UCL Careers


Academia Down Under

Michelle gained her PhD in Neuroscience and is Associate Professor/Senior Research Officer at the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Australia. We spoke to her about her path to get there.

A portrait of Dr Michelle Lupton.

13 December 2022

Tell us about your current role and organisation.

I am currently a Senior Research Officer at QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Brisbane Australia in the Department of Mental Health and Neuroscience. This is a Senior Post Doc level within the Genetic Epidemiology group. I hold my own independent funding in the form of a ‘Boosting Dementia Leadership’ Fellowship from our national funding body here, the NHMRC. My main research focus is on the Genetic Epidemiology of Dementia. I also co-lead a cohort study called the Prospective Imaging Study of Aging, Genes, Brains and behaviour (PISA) which focuses on those who are at high risk of, or in the prodromal disease phase of dementia, with an aim of identifying risk factors and markers of early disease.

How did you move from your PhD to your current role?

I am originally from the UK, and completed my PhD at Kings College London. I was then employed in the same group as a Post Doc. This was a great chance for me to keep working in the same area and finish off and build on my PhD work, but it was also time to look for a new role with new opportunities and experiences. Therefore I aimed to secure a Post Doc position or fellowship in a different group. For personal reasons (with a New Zealander partner and family in Australia), I planned to move to Australia.

I made the most of any connections I had with my current colleagues and collaborators and links with groups within Australia, to find out about groups working within my research area. I also spoke with two different prominent researchers from Brisbane who happened to visit London to give talks. I arranged to meet them for an informal chat. In this way, I got to know people and I identified a really well-fitting group. I gave a talk at an international conference and used this occasion to arrange to meet with my now group leader, Professor Nick Martin about any opportunities in his group. Although he didn’t have a currently available position, he was happy for me to look into funding opportunities to work with his team. I then applied for several opportunities with my own research idea, including an internal call at QIMR Berghofer for four-year international fellowships. I was successful in obtaining an early career fellowship and moved over in 2012. I subsequently obtained funding for my second fellowship which I am now completing and looking to start my own research group.

I am naturally shy so approaching people, networking, and selling myself are definitely outside of my comfort zone. The strategy that has worked for me is to make the most of opportunities to meet in person but to initially approach via email. That way I can get across the information I want to in advance before any nervousness can set in.  

I think in this current environment it is difficult to find funded postdoc positions that you can simply apply for. Many group leaders will be looking to give funding to their current valued team members first. A better approach is to identify external funding opportunities and then look into applying for funding to join the new group.  

What does a normal working day look like for you?

I have two young children, so my husband and I have the juggle of childcare and work. I work part-time four days a week at the moment. Everything is organised with military precision with childcare pickups, drop-offs and school runs. Then it all needs re-arranging often when something inevitably goes wrong! So flexibility, good time-management and not leaving things to the last minute are important for me. Because I work at a research institute I don’t have teaching commitments and I get to focus completely on my research, which is fantastic.

My work is office-based with no lab work. I don’t have a set routine for a working day. For my research in Genetic Epidemiology, I do my own data analysis as well as working with students and colleagues on different projects, including working on manuscripts. I also lead the PISA cohort study from QIMR Berghofer where I work closely with our project coordinator and research assistants on the day-to-day running of this study. This includes large-scale online data collection and in-person participant visits for neuroimaging, cognitive testing and sample collection.  I work with other Principle Investigators in PISA and other collaborative studies across several institutes in harmonised data collection and collaborative data analysis. I am often working on funding applications, both large and small-scale. All this ends up being a combination of working away at my desk and several meetings per day, either in person or on a Zoom call.

I also attend departmental and institute-wide seminars and journal clubs, and often need to present my own work. Working in Australia means that I often have international conference calls into the evening. Having to fit in with both European and US time zones without going too late at night can be a problem.  

What are the best things about working in your role?

A favourite part of my role is working together on joint projects with colleagues, throwing new ideas back and forth, and seeing them come to fruition. I really enjoy conference travel and spending much-needed time away listening to talks, meeting people and getting new ideas. I also really enjoy writing. I think we have really varied work and get to learn new and interesting things all the time.

What are the biggest challenges you face in your work?

The biggest challenge by far for me is funding. It is stressful having to spend a large proportion of limited time on funding applications with a very low success rate, always lower than about 15%. We need to have such high-quality applications, and then simply good luck on top to be successful. As you get more senior there is increased pressure not just on your own funding but that of team members. Having such uncertainty and needing to always be competing with peers for funding is exhausting.

What’s the progression like within academia in Australia?

I think progression in academia in Australia is similar to that in the UK. I was lucky to arrive in Australia at a time when there was additional funding being made available specifically for Dementia research. The most difficult and competitive career state is the transition from Post-Doc to a leadership role.

What top tips would you pass on to our researchers? 

Obviously, researchers need to work hard in their chosen area of research, publish as much as possible and aim for high-level journals. But in addition, networking is extremely important. If you feel that you don’t know the leading people in your field, or that you are being overlooked, then make sure you take every opportunity to be involved. Join any relevant committees, these might be for early/mid-career researchers in your field, or a conference or event organising committee. Any role in these will help you get to know people.

If you plan to apply for fellowship funding it is never too early to start preparing for that. Look at the application guidelines and successful applications years in advance. That way you can identify any areas of your CV that are missing that you can work towards. This might be student supervision, committee membership, taking part in peer review, or any number of things.    

Are there any specific tips you would give to people graduating into the current uncertain climate?

I think in this uncertain climate it is really important to know what you want from your future career. If you see academics and realise that you would not be happy in their senior role, then think about whether pursuing this career is right for you. There is not the same opportunity for people to be a career Post-Doc as there used to be. There are many different avenues you can explore in other areas after completing your PhD where you can put your excellent skills to good use (and make more money!)