How to make it in academia

Advice on success from the women who got there first
We sat down with a group of Sydney researchers to find out how they got to where they are today. Reflecting on their careers, they revealed pivotal moments and key learnings to help you decide how to make your next move.

As a researcher, you have the power to shape the future. Your work today can make a real difference to somebody’s tomorrow. It’s an inspirational thought, but when you’re just starting out in your career, knowing how to make it in academia can be a battle of its own.

Follow your passions, even if it’s scary

Change can be scary, we get that. But if what you’re currently doing doesn’t match up with what you’re passionate about, that’s a problem.

For postgraduate student Annie Handmer, that tough realisation meant quitting her job in investment banking to pursue a career in a completely different field.

“I thought, sure, I can do this job, but there are thousands of people in Sydney who could do it well, or better. But there aren’t thousands of people who know as much as I do about how science and society interact with international law and custom, or who have the passion to do something about it.”

She’s now completing a Master of Philosophy by research on international cooperation in space and is aiming to become Australia’s first space diplomat.

Closer to home, Dr Jacqueline Thomas reflects on how moving from Australia to Africa early in her career helped to shape her success. 

“The most pivotal moment in my career was having the courage to follow my passion and move to Africa to work for a small non-government organisation – for virtually no money! Leaving Australia to work with international researchers was invaluable at that early stage of my career.”


Be open to new opportunities

The key to keeping your career moving forward is looking forward. Keep your eyes open to any opportunities that come your way, and be open and ready for them. After all, you can’t take an opportunity you didn’t know was there.

Speech pathologist and clinical researcher, Professor Leanna Togher says her career shifted into something she had never imagined when her mentor took her aside and encouraged her to pursue a PhD.

“My supervisor helped me think about a different future, giving me the encouragement and confidence to pursue a career in clinical research.”

She’s now working to improve the lives of brain injury patients, by developing new treatments to improve communication and making them easily available to patients, their family and friends with a digital health platform - a path she may not have ended up following if she wasn’t open to it.

Find balance, whatever that means to you

The demands of an academic career can make it hard to stop at the end of the day, especially when your supervisor is encouraging you to just keep working, but it’s important to find balance in your life, whatever that means to you.

For Dr Clara Chow, Professor of Medicine and Cardiologist at Westmead Hospital, she ranks getting a black belt in taekwando at the same time she sat her physicians exam as one of the most pivotal moments in her life (“I was pretty chuffed!”).

Of course, balance looks different to everyone. You don’t have to become a black belt to say you’re living a ‘balanced life’.  It can be as easy as catching up with friends on the weekend or just leaving that email until Monday.

Professor Renae Ryan, pharmacology researcher and Academic Director of the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) program at the University of Sydney, encourages knowing yourself and what you’re willing to sacrifice for the sake of your career.

“I always try to work hard, but I decided early on that I wouldn’t let my work damage my relationships with family and friends, or prevent me from living. It doesn’t matter how successful you are; money, papers, grants – they won’t hug you when you’re old.”

At the end of the day, it’s about prioritising what’s important to you. “You can have a lot of things in your life, but you don’t need to ‘do it all’,” Clara concludes.

3 October 2018

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