SECG Blog - Pursuing a research career while juggling other aspirations

Dr Debbie Pu (Monash University);
Dr Chiara Naseri (University of Western Australia Centre for Health & Ageing);
Georgina Chelberg (The University of Queensland)



For someone with a sweet tooth, it’s hard to accept when people tell you that you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Equally as vexing was when my PhD supervisor told me I couldn’t excel as a researcher AND as a clinician while developing careers in both, I had to pick a lane. I took it to heart at first, but always had a niggling voice that pushed me to seek out clinical opportunities while conducting research. After completing my PhD, I sought post-doc and faculty positions in speech pathology, and my lack of success was accompanied by feedback regarding my lack of clinical experience. That niggling voice became louder and I began to doubt how stalwartly I’d kept to my research lane. I immediately reached out to my network and began a casual clinical position external to academia. I made sure my research duties were completed, and only spared the 3-4 hours a week that I knew I could handle to be a speech pathologist at a private clinic. The most rewarding thing from these 3-4 hours (apart from extra income) was the confirmation that my research experience over the years did not dilute my clinical skills, and in fact had helped me become a more confident and well-rounded clinician. I have since relocated and switched research fields, but I’ve continued to seek out clinical roles outside of my research duties. I never commit more than would interfere with my primary research duties, but I never see the clinical role as supplementary to my research career. Looking back at my PhD supervisor’s advice, I can see the truth in those words. Juggling two full time careers would have been near impossible, so I stayed in one lane. But my lane does not have to be a narrow one, I can fit in my passion for research and my interest in clinical practice without straying from my lane. This has been supported by mentors and supervisors along the way, and careful trial and error on my part (just as in research). My lane may change as I continue: wider, narrower, occasionally leading to dead ends I’ll need to turn around from. And that’s ok, because this is the journey I have chosen, and I can always stop for cake along the way.


I started my research journey as a physiotherapist who felt more like a preacher. In my field of balance and falls prevention, I spent more work time convincing my patients that despite the familiarity of returning home from hospital, this was one of the most risky times to fall and injure themselves, leading to readmissions and often death. When sharing such information, there is a fine line between empowering your patients with knowledge and instilling them with fear. I brought these concerns to my now supervisors and mentors Terry Haines and Anne-Marie Hill in 2015. Whether by coincidence or divine intervention, one year later I commenced a PhD evaluating a falls prevention education intervention delivered in a large NHMRC funded trial for older people discharged from hospital.

In the past I saw the research journey that physiotherapists like Terry and Anne-Marie took as a step aside from being ‘on the tools.’ But now that I have completed this PhD journey (in 2020), I would prefer not to think of it as a categorical career change, but more of a hybrid mix of both. This means that having worked as a clinician then starting research later in my career, I want to continue in both. After all, research is much richer when you can collaborate at the grassroots to get the real story, plan a solution, implement the changes, analyse the effects, and report back the recommendations. Sounds much like an ideal physiotherapy treatment to me.



Starting a PhD was the beginning of a challenging journey – and I’m sure this is probably not news to anyone reading this blog! Everyone describes a PhD as an apprenticeship in becoming a researcher. This has been true for me in the sense that I had a lot to learn about how research is conducted, ethical processes, study designs and the pragmatics of research timelines. It turns out that I also had a lot to learn about the academic ‘system’ in which researchers undertake their work. Unlike ‘regular’ jobs, income is not guaranteed. In fact, it seems that researchers need to continually prove their merit within their employment setting and also within the wider context of funding entities. If you assembled the Twitter content posted by academics, I think a significant portion would be made up by funding outcomes, lengthy processes and heavy lifting required to stay in the game. Of course, I understood aspects of this when I began, but I now understand much more.

Part way into my PhD I was in the process of obtaining funding to support my research. I regularly scoped grant updates, websites, mailing lists etc for relevant funding opportunities. During my candidature I was also active in attending PD sessions and where appropriate, take the risk of talking to speakers and delegates about their work and research. Although this was difficult for me (imposter syndrome!) I was often pleasantly surprised by people’s interest in my research and their willingness to share insights. I am fortunate that one of the speakers I introduced myself to, ended up becoming one of my PhD supervisors. Furthermore, they worked for CSIRO’s Australian eHealth Research Centre and encouraged me to apply for a studentship – for which I was successful. This provided me with a top-up to my university stipend and a budget for research projects that formed part of my PhD. The studentship has opened doors for me to build connections with Senior Research Scientists, fellow EMCRs and external partners whilst contributing to several CSIRO digital health projects. These experiences have shaped and deepened the PhD journey and my professional skills in ways that I could not have predicted. Through these new connections, I have also had the opportunity to work with a peak body in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health.

Now that I am coming to the end of my PhD I am in the process of applying for further opportunities to stay with CSIRO. As we know, nothing is guaranteed but I have grown in confidence with a better knowledge of the academic space and the connections I have built during candidature.

28 April 2022


Dr. Debbie Pu is a research fellow at Monash University, where she manages and coordinates public health research projects. She is a trained speech pathologist and continues to practice and seek out opportunities to explore her interest in swallowing disorders

Dr Chiara Naseri is an Early Career Researcher working with Professor Anne-Marie Hill at University of Western Australia Centre for Health & Ageing, combining her interest in promoting healthy ageing and independence for older people and collaborating across disciplines to translate the evidence to the health and aged care sector

Georgina Chelberg is a PhD Candidate at The University of Queensland and has a studentship with CSIRO’s Australian eHealth Research Centre. Georgina’s PhD has explored the role of digital health with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including persons living with dementia. The research builds on collaborative relationships between key Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stakeholders and CSIRO. Georgina has worked in several Research Officer roles and has previously worked as a Project Manager in corporate wellness and as a Health and Wellness Project Officer. Georgina also has professional experience in marketing, communications, and publishing.