Being a dementia researcher

Trying to decide which career is right for you can be a complicated process. You may be thinking about a career in dementia research as it is a subject close to your heart, or you might be fascinated by memory or the brain. Whatever your reason, we want to equip you with the right information to help you make the right decision.


Meet four early career researchers.

Find out what they’re working on, what they enjoy about their job and what their biggest challenges have been so far.

Dr James Dachtler  Dr James Dachtler, Social withdrawal in dementia, Durham University
  1. Tell us about your career path to becoming an early career researcher.
    I did my BSc in Neuroscience in Cardiff University, and stayed on to do a PhD in the neuroscience of plasticity and memory. I published my PhD work in journals including Neuron, Journal of Neuroscience and the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory. After my PhD, I began a post-doc at the University of Leeds before becoming a Wellcome Trust ISSF fellow to examine the role of autism-related gene mutations in altered social behaviour (largely based on my PhD publications). During this time, I was also able to get a Royal Society and British Pharmacological Society grant to help establish my independent research. Following this, I moved into dementia research to try and combine my interests in the neurobiology of social behaviour and social withdrawal in dementia. Currently, I am supported by an Alzheimer’s Society Fellowship at Durham University.
  2. What does your research focus on?
    My current research focuses upon social withdrawal in Alzheimer’s disease. There have been several publications highlighting that social withdrawal can occur several years prior to a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, and that wider social networks can protect against cognitive decline. However, the mechanisms behind this are unclear. I am currently using behavioural testing, MRI and electrophysiology to examine the social brain of Alzheimer’s disease model mice to determine a mechanistic cause for social withdrawal.
  3. Do you have any advice for someone looking to embark on a career in dementia research?
    My advice would vary depending upon what you want out of your career. For those that are keen to get a fellowship or a lectureship, then I would say that early planning is essential. You need to think about what research you want to be doing independently, and work towards building a track record. Rightly or wrongly, papers are a key factor in progression. But more than where you publish, developing a strong track record within a specific area helps for funding. Second, be aware of opportunities for funding at all career levels. Being able to find funds to develop your own research is tough, but opportunity is out there. Also, network with people that want to help you and work with you. By talking to senior researchers, many will be able to help you develop your ideas or even help with experiments. I’ve always been surprised at how many people were willing to help me. Networking is key as an ECR; at that point in your career, you can’t do it alone.
  4. What are the best bits about being an ECR?
    Being an ECR is full of positive and negatives. As an ECR, this is the best time to undertake training in a wide variety of experimental techniques that you won’t be able to do once you get a lectureship. Although it can be time consuming, it’s a great asset to train to be a multidisciplinary researcher. Grants that aren’t multidisciplinary don’t tend to get funding. It’s also good to be able to focus 100% on research and not teaching.Being an ECR gives a great prospect to travel. Science is a truly international job, and working in other countries, or even going to conferences or giving talks, is a great opportunity.
  5. What do you see as the main challenges?
    The challenges of being an ECR should be carefully considered by those that have yet to decide upon a career in academia (which is all I can speak for given my experience). Jobs are extremely competitive, and job durations are reducing. 3 years was standard, but 1 year contracts are now becoming common. This will lead to a lot moving around, so stability suffers. The work is hard; long hours have been necessary wherever I’ve been. But the major challenge is how to progress to a permanent position. Only 10% of PhD graduates obtain an academic position. The competition for these is intense, and requires dedication and perseverance throughout the earlier stages of your career. With this in mind, thinking about your career options and working to broaden your skill set is valuable.
Dr Tim Rittman  Dr Timothy Rittman, Understanding tau neuropathology, University of Cambridge
  1. Tell us about your career path to becoming an early career researcher.
    I am a doctor by training and first tasted research as an undergraduate in Nottingham completing a research project in the Human Papilloma Virus. During that period of time I went to a course on the pathology of neurodegenerative disease and I’ve been hooked on neurology and dementia ever since. As a Foundation Year doctor I was in the first cohort to join an academic programme during which I completed research in neuroradiology and neuropathology. I then went back to clinical medicine for ST1 and ST2 training, using my spare time to complete small projects with the motor neurone disease research group at King’s College Hospital in London where I was working. I then moved to Cambridge as a Specialist Registrar in Neurology and completed a PhD in neurodegenerative disease, particularly focusing on functional imaging biomarkers in Progressive Supranuclear Palsy and Corticobasal Syndrome. After my PhD I have once again returned to full time clinical work, but maintained a research interest in my spare time before going on to a clinical lecturer post in early 2018.
  2. What does your research focus on?
    I am interested in how neurodegenerative processes impact on the brain as a whole. In particular, I use computational methods to describe, model and predict the effect of genetic and sporadic tau related neuropathology on brain structure and function. My aim is to understand how the brain’s structural and functional networks are both protective and vulnerable to disease and to investigate how best to stop disease progression and protect vulnerable regions of the brain.
  3. Do you have any advice for someone looking to embark on a career in dementia research?
    If you want a clinical and academic career, then be prepared to work hard. Research will be your main hobby, so make sure you enjoy it! I have had great advice and encouragement from different people at all stages of my career, so talk to people about what you are interested in and take advice.Learn to deal with failure – the highs of academic work are great, but the lows can feel very dark. So make sure you have good friends and/or family and, a life outside work for some perspective. Be prepared not to take failings personally, usually there are reasons beyond your control for not being published, or not being succesful at job interviews or funding panels.I would advise everyone working in the dementia field to meet people in their local disease support networks. People with dementia and their families would love to meet you! And I can guarantee it will give you a great boost of enthusiasm and purpose.
  4. What are the best bits about being an ECR?
    The ability to answer your own questions and follow your instincts. There is no feeling in the world like analysing some data with the knoweldge that no one else in the world knows what you have just found out.Being at the cutting edge of a field means you have an in-depth knowledge that would be difficult to keep up with from the outside. The dementia field is generally friendly and supportive, I am lucky to work with a huge range of wonderful colleagues both in Cambridge and elsewhere.
  5. What do you see as the main challenges?
    Not taking on too much! It is tempting to try and answer every question, join every interest group and try to write up every paper you’ve ever thought about. Choosing the things that will have the most impact is important but difficult. Sometimes the things you spend the most time on will be seen by no one else, and the things that work the best take just a few minutes. Managing work-life balance with a research career, clinical career and family commitments is hard – I don’t think I have worked that one out yet!
Dr Deborah Oliveira  Dr Deborah Oliveira, Family caregiving, University of Nottingham
  1. Tell us about your career path to becoming an early career researcher.
    I started my career at the University of Campinas, Sao Paulo, Brazil. While I was a student nurse, I started doing research assistant work with family carers of people with dementia living in the community. I then did my Masters' degree at the same University investigating a national Brazilian sample of older people and their expectation of care. During that period, I worked as a nurse in community settings and at an A&E. After that, I came to the University of Nottingham to do my PhD, in which I developed and validated the 'Dementia Quality of Life Scale for Older Family Carers' - The DQoL-OC. I currently work as Research Fellow at the Institute of Mental Health, University of Nottingham.
  2. What does your research focus on?
    I currently work as Programme Manager for INDUCT (Interdisciplinary Network for Dementia Using Current Technology - www.dementiainduct.eu). Funded through H2020 Marie Skłodowska Curie Actions, INDUCT is aimed at developing a multi-disciplinary, inter-sectorial educational research framework for Europe to improve technology and care for people with dementia, and to provide the evidence to show how technology can improve the lives of people with dementia. In addition to that, I am currently conducting research in the area of self-care for family carers (funded by the Nottinghamshire CCGs) and dementia risk reduction (funded by the ARUK).
  3. Do you have any advice for someone looking to embark on a career in dementia research?
    I advise you to talk to people with dementia and their families so you will be looking at what really matters to people living with the condition. They are the experts on it and are the most appropriate people to say what research should be about. Also, collaboration is key as dementia is not only a biological matter, but clinical, social, psychological. You should join different expertise and experiences if you wish to have robust outcomes.
  4. What are the best bits about being an ECR?
    I feel like I am still learning and so I am free to change my path. There are many opportunities and career options to choose and different ways to contribute to society.
  5. What do you see as the main challenges?
    Academia is competitive and demanding. It is really hard to balance personal life with work expectations.
Adele Pryce-Roberts  Dr Adele Pryce Roberts, Stem cells & APOE, University of Cardiff
  1. Tell us about your career path to becoming an early career researcher.
    My path has been rather circuitous! After completing my first degree I joined the Bank of England graduate scheme where I worked as a policy advisor. While this seems a world away from dementia research some of the skills I learned in that period, such as analysis and problem solving, have been very transferrable. After 8 years in the City I left to do graduate entry medicine. At medical school I took every opportunity I could to get involved in research projects and decided that clinical academia was for me. I undertook an academic foundation programme which solidified my interest and then moved to Wales to join the Welsh Clinical Academic Track (WCAT) scheme. The scheme has given me the freedom to develop my own research question which is now funded by an Alzheimer’s Reasearch UK (ARUK) Clinical Fellowhip.
  2. What does your research focus on?
    My research investigates the role of the APOE gene in synaptic function in Alzheimer’s disease. The model uses stem cell and gene editing techniques so it has been a really steep, and sometimes frustrating, learning curve. However, when things work it’s incredibly rewarding.
  3. Do you have any advice for someone looking to embark on a career in dementia research?
    My main advice would be to read lots and talk to people. It can be daunting approaching eminent, senior researchers and testing your ideas but nearly everyone is enthusiastic and friendly and will give you invaluable advice.
  4. What are the best bits about being an ECR?
    I think interest is the main one, the field is constantly evolving so it’s very difficult to get bored. Also, it’s a great privilege to have the luxury of testing your own hypotheses with the hope that your work might contribute to understanding these devastating illnesses.
  5. What do you see as the main challenges?
    The best bits are also some of the main challenges; keeping abreast of new ideas, technologies and techniques is hard work. Personally, balancing academic and clinical work is challenging. For dementia research as a whole, continued funding in the current political landscape is a challenge as is pharma’s reduced appetite for risk in this area (given Pfizer’s recent decision), however, I hope this will be offset by innovation and new talent entering the field. Overall, I think there’s cause for cautious optimism.