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Are You PI Material? Assess Yourself


It has been suggested, on more than one occasion, that any reasonably intelligent, hard-working person can make it as a scientist. This statement is not to belittle scientists' mental abilities, but merely underpins the basic premise that published scientific work should be reproducible by any competent, suitably informed person. ('Suitably informed' meaning, of course, that you'd need to spend the best part of a decade getting academically tooled up for life as a scientist).

Now this is all very well, but it seems to me that not anyone who could make it as a scientist can actually make it as a principal investigator (PI). Indeed, many research careers are deliberately shortened after the dawning realisation that there is often poor, if any, career structure for postdocs, not to mention mounting exasperation at the post-postdoc bottleneck in the permanent scientific jobs market. So who succeeds in this ruthless battle for the top of the heap? For me, there are 10 skills and attributes we all need if we are to make it as a PI. Before you go too much further, you might want to ask yourself honestly if you've got what it apparently takes.

  • Are you prepared to plough a lot of effort into getting your face known? This will require that you be able to stomach the thought that you'll be away from home rather a lot. You must get yourself first recognised, and then known, by all the big names in your field, and this involves attending all the right conferences and travelling the world as a visiting speaker to get your message out. Of course, your message in the PI market isn't your science per se, but that YOU can produce stuff of PI calibre. Of course, if you focus too much on networking too early, you're going to be away from the lab too much at a time in your career when there really isn't anyone to replace you. This will translate into too few publications. So, it's a balancing act. This leads to my next point.

  • Can you make a name for yourself as the first author on lots of big papers? Getting down to writing is hard, especially when, as mentioned above, there's often no one else to keep turning the handle in the lab. Finding the time is all about making the time, and this is usually your own 'spare' time. But be aware that getting papers out is never a bad thing, unless all your publications are in journals that no one has ever heard of. Also be careful not to end up being viewed as someone else's flunky, a technical wizard with no mind of your own--that is, spending too long as first author in a group where someone else gets all the glory as the prestigious final author.

  • Do you love to think about your science? Do you lie awake at night chewing it all over? Can you write a good easy-to-read review to bring it all together? Do colleagues who need someone just to bounce ideas off consult you as a troubleshooter? Overall, are you seen as having a good mind? If you've answered YES to most of these questions, then consider yourself adequately equipped in the mental faculties department.

  • Are you ruthless in your own mind, constantly reappraising your research to instinctively weed out blind alleys almost before they've appeared? This is about the ability to apply logic and probability to your wish list of experiments and the even greater ability to stick to the result, come what may. It's crucial to be able to override your natural desire to hold on to pet hypotheses or courses of action in which you have invested heavily.

  • At the same time, do you have a sixth sense of which way the research should go, even when you can't give a reason why? Instinct and inspiration often play unsung roles in science. I think they're often grossly underrated.

  • Can you stay right on top of the literature and read extensively outside your own field, putting yourself in a position where you can recognise how advances in other people's fields raise opportunities in yours? Do you have the ability to speed-read through the constant stream of electronic tables of contents arriving in your inbox, picking out keywords as you scroll down?

  • Do you have the 'gift of the gab'? Can you talk your way around your areas of weakness and convince people of your worth? Someone once told me the most successful scientists aren't necessarily the best scientists. They're the ones who sell (i.e., present) their science the most convincingly.

  • Are you a teacher? Do you have the patience to tutor students who seem unable to grasp a word you've said? Can you mentor and guide young people? Even if your work doesn't involve contact with undergraduates, you'll always have inexperienced people under you as you begin to climb the science ladder.

  • Can you handle the politics? Science is all about personalities, sometimes personalities that are egotistical and difficult. Do you have a feel for how and when to approach people in positions of influence and power with your requests? Diplomacy and confidence are the name of the game, I'd say.

  • Can you walk away from your work and still be human? What point is there in being a resounding success as a PI if your friends and family don't know you anymore, or if you become aloof or bigoted? This point is the biggest challenge of all if you aspire to reach the very top of the scientific tree. In my experience, there are only two types of top PIs. The very nice and the very not so nice. The question is which type would you be if you got to the top?

If you can answer all of these challenges then you are probably on your way to becoming a huge smash in your field. If not, don't worry. There are plenty of PIs and potential PIs out there with deficiencies in more than one of these areas, myself included. The trick is to recognise your weaknesses early on in your career and to work around them.