Combatting principal investigators unrealistic expectations by enabling junoir researchers to lead a group

Do you, or do you want,  to work in academic life science research?  For those of you that do not current work in scientific research, a principal investigator (PI) is normally the person that has had a research proposal successfully funded and could otherwise be known as your boss.

If you are currently working in science this may be a very familiar feeling where time is no longer a relevant dimension in space.  This scenario is not unique to science but can be felt quite acutely when following standardised protocols that even if you tried would not be able to deliver in certain timescales often due to constraints in biology.

I believe that the source of these unrealistic expectations lies in the fact that most PIs, at least the ones that exclude time as a relevant factor, no longer work at the bench.

I think this could be combated in two ways, permitting/affording the time/in some cases force senior staff/professors (some have worked hard to get away from the bench) to work at the bench.  Secondly making junior staff aware of the pressures a PI faces, which are considerable, by affording them the time to write their own independant project proposals thereby allowing the junoir staff to peak into the world of the PI.

I am not considered a PI (being non tenured) however in my spare time (I am no longer sure what that really means, although possibly writing a blog at 6am is) I have written both my own grants and fellowship applications and see first hand how difficult and competitive this process is.  Whilst the majority of my applications have been unsuccessful (get used to this feeling) a couple have been successful and have been able to gain some funds as PI for some undergraduate students to work with me.  It’s not a lot but its something (although given the effort it may have been easier to use my own salary to pay a student and have radically considered this but due to employment legislation I can not).

Being a PI for a student in which I conceived and wrote a funding application independently of my current boss, got it funded, recruited a student and then crucially have had to train them practically in the lab has made my expectations more realistic.  It’s the tacit, and in the case of laboratory work, practical knowledge, that you somehow assume a student has absorbed in lectures that makes you realise how much they still need to learn and therefore the speed at which they work and the number of mistakes that is made is (in the majority of cases) much greater than a more experienced member of staff (although not always).

This experience of knowing the whole process (from grant to physically supervising a student, much like how I train a student they need to know how to design an experiment and complete it) has most definitely made my expectations more realistic which I hope one day I can utilise if I ever gain tenure and become an official PI and think that professors would benefit from actually still being in the lab.

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