Given the scale and complexity of challenges facing urban environments, urban research has a potentially significant role to play in informing policy responses and decision-making processes in practice. Yet the nexus between urban research and planning practice in Australia could be characterised as weak at best. In this paper we focus on the role of researchers in the research–practice nexus, and in particular on Early Career Researchers (ECRs) and PhD candidates. We examine the institutional contexts and differing career trajectories of Australian ECRs and the relationship to professional practice, drawing on interviews, secondary data sources and our own ‘early career’ experiences. We argue that ERCs are rarely effectively prepared to engage in the contemporary urban policy realm; and that the discipline needs to explore opportunities for capacity building for future researchers and research leaders.