A career in academic health sciences research – inside information from Dr Julie Preston

“I want to cure cancer”. That’s the broad, and perhaps naïve goal that was the first step on my path to an academic research career, although I ended up studying microbiology, not oncology.

More accurately, the driver was the desire to make a difference in the lives of others, to work towards new and better prevention, diagnosis and treatment options so we all have a chance to live longer, healthier lives.

My own research career began with an undergraduate Biomedical Science degree, Honours research project and PhD at the University of Newcastle. My thesis examined the effects of bacterial infection on asthmatic lungs. I followed this with a 5 year postdoctoral appointment studying pneumonia in UK and USA research laboratories. I have now retrained as a career development practitioner, working with academic researchers to support their careers. This is just a taste of what my academic career was like.

What is a career in research really like?

A career in health-related academic research is very exciting. You’ll be working at the cutting edge of knowledge. Your colleagues might be across the hall or half way around the world. You’ll travel to conferences (often in exotic places) to share your research findings with others in your field.  Most importantly, you’ll be making a contribution, some big and some small, to improving the lives of others.

There is a degree of autonomy and flexibility in research that you won’t find in many other careers. Researchers are encouraged to think outside the box, to discover new ways to approach the health problems of today and of the future.

While no two days are the same, there can be a lot of repetition, especially in laboratory-based research. Experiments won’t always work, or need to be repeated to ensure accuracy of results.

Many academic researchers also teach undergraduate students, supervise PhD scholars, or have clinical responsibilities. Each of these is an opportunity to share your research, and educate the next generation of scientists and clinicians.

What are some of the challenges?

There are also many challenges in an academic research career. Research funding is increasingly difficult to secure. Success rates for the major Australian funding bodies, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and the Australian Research Council (ARC), is regularly around 20%, depending on the category of funding. Many more projects are worthy of funding, but there just isn’t enough money to go around. Limited research funding is a major contributor to the reality that most PhD students will not remain in academic research; only 0.45% of PhD graduates in the UK will reach ‘Professor’.

Gender imbalance, and gender bias, is a very real issue in academia. Unfortunately, the public image of a scientist has traditionally limited the role-models available to women interested in research. Yes, I did wear a white lab coat, but that’s where the stereotype ends. I am not a man, I am not (completely) grey, and I don’t wear glasses. While progress has been made, there is still long way to go in achieving fairness and equality in employment and promotion of women in academia.

Academic research usually means long hours and lots of hard work. Sometimes people sacrifice their health or their relationships with friends and family in pursuing their love of science.

What makes a good researcher?

For me, the most important characteristic is curiosity. All good researchers I know have a genuine interest in finding the answer to their research question. Some also have a very personal reason for their choice of research field, for example a family member affected by a particular disease.

Health-related research is not a solo endeavour, although it may feel that way sometimes, so successful researchers need to be able to work in a team environment. As part of this, and in the broader context of sharing research output through publication and public outreach, a good researcher has good communication skills, in both written and spoken contexts.

Deadlines for funding applications, journal publications and conference abstracts need to be carefully managed. Researchers may also teach or have clinical responsibilities. Good time management and organisational skills are essential.

Experiments don’t always work the first time, and sometimes not even the 10th time! Scientific curiosity is the place to start, and resilience is what keeps a researcher going. Resilience give researchers the strength to continue asking the question, even when things are not progressing according to plan. Resilience will see you though the daily battle with a stubborn experiment, as well as the longer term challenges of publication rejection or unsuccessful grant applications (you are guaranteed to experience this in academia, no matter how good your project or how lucky you are).

A career in health-related academic research can be exciting, challenging, amazing, and amazingly frustrating, sometimes in the space of one day! If you’re curious, resilient, and want to make a difference in the lives of others, then this could be the career for you.

Guest Blogger Profile

Dr Julie Preston is a career development practitioner working at The Australian National University. Julie is responsible for the delivery and evaluation of programs in which academics share ideas, build confidence in leadership, develop cross-college networks, and acquire skills and knowledge required to establish a successful teaching and research career.  

Julie’s academic background is in Immunology and Microbiology.  Her PhD thesis and postdoctoral research investigated mechanisms of Streptococcus pneumoniae infections.

Website: http://about.me/juliepreston

My Health Career would like to thank Dr Julie Preston for her insights into academia in the health industry. :-)

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