Being PI

I’ve been a tad busy of late. For the last seven months, I have been covering for my PI while he has been on leave. It has been quite an experience. There have been extreme highs and lows, moments of immense pride and inconsolable panic and despair. I’ve felt stressed and exhilarated all at once. I’ve enjoyed (and not enjoyed, in some cases) endless revelations about the reality of being a senior academic. One thing is for sure: I’ve learned a hell of a lot.

Highs

My research group has been nothing short of incredible. I have been over-seeing a team of thirteen: Five research technicians, two Masters students, two PhD students and two other post-docs, as well as two excellent undergraduate volunteers. Between us, we worked on a total of four different projects, two of which I wasn’t directly involved with previously. It could have been a complete disaster.

Fortunately, the ship stayed afloat, not least due to the efforts of my teammates. All group members went above and beyond their usual duties to make sure everything kept running smoothly. One of our research technicians, Jamie (@JamieThompson90), for example, took on full responsibility for coordinating fieldwork this spring, involving me in logistical matters only when it was absolutely necessary. Emily (@ERGlendenning) acted as my mind reader, thinking of and dealing with most issues before I’d even had the chance to panic about them. And Phil, Lynsey and Ellie, our animal welfare team, literally managed themselves – I couldn’t have asked for better support. I already knew I was blessed with talented, forward thinking and hard-working teammates, but this experience has really hammered home how brilliant they are. I’m touched by the degree to which everyone put themselves out for me.

Being ‘in charge’ came with a whole suite of unexpected responsibilities: I found myself having the final say on incredibly important decisions, dealing with pastoral issues, even having to stamp my feet on occasion in order to get things done (see below). But with all these responsibilities came a unique opportunity for intensive career and skills development. The last seven months have equipped me with first-hand experience of (a) management and leadership of a large research team, along with supervision of Masters and PhD students; (b) coordination and teaching of undergraduate courses; (c) staff recruitment at both the technical and academic level, including all the associated advertising, application, interview and visa protocols; and (d) administrative issues such as fieldwork risk assessments, budget management and arrangements for staff leave. All this has placed me in an excellent position to apply for senior positions in the future. More importantly, it has made me much more confident in my ability to not only hold things together, but drive them forward. When you get thrown in at the deep end, you have to try to swim!

Lows

Sometimes you really do have to get things done, no matter what it takes. When you’re in charge, it all comes down to you – everyone is looking to you to make sure things work out. For me, this meant having to act forcefully at times, particularly when dealing with people outside of my own department. I had to pester people for things, deal with disputes and even issue a complaint in one case. Anyone who knows me will know how much this goes against the grain – my approach is to work together with others, in a considerate, supportive way, to achieve the most productive and efficient outcome for everyone. But when you are two days from a visa deadline that may prevent the recruitment of a vital field worker (jeopardising the entire field season), and the powers-that-be are still dragging their feet after two months of mishaps and mistakes, exasperation and desperation can drive you to mild aggression. This is just one example of a situation where I had to, as I put it above, “stamp my feet”. It happened, and I’m not proud of it; but I now understand why PIs can come across as obnoxious at times.

Another big problem with “being PI” was the struggle to continue being a post-doc at the same time. This is no surprise really: They are both intensive, all-consuming jobs. Many of my PI duties simply had to take precedence over my post-doc work – teaching and assessments had to be completed, staff had to be recruited, project administration deadlines had to be met. I often felt that my research was being sidelined: On good days I worried that my progress was stalling; on bad days I worried that I was losing seven months of my life! I was deeply concerned about the knock-on consequences of this productivity blip on my future career prospects, especially given that early career researchers are rated primarily on their publication list.

On reflection, it wasn’t as bad as it felt. I did manage to maintain a decent rate of progress, particularly in terms of data collection – I unconsciously adopted a priority-based system, keeping all my experiments running and the data flowing in, even though I didn’t have much time to do anything with that data. So now I have a whole heap of stuff to analyse, think about and write – I just need to catch up!

Lessons

Overall, I feel a tempered sense of achievement from my PI experience. After all, I kept things going and didn’t ruin everything – in fact, the lab continued to run very successfully, graduating two first class Masters students and completing a productive field season. On a personal level, I even managed to make progress with my planned research program, publishing one paper and submitting two more within the cover period.

But I certainly haven’t come out of it glowing with triumph. To say it has been hard work would be an understatement. It has been mentally exhausting at times, and has made me reflect deeply on both the route to academic ‘success’ and what it means to be a senior academic.

I am seriously impressed by my PI. Way more than I was before. Don’t get me wrong, I always knew he was an excellent scholar, teacher and mentor, but I now see that he somehow maintains this excellence while dealing with an endless barrage of managerial, administrative and bureaucratic responsibilities. It’s a pretty remarkable feat.

This role, however, is not for everyone. The ironic thing about academic career-progression is that early career researchers strive desperately for one of very few permanent positions, fuelled by dreams of running their own lab and pursuing their own research passions; and yet, if successful, passionate scientists may end up as project managers, spending relatively little time on the one thing that drove them there – their own active research. This is by no means the universal fate of the senior academic – I know several PIs who regularly muck in with lab work alongside their students. But as research groups expand, teaching and administrative duties multiply and the pressure of grant applications intensifies, most lab heads are lucky if they even have time to think. In this period of just a few months, I found it incredibly difficult to focus on my science and crack on with research – there was always something else that needed addressing, something else that just couldn’t wait.

I can’t say that this experience has directly discouraged me from pursuing a senior research position, but then again, I had already decided not to follow this career path anyway. It’s difficult to say how I would have felt had I entered into this situation with romantic dreams of PI-dom, only to realise the stark bureaucratic realities that lay ahead. I’m not sure it would have fazed me too much, but I am pragmatic about this kind of thing – after all, academia or not, it’s always going to be tough at the top.

Equally, I hope this post doesn’t deter keen early career researchers from continuing up the academic ladder – the highs of an established research career can certainly surpass the lows. I do, however, hope it provides some objective information about what can be expected as one moves towards a senior position, particularly with regard to how the focus may shift from research to management, with students and research staff taking on the bulk of the groundwork.

Maybe it would be useful to give every post-doctoral researcher the opportunity to “be PI” for some period of time – it really is an extraordinary development opportunity! Gaining a sneak preview of what lies ahead may prove invaluable for the future career decisions of young academics.