Alternative Career Paths in Research Development and Institutional Data

Holly Zullo bb

By Holly Zullo, PhD; Associate Director, Research Development, Huntsman Cancer Institute, University of Utah

~ “Use your skills in a new way” began a job ad that caught my attention and then altered the course of my career. The position was Associate Director of the Office of Scientific Writing and Institutional Data at Huntsman Cancer Institute, at the University of Utah. The successful candidate would have experience with grant writing and project management, as well as some ability to contribute to data analysis. After 22 years of teaching undergraduate mathematics, did I have the skills for such a position? I had been Principal Investigator (PI) or co-PI on four National Science Foundation (NSF) grants, and so I knew a thing or two about writing grant proposals. Directing those grants had given me experience with project management, and I had developed skills in working with a wide range of people through two decades of teaching. As a mathematician with a background in optimization and several years of teaching statistics, the data analysis part was a natural fit. So I got my résumé together and applied for the job. I’ve been in it now for one-and-a-half years, and I still enjoy finding new ways in which to use my skills.

Research Development – grant-writing teams

Our office title was simplified recently to Office of Research Development, to better reflect the grant support we provide. Research development professionals work to support and increase the research capacity of their institutions by working with individual faculty members, teams of researchers, and institutional administration to identify and secure extramural funding. Research development is a growing area of opportunity for people with advanced degrees and strong writing skills who want to stay close to academics, but who do not wish to pursue a teaching or research career. While my own position is focused on developing applications to the National Cancer Institute (NCI) or other National Institutes of Health (NIH) to support cancer research, many research development professionals work under a Vice President for Research on the main campus of a university and may be involved with preparing grant proposals for the NSF, NIH, National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), as well as private foundations. A centralized research development group will typically seek to have staff with diverse backgrounds to be able to support faculty from a variety of disciplines. More information about the research development field, including a robust list of job postings, is available from the National Organization of Research Development Professionals (

Institutional Data – analyzing our operations

Our office also handles institutional data analysis, although that is not a typical role for a research development office. We hold or share responsibility for two kinds of institutional data: data describing our researchers, particularly their funding and publications, and data describing the patients served by the Cancer Hospital at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) and patients enrolled in our clinical trials. We are regularly asked to characterize the demographics of these patients, including how far they travel to reach HCI. Most of this work involves applying simple descriptive statistics, and then assisting people in correctly representing the results graphically and verbally.

The institutional data we collect and analyze at HCI is different from the data collected and analyzed by the University of Utah as a whole, which tracks student information such as persistence rates as well as budget information relevant to the health of the school. Most academic institutions have an office devoted to this task, often called the Office of Institutional Research. If this kind of data analysis sounds appealing as a career option, you can learn more through the Association for Institutional Research (

Reflections on my new career

  • I have always loved the challenge of grant-writing. In the past, when I would learn that one of my proposals had been funded, I would experience a short period of elation at having won, followed by feeling overwhelmed at the work I had just committed to, and ending with disappointment because it would be several years before I would have time and energy to write another proposal. Now I am happy to be eternally involved in the chase of the grant, and I can fully celebrate every time we hear a proposal has been funded.
  • Research development frequently involves working intensely with a small group of people for a short period of time. In acting as a project manager, I have found it to be both useful and personally rewarding to learn each person’s personality, work patterns, and confidence in grant-writing, and then to support each individual accordingly.
  • People with strong quantitative thinking skills who join a less-quantitative working group are well-positioned to make an immediate impact. For instance, a quantitative person might notice that a report that has long been generated in Word might be more useful in Excel, where it is easy to apply and sort by various metrics. Problems that have been solved by intuition may instead be framed as a simple optimization or other mathematical problem, wowing everyone from immediate peers to senior leadership. In my case, I was in a meeting where members of the senior leadership team were discussing how to form maximally productive teams. The goal was to best align individuals who already work together well, as judged by certain metrics, such as co-funding or co-authorship. They saw this as a management decision to be made that would hopefully yield desirable results; I saw it as an optimization problem that I could quickly model and solve.
  • If you don’t know Excel, learn it! If you do know Excel, learn even more. Unless you are working in a highly quantitative group alongside people who already know R, Python, or similar tools, Excel is likely to be the tool of preference.
  • After two decades of teaching primarily at small, liberal arts colleges facing continual budget challenges, it is a joy to now be working in an institution that is thriving and rapidly growing. While growth has its own challenges, I feel invigorated by the more positive and forward-thinking work environment.

Some people enter the research development field directly from their graduate programs; others find their way into the field after pursuing other avenues. I am pleased with my own path. I loved my years of teaching, and through those experiences I developed valuable and transferrable skills. Now I feel lucky to be embarking on a whole new trajectory, utilizing the foundation I developed during the first part of my career.

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