On the Job Training Furthers Careers

In-house certification programs provide skills development for Duke employees

Melissa Sykes Palmer frequently checks the three-inch binder from her Duke Research Administration Academy program to remind her of the correct practices and procedures for administering grants. Photo by Marsha A. Green.

Melissa Sykes Palmer keeps a three-inch binder with handouts from her Duke Research Administration Academy classes on her bookshelf. Marked with dozens of pink and yellow Post-it notes, the binder's a well-thumbed resource that helped Palmer qualify for a promotion that led to a career in grants management.

"When I came to Duke in 2010, I knew practically nothing about grants," said Palmer, program coordinator for Joseph Heitman, chair of the Molecular Genetics and Microbiology Department. "Without the Research Administration Academy classes, it would have taken me years to learn what I need to know for this sort of job."

The Research Administration Academy, or RAA, is among the professional development programs offered to approximately 1,000 staff members who manage millions annually in sponsored research at the university and health system. These programs support Duke's Research Administration Continuous Improvement (RACI) initiative, which provides Duke faculty with effective and efficient grant administrative support systems to help navigate dozens of federal, state and institutional research regulations.

Duke offers other in-house certification programs for employees handling payroll and financial services. So far, 787 employees have completed research administration certificates, and another 365 have completed payroll and financial certifications.

"These sorts of professional development programs not only serve the individuals who want to develop their career at Duke, but allows us to ensure that our employees develop the right skill sets for the jobs that need to get done," said Kyle Cavanaugh, vice president for administration.

Sandra Post, a financial assistant at the Duke Global Health Institute, participated in a Duke financial certification program. Using notes from six classes in accounting procedures and other Duke financial practices, she solved complex financial reporting scenarios and passed the three-hour final examination for the Financial Systems Specialist course.

"It was probably the hardest test I have taken, but it made me appreciate that I had learned enough in six months to see the big picture at Duke and think deeply about financial issues," she said.

For Palmer, the program coordinator, the Research Administration Academy certificate was a stepping-stone on a career path in grants administration at Duke. She took regular tests to master handling research grants at Duke - everything from building a budget for a grant proposal to understanding regulations for spending government money. After she passed her final exam for the certificate, she applied for her current position. She now manages 15 grants in Heitman's lab.

"The certification was my proof that I knew how to handle the work," she said. "Without that certification I wouldn't have even qualified for the job."