Professor Mary O’Kane optimistic for young researchers

Adrian Carter (EMCR Pathways editor) and Andrew Siebel (Deputy Chair, EMCR Forum Executive)

In February, outgoing NHMRC CEO Professor Warwick Anderson AM outlined a number of challenges facing researchers. In particular, the growing numbers of PhD graduates relative to the limited research-funding budget is going to put growing pressure on young researchers. This is a challenge facing researchers internationally (for example, see The future of postdoc and Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws), not just in Australia.

At a recent EMCR Forum engagement event, held in conjunction with the NSW EMCR Network, Professor Mary O’Kane, NSW Chief Scientist and Engineer, argued that PhD graduates and post-doctoral researchers will need to look outside of the traditional university model if they are to develop successful and ongoing research careers.

Professor Mary O'Kane at the recent EMCR Forum engagement event
Professor Mary O'Kane at the recent EMCR Forum engagement event

Following drinks and nibbles at an informal gathering held at the University of Technology Sydney, Professor O’Kane described how she forged her own path through research, which included a period as Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Adelaide from 1996 to 2001 and Chair of the Australian Centre for Renewable Energy from 2010 to 2012, to becoming one of the most influential scientists in NSW. She also claimed to have coined the phrase ‘early career researcher’, which is now used ubiquitously.

In contrast to much of the discussion about the future for young researchers, Professor O’Kane’s talk was one of hope and optimism, while providing frank and pragmatic advice: ‘Accept that the world is competitive’. Rather than seeing this as a setback, Professor O’Kane depicted the changing landscape as an opportunity for diversity and a growing range of possible careers for intelligent and ambitious Australian researchers.

Professor O’Kane implored young researchers to seek out new and diverse opportunities outside of the academic model, and to engage with government and industry. She argued that very few researchers will have an uninterrupted career funded on government fellowships. Rather, young researchers need to develop a portfolio of funding sources and roles. Having multiple streams of funding that end at different times was key to weathering the peaks and troughs of funding cycles.

It is not clear whether universities are adequately preparing their PhD students and postdoctoral researchers for this changing academic landscape. Potential career opportunities available to researchers outside universities and other research institutes are not always immediately clear to young researchers, whose primary aim is to publish and develop a competitive track record. The traditional research pathway is one that is well worn. Professor O’Kane urged EMCRs to take it upon themselves to develop a portfolio of opportunities.

In coming issues we will be running a new series in EMCR Pathways called Career Pathways, in which we speak with leading Australian researchers who have forged exciting and dynamic careers outside of traditional academic models. In these interviews we will explore what it is that attracted them to their occupation, what they like about it, how they got there and what skills they needed to successfully transition to their new role, as well as any tips and advice they may have for early- to mid-career researchers interested in taking a similar career pathway.

If there is an individual or a career pathway that you would like to learn more about, please email the EMCR Pathways editor (adrian.carter@monash.edu).

The EMCR Forum hosts several public engagement events across Australia each year. To find out more, or to hear about an event near you, stay tuned to EMCR Pathways or follow us on Twitter @EMCRForum.


EMCR Pathways Issue 3

© 2020 Australian Academy of Science

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