Advancing your career in research operations

Noël Lamb
May 21, 2024
Advancing your career in research operations

Navigating a career in an emerging field like research operations often feels like charting unexplored territory.

With few playbooks to draw upon, practitioners are essentially writing them along the way. Similarly, advancing a career in this space is a journey of reflection and self-discovery, where we must define our own successes as we go.

After spending several years as an individual contributor (IC), my career shifted into leading research operations teams at thriving tech companies such as Salesforce, Robinhood, and Xero. In this piece, I’ll share some insights I learned while building my career and helping others grow in theirs.

Taking it to the next level

A colleague recently asked me what moving up in research operations looks like: does it mean doing what I’m doing in my senior program manager job? Is management the only path? It was a simple question from someone new to the field with a complex answer:

Yes, but also no. Sometimes, but not always.

Each individual’s path is unique and in her case, she wanted to progress but was not drawn to the work I was doing nor the work our manager was doing. It got me thinking about what advancement looks like for someone in her shoes who wanted to carve their own path.

Progression is rarely a straight line

Professional growth isn’t solely marked by receiving a promotion or a fancy new title. It often unfolds organically and in less formal ways. Among other ways, growth can happen by:

  • Mentoring others
  • Establishing new interdepartmental relationships
  • Taking on new projects, expanding scope of your role
  • Completing related courses or professional development activities
  • Making a lateral move into a new area

Progression can also happen by embracing mistakes as learning opportunities, with bonus points for sharing those new learnings with your extended team. These experiences, though perhaps unrecognized in the moment, contribute to your progress even if the recognition isn’t immediate.

Taking a contract

Temporary assignments can be a beautiful opportunity for growth. These engagements often provide a structured, well-scoped, time-bound space to expand your skill set. Additionally, you may be shielded from an overwhelming waterfall of requests or tasks that fall outside your area of focus that you are more likely to experience in a full-time role. 

Individual contributor vs. management tracks

A pervasive belief in the working world is that management is the only way to advance a career. But this is flawed; not everyone is fulfilled in a management role and not everyone is good at it. An individual contributor can wield significant influence in an organization with comparable financial rewards.

For those deliberating between these two trajectories, it’s time for some introspection. Reflect on where you get greater purpose and satisfaction: from driving impactful projects or from empowering the growth of others.

The contributing manager hybrid

Everyone has known that manager who juggles it all. They manage a team, but also lead the highest priority projects. They have a relentless schedule full of back-to-back meetings and are still somehow consistent producers. They are masters of their craft and the go-to person for everyone in their orbit, but they can’t seem to get ahead of their mile-long to-do lists. Or maybe you are that manager who does it all. 

Early to mid-level management is undeniably one of the toughest roles out there.

Balancing the demands of strategic planning with the need to drive daily operational tactical work is a constant challenge. The sheer weight of these responsibilities with constant reprioritization and context switching is mentally exhausting and can lead one to burnout if not managed carefully.

Breaking free from this cycle is possible by adopting a simple mantra: see, do, teach. Many well-intentioned contributing managers inadvertently overlook the crucial last step in the sequence. By neglecting to impart their wisdom, insight, and experiences to their team, they do themselves and their direct reports a disservice. It’s when knowledge is shared and tactical tasks are delegated that the entire team can truly grow, thrive, and advance together. By embracing this approach, managers can redirect their energy toward delivering high-value, high-impact strategic work.

The role of metrics

Do you need to incorporate metrics in order to move ahead? Probably.

While knowing where to begin can seem daunting and it adds to your administrative overhead, establishing metrics tracking is an essential part of demonstrating accountability and maturity in how you drive your programs or projects forward. By measuring your works’ success, you can directly tie your work into your team OKRs or goals and in doing so, provide your leadership another way to advocate for your work.

With the appropriate metrics in place, you are able to leverage historical data to gauge the health and effectiveness of your programs. This analysis can unveil patterns and trends that serve as predictive tools for the future, like anticipating peak recruiting cycles during specific seasons. While the concept of measuring success is not unique to research operations, here are some examples to consider, listed by common ResearchOps work pillars:

Making the case for advancement

Once you have a grasp on metrics and have been consistently tracking them for several months or quarters, you have the necessary data to quantify your impact. 

For instance, there may be a direct correlation between your work and a 10% reduction in customer support tickets from research participants each quarter. Or maybe the new research tool you implemented helped decreased the time to recruit participants from 14 days to 10. These tangible outcomes (framed in this way) are the types of achievements that can propel your career forward in this field.

A key part of this narrative is to not only recognize what you’re delivering at your current level but, more importantly, to showcase how your contributions align with the expectations of your future role.

Taking it even further, you can begin to think about and speak to what you’ll accomplish once you are in your envisioned role.

Emerging roles in our field

When I started in this space 15 years ago, research operations job listings were few and far between, and if they did exist, they were likely obscured by researcher titles. There weren’t many roles on job boards, and unless you knew someone who knew someone, seeking out a position in ResearchOps without a lead was a near impossible task.

Although our niche is still developing, our discipline now has momentum and is becoming more common and more accessible to those looking to start or advance in a career in ResearchOps. As our field expands to new horizons, we will also see new applications arise. 

New sectors

We’re beginning to see adoption of research operations beyond the tech scene in industries such as gaming, health, and healthcare. It’s particularly noteworthy to acknowledge a ResearchOps presence emerging within governments, proving that there is no entity too regulated nor bureaucratic to derive value from the function.

Management opportunities 

As ResearchOps practitioners validate the model and demonstrate its impact, we see a natural evolution where companies increasingly invest in team management. This surge in leadership opportunities within the field shows no sign of slowing as the discipline continues to mature. 

The responsibilities of these managers typically extend both outward to their horizontal management peers and downward to their direct reports. They specialize in optimizing systems and processes while nurturing the career development of those within their reporting line.

Chief of Staff

As the research operations practice continues to evolve, specialized positions like the Chief of Staff are beginning to emerge from ResearchOps management roles, although in some organizations these roles may be combined. While the responsibilities of this position can vary, it generally involves serving as a senior advisor and partner to ensure the strategic priorities of research leaders are effectively carried out across the organization. While a ResearchOps Manager typically oversees teams, a Chief of Staff primarily exercises influence upwards to executives and horizontally to high-level peers.

Traditionally associated with reporting to CEOs, the Chief of Staff role is appearing in research organizations aiming to elevate and maximize the impact of their efforts at the highest levels and across the entire organization.

Ops consolidation

Our community has noted a trend of ResearchOps roles merging into various teams such as ProductOps, DesignOps, and StrategyOps, and expanding their scope beyond the conventional research stakeholder set. While it’s too soon to know if this model will become widespread, there’s growing acknowledgement that decoupling ResearchOps from research teams could compromise the close connections essential for ReOps to carry out empathetic and effective work. 

Fluidity in role types

Traversing a career in research operations may mean you find yourself moving interchangeably between leading a team and being an in-the-weeds contributor, and there are extraordinary benefits in doing so.

Rooted by choice or out of necessity, understanding all layers of ResearchOps is an indispensable asset.

As a leader, you will likely have a voice (and seat) in the research leadership room. With your unique vantage point, you are able to observe firsthand what makes a leadership team tick: how decisions are made, what tradeoffs or compromises the team is willing to accept, what is important and prioritized by the leadership team. These insights are invaluable as a returning ResearchOps practitioner because you can prioritize your work with a deeper understanding of the larger system in which Ops plays an important role.

As an individual contributor moving into a leadership role, you will have an intimate and instinctual understanding of the flows of the work. While these details are often out of reach for those working in leadership, the ability to articulate nuances and context is critical when speaking to the benefits, gaps, and risks in implementing operational enhancements.

I returned to IC roles from leadership positions twice in my career — once when I was prepared and excited about it, and the other came unexpectedly which ultimately led to me leaving that company. In the case of the latter, it was the deep subject matter expertise I accumulated as an IC that was needed to address an extremely challenging problem the team was experiencing. While my transition back to an IC was the best outcome for the company, it was not, in my opinion, the best outcome for me and my growth path. 

The bottom line

It is an exciting time for those in the research operations field, brimming with opportunities to craft our narratives through self-reflection and actualization.

There is no predetermined path to success — only the one that aligns best with your individual circumstances and aspirations.

Choose the route that resonates with you and what you’re looking to achieve.

Noël Lamb has built a career in Research Operations over 15 years, most recently establishing teams and infrastructure at Xero, Robinhood, and Salesforce. She fell in love with Research after teaching the Design process to peers at T-Mobile and the proximity to customers felt natural after spending many foundational years in the service industry. Noel is based in Boise, Idaho and spends her free time roaming foothills with her littles and growing her plant lady collection.

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