RO Peeps: Deborah Brian

The RO Peeps page lists the research office profiles of friends of The Research Whisperer. It showcases the talent and myriad trajectories that make us who we are.


Deborah Brian [Photo courtesy of Kimberley Nunes]
Name & Twitter handle: Deborah Brian / @deborahbrian

Position title: Senior Administrative Officer, Research

University: The University of Queensland (UQ)

Location: Brisbane

Highest qualification?  Bachelor of Arts with Honours (in Anthropology and Archaeology) and *half* a PhD (I know, I know …)

How did you get into this role, and how long have you been a research administrator/developer?  I’ve taken on a range of academic and professional roles in research and teaching over the years, mostly around my own studies.  There is a fine tradition of graduates and postgraduate students making up the backbone of the administrative workforce in universities.

Clients (students and staff) don’t always realise that the administrative staff they encounter often have substantial academic qualifications and experience themselves; increasingly, our research admin and development staff have doctorates.  The professionalization of this quasi-academic workforce is a growing trend, and there is the beginning of a career path (we even have a Graduate Certificate in Research Commercialisation here at UQ).

However, there are still those, like me, who have come to research admin almost by accident. I took a break from my PhD when my first supervisor retired and took on a short-term project in research data management at UQ.  The manager of my section was seconded to one of the faculties and they needed a Research Admin Officer (RAO).  I had no idea what I was doing at first, but that was about 8 years ago, and I’ve been shuffling back and forth between substantive research roles and research administration, management and development ever since.

Although I look forward to doing some more of my own research (including the other half of that PhD), it’s been a really good skill set to develop, and I’d be quite happy to work in research development, perhaps with a research training component, the rest of my days.

What other kinds of jobs have you had? My background is in anthropology and archaeology, and particularly Australian Indigenous cultures and their heritage.  My research work has taken me from archaeological digs, to lab work, to social research, particularly in Indigenous health and education.  I’ve worked in teaching and research across these fields, as well as in research administration, management and development roles with faculties, schools, and smaller multidisciplinary research teams.  My research experience has been really useful in my professional support roles, and vice versa.

What’s the most satisfying part of your job? I love research, and enjoy the opportunity to work collaboratively with researchers in a range of fields, to throw ideas around, and help them hone their message in grant applications and rejoinders.  I like to know I’m helping and supporting their efforts, and it feels great when one of our researchers is awarded a grant, and I know I helped make it a better application.  More than that, though, I like the ‘exchange’ that occurs between researchers and research developers – I love knowing a researcher has learned something working with me, and I love that I get to learn from their experience, too.

What’s the thing you’d most like to change about your job? If I could wave a magic wand so that every draft grant application was ready for review a month before it was due, that would make my life a lot easier! Failing that, I suppose I’m hopeful of increasing recognition for the important role of research professionals in universities.  Oh, and world peace.

Favourite hobby-horse?  Oh, there are so many! Two main ones:

  1. It’s all about the “fit”: Your grant application needs to clearly express why this is the right project at the right time in the right place with the right team.
  2. It’s all about the “process”: Don’t treat grant writing as a one-off, deadline-driven chore. It’s an opportunity to develop your research ideas, get some feedback, clarify your thinking, kickstart your collaborations and, if you’re doing it right, this effort will feed into your current research, teaching and supervision, and your writing for publication, as well as build your grant-writing skills for the next time.

Dream job? Something along the lines of my current gig, which loosely translates as “research wrangler”, but with less admin and more development.  A job that includes lots of direct engagement with researchers and research students, and plenty of opportunities for learning from one another.  In a perfect world, this would be in a research context relevant to my background in anthropology, archaeology, heritage and Indigenous studies.

Best advice to researchers? Be strategic.  Always think two or three steps ahead.  What opportunities are coming up?  How can you design your research so that individual projects dovetail, allowing you to streamline your research, teaching, supervision, and publication?  What are the next two or three projects you have in mind?  Plan, plan, plan.  Oh, and if you value the sanity of your research support team, PLEASE READ THE INSTRUCTIONS!


  1. Thanks, Deborah

    It’s an opportunity to develop your research ideas…

    One of the smartest researchers at RMIT once said to me that the time he spent writing applications was the only structured time where he got to think about what he was going to do in the future. The rest of the time he was either in the middle of doing stuff or writing about what he had done. For him, writing applications wasn’t a chore, it was a way to clarify the path forward.


  2. I just finished my PhD in Archaeology. It was long, grueling and I wish I had switched Departments(read:supervisor) after the first year. From my cohort (MA and PhD) barely 50% made it through. I have highest regard for everyone who decides to stop instead of hanging on for dear life as I did. So even if you don’t finish, good for you! The most important thing is (IMO) a job you love and making decisions that make you happy.


    • Hi, and thanks so much for your kind words. Congratulations on successfully completing your PhD, despite the difficulties. That must have taken a great deal of strength and determination — I guess you know what you’re made of, now, right? I think persistence is probably the key to success in the PhD, and it can be hard to know if and when to call a halt, but there are times when it seems the only sane option. I’m still feeling my way on this issue, but I think I have a very different attitude to the PhD this time around, and a little more perspective. You’re absolutely right about prioritising health and happiness. Thanks again for your thoughts!


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