Richard Rigby graduated in history at The Australian National University in 1970 and went on to do his PhD — subsequently reworked and published by the ANU Press as The May 30th Movement — under Professor Wang Gungwu in the then Department of Far Eastern History (now the School of Culture, History & Language).
Richard joined Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs in 1975, where he worked until the end of 2001: postings included Tokyo, Beijing (twice), Shanghai (Consul-General 1994–1998), London, and Israel (Ambassador, 2000–2001). He then joined the Office of National Assessments as Assistant Director-General, responsible for North and South Asia, where he worked until taking up the position of Founding Director of the ANU China Institute in April 2008. Following the creation of the Australian Centre on China in the World, he was concurrently Associate Director, CIW, until his retirement in April 2018. He was then appointed Emeritus Professor in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.