sagi. The recent event is just one example of the networking opportunities that come along with the paid internship, which accepts four to six new trainees each spring.

An executive committee led by Jim Aumiller, senior associate dean for strategic initiatives in the Whiting School of Engineering, selects trainees from a pool of applicants, assigning them to one of four divisions within the university (School of Medicine, Bloomberg School of Public Health, Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, and Whiting School of Engineering), where they complete four departmental rotations that last anywhere from two to four months.

The comprehensive program requires little to no knowledge of the field and attracts a diverse pool of entry-level applicants, from recent college graduates to individuals making a career change. Tyler Cain, a sponsored projects officer for the Office of the Dean at the Krieger School, was a senior at Towson University contemplating a career in human resources when he learned about the RAT Pack.

"My first question was, like, what is research administration?" Cain recalls with a laugh. "It's not something you hear about in college, which I think is a disservice because there's a lot you can do with the profession." He joined the program's seventh cohort in June 2015 after graduating with a major in psychology and minor in business communication and liberal arts.

Coming straight out of college with little knowledge of the field, Cain was impressed by the depth and breadth of understanding he received as a member of the RAT Pack. "It's a training program unlike any other," he says. "A typical job might have a three-month training period and then you jump right into it. But here they invest in training you for two years. Once you get out, you know what the different offices do, and you have a multitude of skills that you can apply [to a future] position, so I think the knowledge you gain from the training is invaluable."

During his last rotation at the Krieger School, Cain applied to and was accepted for a recently vacated position in the department in which he was working. "I'm so happy I did it. I love the position I'm in now, and if I didn't do the program, I wouldn't be here today."

The extensive network was a plus, too. "When you get in the RAT Pack, it's kind of like entering into a club," he says, noting that he still keeps in touch with his cohort.

Building off the success of the RAT Pack, which has an 88 percent retention rate and has received accolades from professional organizations for its HR practices and diversity, a version of the program for existing staff was launched in 2012.

This accelerated, part-time program for existing staff allows for job growth, provides a better understanding of how research administration functions throughout the entire university system, and awards staff an additional year of service upon completion. "Existing staff interest was piqued when they heard about what was going on with the new hires," explains Sagi of the program, which accepts about 15 applicants each year. "It's an opportunity for those working in research administration to get a more well-rounded experience in what they do and how their day-to-day experiences fit into the bigger picture."

Participants stay in their current jobs, with their supervisors acting as their mentors. Activities include classes, seminars, and shadowing opportunities.

The RAT Pack program was on Jackie Kenneally's radar from the moment she joined University Administration as an accounting intern in 2010. "I saw how much growth the program had in the few years that I'd been here, and how much everyone had taken from it, so as soon as I saw it was available for existing staff, I jumped on it," she says.

"I had a good working relationship with my supervisor, and I told him off the bat I wanted to be able to grow with my position, and also with Hopkins," says Kenneally, who has been promoted to accounting supervisor since completing the two-year program in 2015.

"It helps me see the big picture of how much Hopkins accomplishes on a day-to-day basis. It's easy to get tunnel vision every day when you're trying to meet certain deadlines, but when you've completed the program and you've seen exactly how your job is impacting the other people who are in your cohort, it really helps you to see the bigger picture and to think outside of yourself," she explains. "It gives me the confidence I need to know that I can continue to grow with the university, and that there really isn't a limit to what I can achieve."

Accepting its 10th cohort this spring, the RAT Pack continues to improve and grow the program, with plans to add continuing education opportunities for past graduates and even to expand the training program outside research administration to include other relevant fields, such as human resources.

For more information on the RAT Pack for new hires and existing staff, visit the program website.