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March 2, 2017

CoRA: Campus research administrators join forces

A new organization for research administrators will kick off with an invitation-only lunch tomorrow for Pitt and UPMC employees who have earned certified research administrator (CRA) certification.

The Committee of Research Administrators (CoRA) is a grassroots effort to support CRAs by providing opportunities for networking, mentoring and for the professional development necessary to maintain the Research Administrators Certification Council’s (RACC) CRA certification.

Committee officers are president Thomas Berkhoudt, director of the Office of Grants and Contracts for the Department of Psychiatry / WPIC; vice president Jean Zak of the Graduate School of Public Health Department of Environmental and Occupational Health; treasurer Yvonne Brewster, director of research administration and finance in the anesthesiology and surgery departments; and secretary Nancy Harter of the Department of Pediatrics.

Rounding out the inaugural CoRA board are communications coordinator Holly Gergely of the Department of Pharmacology and Chemical Biology; compliance coordinator Elly Bresz of critical care medicine; website coordinator Matthew Weaver of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health; and at-large members Carol Miller of the Department of Mathematics and Marcie Conrad of the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.

CoRA aims to provide CRAs with a cost-effective way to maintain their certification, said Berkhoudt, noting that once certified, CRAs must accumulate 80 “contact hours” over five years — by attending or presenting at conferences or seminars — to maintain their certification.

“It’s unfortunate if certification is lost because it takes months to study and the test is tough, long and tiring,” he said.

The committee plans to offer monthly events September through June — which would provide 10 of the 16 contact hours per year that are needed to stay on track for recertification — as an inexpensive local alternative to national conferences. In addition, CoRA’s website ( will serve as a clearinghouse for local and on-campus workshops and trainings — such as seminars offered by the Clinical and Translational Science Institute, Pitt’s Institutional Review Board and the Office of Research — that may qualify for contact hours, Berkhoudt said.

The site includes a spreadsheet to help CRAs keep track of their hours, which must be reviewed by RACC for recertification.

Another function of CoRA is to reduce silos. “We want to strengthen the networking,” Berkhoudt said, noting that many administrators find it difficult to meet peers from different departments.

Developing a network to learn who’s who and to meet the go-to people with expertise in different areas is beneficial both to the individuals and to the University as a whole.

“It’s nice to start coming together to talk about issues and solve problems. It’s good also to be able to pick up the phone and know who’s on the line. We want to do the best we can for the whole research community,” he said.

“It’s easier working with people you know” when questions arise, he said. “If research administrators know each other, they can interact to figure out how to solve problems together.”

CoRA plans to host periodic social gatherings, such as an after-hours end-of-the-fiscal-year party in June, and to celebrate National Research Administrator Day (Sept. 25) with a University-wide event.


As of December, there were 73 CRAs on campus, and their numbers are growing as the CRA designation gains prominence, said Jennifer Woodward, associate vice provost for Research Operations, whose office is supporting CoRA.

While the bulk of research administrators support health sciences related research, CoRA is a University-wide group, Woodward said.

It’s unclear exactly how many potential CRAs are here on campus — not all who support University research necessarily have the job title of research administrator, she said.

Although some institutions require research administrators to have a CRA, it’s not required at Pitt. But the certification is valuable. “It’s important for research administrators to have opportunities for professional development and growth,” she said.

Woodward believes that the group will serve not only to bolster a sense of professionalism among research administrators and acknowledge the importance of their role in the research community, but will have a positive effect on retention and career growth. Faculty also will benefit from CRAs’ expertise, she said.

And, while other institutions have groups for CRAs, CoRA’s structure and format is unique. “It will be one that can be modeled at other institutions,” she said.


Brewster, the sole CoRA board member who is not a CRA, has more than 20 years’ experience in research administration, but opted to pursue a master of public management degree when she decided to continue her education.

The designation is growing in popularity and value, she said. “People are learning more about research administration and how much money people are managing through research. You now see a lot of ‘CRA preferred’ in job postings.”

Several staffers in her office are CRAs; she’s now studying to take the CRA test later this year.

Pursuing the designation demonstrates a commitment to a career in research administration, “rather than a stepping stone to something else,” she said. “It’s a big investment of time. It proves a dedication to the work.”

Brewster, who has a finance and economics background, came into the field initially in an accountant I position at UPCI, then worked in research accounting at the central and departmental level at Allegheny General Hospital before moving to a position at Carnegie Mellon, then returning to Pitt a little over two years ago.

Some in the field come from a policy background; others have an accounting and finance background, said Berkhoudt, noting that policy analysis skills are beneficial for those in pre-award positions, while understanding debits and credits is a key skill for post-award positions focused on budgets and spending. Good networking, problem-solving and communication skills are needed across the board.

Berkhoudt, who has an accounting background, initially entered the field at the University of Rochester in hospital operations, and has worked with Pitt and UPMC researchers for a decade.

“I didn’t realize you could make a whole career in research administration,” he said.

He since has found it to be a challenging, ever-evolving field. “Policies always lag behind science and they’re always changing and being updated,” he said. “As a CRA you should be keeping up with these things.”


CoRA has a continuing pipeline of prospective new members thanks in part to Carol Miller, administrative officer in the Dietrich school’s Department of Mathematics, who leads a study group for prospective CRAs.

She said she is pleased to see the study group and CoRA align to build mentorship among the Pitt research administration community.

Miller’s classes, which meet twice a month, prepare participants to sit for the CRA exam, a 250-question multiple choice test that is given each May and November.

Forty-two people, including Brewster, have signed up for the current study session series, which began last month.

Miller, who has more than two decades of experience in research administration at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon, saw a need for more uniform understanding of research policies and procedures. She was concerned that her interpretations of federal guidelines didn’t always align with colleagues’ interpretations of those same guidelines. “If we all had that certification, we’d all be grounded in the same ideas, grounded in these research policies and procedures,” she reasoned.

If administrators have the knowledge and understand federal guidelines well, they can make quicker and better decisions when working with investigators, she said.

With the support of the Office of Research and the Dietrich school, she launched the study group in February 2016, after a year’s worth of preparation.

The classes drew from RACC resources, practice exercises and from on-campus experts who shared their areas of expertise.

“Not everyone touches every part of grants,” Miller said, but the notoriously difficult CRA exam covers all facets of research administration, from policies that govern animal care to those related to intellectual property rights.

CRA candidates must have at least three years of experience in research administration, so participants bring real-world best practices and ideas from their departments along with their questions during the sessions.

Participants came from a variety of backgrounds from across Pitt and UPMC, ranging from first-level administrators to those in charge of research offices.

Miller said the interactions not only aided the students, who had the opportunity to meet Pitt’s research policymakers, but also let presenters hear from employees from the grassroots level. “There was a mutual benefit,” she said. “Representatives from the centralized offices are wanting to do it again.”

Thirty people showed up for the first class. By October, their number had dwindled to 20; some became overwhelmed and dropped out, others moved to different jobs or left the University, Miller said. But those who remained begged to continue the sessions until the November CRA test date.

Seventeen of the 20 took the CRA exam in November; a dozen passed, on par with the national rate for the difficult exam.

Among them was Kirsten Schwoegl, associate administrator for cardiology and the Vascular Medicine Institute, who wanted the CRA designation for her own professional development. “I’ve been at Pitt so long that I thought it would be good to do,” she said.

Even with nearly three decades of experience — in both pre- and post-award areas and research administration within the department and general University administration, she found the CRA test tricky, difficult and demanding.

“The class is very beneficial,” she attested, expressing gratitude for the support structure.

“You get to meet a lot of nice people, a lot of top-notch people,” she said.

“Having the group was really helpful to me,” she said. “We all help each other in this field. There’s too much to know to know everything yourself.”

In addition to attending Miller’s classes, Schwoegl heeded the advice to study on her own as well, and to begin preparing early. Starting last summer, she created binders of materials that she could carry with her and review on her bus commute from Forest Hills each day.

The preparation paid off: Shortly after taking the test, Schwoegl learned she earned the top score in the nation on the 2016 CRA exam.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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