Five years as a new PI

Life as a new Principal Investigator (PI) in science is full of surprises. On any given day you’ll be dealing with the past (finishing off manuscripts from your postdoc), present (helping current students) and anticipating the future (working on the next grant). I’ve heard various people say that it’s both the most exciting, and the most stressful, time in someone’s scientific career. The excitement comes from having the opportunity to steer science the way you want to, having well-developed skills to work with the data, and some time to do the analyses. The stress comes from wanting to build a successful new lab, and learning to balance new roles such as teaching and admin while doing the science we all love. In compiling a list of things I’ve learnt I wanted to look beyond the woes of grant writing and rejection, and challenges of work-life balance, which seem to get the most coverage. So, five years in, here are five things that I’ve learnt:

Obsessing about efficiency is not efficient. Time as a new PI seems precious. There are many things to juggle, and there’s no one breathing down your back as to when to do them. So, it’s natural to want to be efficient. We’ve all read lists of 10 tips on managing your time, or lifestyle posts on how ‘successful’ people live. The reality of it though is that a routine of getting up at 5am, going for a run, checking emails once, blocking out time for writing, and generally saying ‘no’ to every request, is going to make you miserable and unpopular. I’ve learnt that most efficiency tips aren’t helpful and end up being a distraction. I make sure that I write most days, and I always have a pet project on the go so that I’m always handling data, but beyond that I go with the flow. Letting go of efficiency targets has made me more productive, and leads to the occasional guilt-free long-lunch with colleagues or coffee break with a student, which can only be a good thing. I also think that giving research time to evolve, rather than pressing to publish as soon as possible, leads to better manuscripts in the end.

The Darwin Dance Hall at the Ashworth Laboratories in Edinburgh. Home to long-lunches and welcome distractions. Photo reproduced with permission from Laurence Winram.

Oppose unwanted scientific drift. I’ve always been open-minded to expanding my research to tackle new questions and to work on new study systems. While my primary research interest is in the population biology of natural plant populations, I’ve dabbled in all sorts of topics including phylogenetics, QTL mapping, taxonomy and cytology. Early on as a PI, it became clear to me that a single collaborative grant on a topic of tangential interest, or the (co-)supervision of a student in a new topic, could draw you in new directions. While this can be a good thing to expand horizons, it can also distract from your main research interests, or require you to read large amounts of new literature and work overtime to get up-to-speed. This is exactly what happened to me early on. I think I’ve finally learnt that there’s no harm working on a few interesting topics outside your core interests, but only if this is not at the expense of what you’re really passionate about. In practice, this means always having at least one student and trying to secure funding for at least one grant on a favourite topic. 

Collaborate with your mentors. In the some grant applications, academic independence is measured by the number of publications not involving your PhD advisors. Even without this criterion, many PIs want to be seen to be doing their own thing, or seem stubborn about working with their mentors. While I might have felt this way at the start, in the last couple of years I’ve started new projects with my PhD and postdoc advisors and I’m pleased that I have. I’ve always got on well with them and value their expertise, and in many ways its easier now as I’m not working “for” them but collaborating with them as equals. 

Students are diverse. As a community I like to think that we celebrate the diversity of students. But most PIs I know treat all their students in the same or similar way, and to start with I followed this model. I met with each student for an hour a week (and did this back-to-back to be more efficient, see point 1, above). But it’s now clear to me that this weekly schedule doesn’t work for everyone. I have one student who likes to go away and come back with substantial new results without being interrupted (who I meet every other week but for longer) and another who wants to speak briefly most days. The frequency and duration of meetings also changes over time. I think it’s an important to have the conversation about the frequency and style of meetings to make sure everyone is happy.

Be bold and buy big equipment. There’s a real temptation to save your hard-earned start-up funds and avoid big purchases. But for me buying my own server has been the best single purchase I’ve made since starting my research group. I was so indecisive about buying it—deciding whether it was a good idea, whether I had the expertise to manage it, what specification to get. Various academics warned me off buying one as I could use time on the University super computer, or that in five years’ time everyone will use cloud compute. This is simply not true. Having an easy-access computer server gives you immediate on-demand compute that cannot be matched by other resources. I’ve seen other people agonise about similar large purchases like walk-in growth chambers. But I haven’t known anyone who regrets investing in something so important for their research.

For anyone interested in reading more about life as a new PI, this article in Science is a good start, and there’s lots of useful information on Twitter (#NewPI). And of course, The Molecular Ecologist has many relevant articles (like this one).

About Alex Twyford

Alex Twyford is a Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, and a Research Associate at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. He studies the ecology and evolution of plants. Twitter @alex_twyford.
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