What is it like to be an early career research fellow?

18 May 2018
Early Career Researchers (ECRs) are generally in the beginning or emerging stages of research, not yet ten years out of award of a doctoral or other postgraduate research qualification.

Dr Justin Richards is an NHMRC Early Career Fellow at the University of Sydney School of Public Health. We caught up with him to learn more about his experiences in early career research.

What led to his decision to undertake a career in research?

Justin Richards

When Dr Justin Richards first started practicing as a clinical physiotherapist, he found himself more interested in the stories of the people he was treating than the “nuts and bolts” of their physical ailments. This became particularly clear when he started providing outreach physiotherapy services for asylum seekers in Melbourne and Aboriginal communities in regional Australia. Justin became frustrated with the limited impact he felt he was having during his sessions with individual patients, so he resigned from clinical work and travelled for 18 months through Papua New Guinea, South America and Eastern Europe.

During this time of relative social isolation, Justin never failed to find a friend whenever he joined a social game of football in the village or town he was staying. From this experience, he became interested in the broader social implications of sport and physical activity, particularly its potential effect on the physical and mental health of people from different cultures.

This motivated him to study a Master of Exercise Science, followed by Doctor of Philosophy in Public Health at the University of Oxford. After graduating, Justin returned to Australia to work as a Public Health Trainee at the NSW Ministry of Health, after which he accepted a role at the University of Sydney as an early career research fellow, evaluating public health programs with Professor Adrian Bauman and his team at the Prevention Research Collaboration in the Sydney School of Public Health. Professor Bauman has been helping coordinate a subject for the Public Health Program at the University for over 30 years.

What is an early career research fellow?

Early Career Researchers (ECRs) are generally in the beginning or emerging stages of research. Not yet ten years out of award of a doctoral or other postgraduate research qualification.

As an ECR, Justin was awarded a NHMRC Fellowship to further explore his research in the field of public health.

In the fields of health and medicine, the Australian Government runs a National Health and Mecical Research Council (NHMRC). This body works to promote the development and maintenance of public and individual health standards. NHMRC also provides Early Career Fellowships (ECFs). The purpose of these fellowships is to provide opposrtnities for Australian researchers to undertake research that is of major importance in the field and benefits Australian health. Awards and funding are offered to a limited number of persons of outstanding ability who are making research a significant component of their career.

What does a NHMRC Fellow do?

As an overseas NHMRC Early Career Research Fellow, Justin conducts a substantial part of his work in collaboration with international colleagues. His research focusses on the promotion of physical activity and its subsequent impact on various mental health outcomes. Justin is particularly interested in “sport-for-development” interventions, which attempt to use sport as a vehicle for delivering broad health and social benefits in vulnerable communities. “That is what I love about my work – I know how important kicking a ball, riding a bike or going for a walk with friends has been for my personal development and now I get to research how it affects other people (both positively and negatively!),” Justin says.

He has also developed a strong interest in the promotion of mental well-being (e.g. happiness), as opposed to the more pervasive focus in the academic literature on the prevention of mental ill-being (e.g. depression). Most of Justin’s work involves assisting charitable sport-for-development organisations with the rigorous and pragmatic evaluation of program delivery and impact. Currently, he is contributing to projects running in several countries in Africa, Europe, the Pacific and South America. This work also extends to programs working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations in Australia.

What are the benefits of being an early career researcher?

One of the highlights of his role as an ECR is the opportunity to meet and work with people from all over the world. “I have always been passionate about visiting new places and working with people from different cultures and backgrounds, particularly vulnerable populations in low-resource settings,” Justin says. On the flipside, he mentions that “working in these contexts can be very challenging and perhaps the most difficult part is balancing “western” expectations of academic rigour and productivity with the practical realities of building relationships and conducting ethical research in complex environments”. 

What is next for Justin’s career in public health?

Justin has found that he has enjoyed teaching and helping to build the capacity of others as part of his work in public health. Because he has worked so closely with Professor Bauman in relation to the Master of Public Health program, he will be helping to coordinate the ‘Public Health Program Evaluation’ unit of study in conjunction with another academic at the University. He is excited to see where this new role will bring his career and to share his own experiences with the next generation of students undertaking public health study and research.

If you are interested in learning more about Early Career Research at the University of Sydney, visit our website.