Score Your Own PI Potential


If you read my last column you may have a clearer idea of which skills and attributes are necessary to become a successful principal investigator--but can you reliably judge whether or not you have got what it takes? Well, here is your chance to find out. All you have to do is rattle through the following questions with brutal honesty. Then tot up your marks using the scoring table in the box to see how you've fared. You know the score ? you've done this sort of thing in Cosmo or GQ (or maybe both!). So, go on, give it a try!

  • You've just spent your fifth night alone in a cramped single room in a student hall of residence at a national conference. You had a little too much to drink last night in a desperate attempt to stave off homesickness and/or conference weariness. How do you feel about listening to presentation number 53 of your week at 9 o'clock sharp in the morning?

  • I'm always on the lookout for new connections, no matter how tired I am.

  • I'm taking the first train back to the lab tomorrow.

  • I'll go along to the talks as I'm here anyway, but I may well switch off and daydream.

  • I think I'll sneak off and go shopping.

  • You know most of the big names in your field personally, but you can't stand one of them. If you said to his face half of what you really think of him you'd probably need to find another field in which to carve out your career. You find yourself standing next to him in the queue for coffee at a conference and decide to speak, if only to remind him who you are. His first words are rather abrupt and he doesn't seem that interested in what you're saying. Do you:

  • Say, 'Excuse me, I didn't realise your royal highness doesn't lower himself to bother with riff-raff like me' and storm off.

  • Ask an incisive, intelligent, and cutting-edge question to grab his attention.

  • Apologise for bothering him and stay in the queue waiting to be served.

  • Carry on mumbling into your coffee about your research plans as he turns to start a conversation with someone else.

  • You're under pressure from your partner to spend some quality time with him/her because you've been working late in the lab a lot recently. You are almost ready to submit your next paper, and two more nights' work would probably sort it. Do you:

  • Say to yourself, 'Stuff it, my relationship is much too important. Besides, the paper's almost ready, so I'll get to finish it in a couple of weeks' time'.

  • Crack on with the paper regardless, with the view that you can sort out your relationship in two days' time once the paper has been submitted.

  • Spend quality time together that very evening and then work into the night, once you partner has gone to bed.

  • Crack under the pressure and end up leaning on your partner for support at the very time they need encouragement from you.

  • You are lying awake at 3 a.m. with a difficult scientific problem bumping around the innermost confines of your mind. Do you:

  • Stubbornly try even harder to go to sleep and end up still lying awake at 6 a.m. with a splitting headache.

  • Torment yourself to find a solution but the problem seems insurmountable and you fall asleep from exhaustion remembering vaguely your ideas in the morning.

  • Think 'there is not much I can do at this time of the night so better forget all about it' and reach for that very gripping novel by your bed.

  • Lie there trying to work out a solution in your head, making notes on ideas to ponder in the morning before falling into a peaceful sleep knowing you are probably one step closer.

  • How are you ever going to get it all done? In the next two days you have to get a paper formatted for submission, send detailed information to a collaborator, write an undergraduate lecture course, prepare a conference presentation, and interview two candidates for your new postdoc position. Do you:

  • Immediately look for something major to chop from your 'to do' list and put it on the backburner.

  • Panic and scribble all over your notepad in a desperate attempt to get organised.

  • Think of a strategy and then crack on with the most important task, leaving the least important to last, and remembering to schedule time for a few well-earned coffee breaks.

  • Flip out and take a 'sickie'.

  • You've turned up yet another major and exciting new lead in your research. With your ongoing work consuming all your group's time already and no immediate prospect of more hands on deck, what do you do?

  • Reassess everything you're currently investigating and rank the work in terms of the potential publication factor. If the new lead comes out near the top, and the work is doable, find a way to get it done, even if it means doing some of it yourself.

  • Pass it on to your experienced postdoc to look into. After all, they're the one at the sharp end.

  • Let your ideas develop and see if things are less busy in a few weeks' time.

  • Say to yourself, 'forget it, there's probably someone in Japan already halfway to publication on this very question.'

  • You are flying back from a conference and, to your surprise, have been upgraded to first class. Do you:

  • Stretch out your legs, sip your champagne, and watch the latest movie.

  • Enjoy the unexpected freedom to get some work done in peace and quiet.

  • Have a nap and dream of lying on the beach during your next holiday.

  • Option b) plus either option a) or option c).

  • You are asked a particularly awkward question after your conference presentation. What would your typical response be? Do you:

  • Blurt out 'I was afraid someone would ask that question,' then go to pieces.

  • Say several uncomfortable 'Ums' before cobbling together some sort of half-baked answer.

  • Treat this question like every other one--as an opportunity to talk more about what you want to say, virtually sidestepping the question with your deft use of language and general ebullience.

  • Try to answer the question as it was given, if necessary stating clearly that you have no idea.

  • Scoring guide

    Add up your marks as follows:


    a) 4

    b) 3

    c) 2

    d) 1



    a) 1

    b) 4

    c) 2

    d) 2



    a) 2

    b) 3

    c) 4

    d) 1



    a) 1

    b) 3

    c) 2

    d) 4



    a) 3

    b) 2

    c) 4

    d) 1



    a) 4

    b) 2

    c) 3

    d) 1



    a) 1

    b) 4

    c) 1

    d) 4

    (after all, you're only human!)


    a) 1

    b) 2

    c) 4

    d) 3


    So, how did you do?
    If you scored between 8 and 15 you might want to spend some serious time on Science's Next Wave investigating alternative careers. ...
    If you scored between 16 and 23, you may have what it takes to make it as a PI, but you really need to sharpen up on your weak areas.
    And if you scored between 24 and 32, what can I say but "See you at the medal winners' reception?" What drive, what ambition!

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