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The surprises of starting as a new PI

Late one night, cell biologist Prachee Avasthi was poring over data that had come in earlier that day, when she came across a result she describes as “exceedingly rare and unfathomable”: A gene that her lab was already investigating was a key player in another cellular process they had recently become interested in. “I tried but couldn’t contain my excitement,” says Avasthi, a principal investigator (PI) at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City. So she posted about it on Slack, the electronic communication and collaboration tool her team uses. Even though she didn’t expect anyone to see it at that late hour, she was just happy to convey her excitement there, knowing that she and her lab members would “share some happy moments of awe and disbelief the next day.”

This lab community, however, was a few years in the making. When Avasthi started out as an assistant professor in 2015, she was surprised at how isolating the position could feel. As a trainee, “you are in somebody’s lab, and you have a cohort of other classmates, and more importantly you have that adviser who, if you make a big discovery or thought of a great new idea, is someone that you can tell that is as excited about it as you are,” she says. But when you become a PI, all of a sudden, “that vanishes.” Back in her early days as a PI, there were many times when she was “bursting with excitement,” only to wonder, “Who do I tell?” (In 2016, this question prompted Avasthi to create a Slack community of new PIs that now has more than 950 members from around the world.)

Many new PIs experience similarly unexpected bumps in the road as they transition from trainee to head honcho. The features of the job that many aspiring academics look forward to—such as having the freedom to pursue your own ideas, running your lab how you want, and gaining more recognition—come with new responsibilities and challenges, including some that are unforeseen. To address this gap, both for new PIs and for trainees who are considering whether they want to pursue the PI path, Science Careers talked with Avasthi and three other scientists about the unexpected challenges of starting their labs and what they learned along the way.

Taking—and ceding—control

“You have this idea that once you are the boss, you can do what you want and whenever you want,” Avasthi recalls thinking when she was a trainee. But once she started her new role as a PI, she quickly found that was not quite the case. Between her current teaching responsibilities, meetings, and other commitments, “this is the least amount of control over my schedule that I’ve ever had,” Avasthi says. One of her coping strategies is working from home when she needs to really focus on digging into some new data or writing a paper or grant application.

The responsibility that comes with authority also informs her approach to managing her research program. As a postdoc, “if I had an idea in my head and I was beyond excited, I could just drop everything and do it,” she says. But as a PI, she has to think carefully about reprioritizing experiments. “You don’t want to hijack people in their productivity by changing gears all the time,” she says. You have to “take into account how much pressure you are putting on people and let them have a chance to decide for themselves.”

That mindset has also helped her deal with the “huge amount of decision fatigue” that comes with having “one million decisions [all] waiting on you”—another aspect of the job that Avasthi hadn’t anticipated as a trainee. She has learned to rely more and more on her trainees to make minor decisions for the lab, such as choosing what reagents to order, which allows her to “spend my time doing things that only I can do,” such as writing major grant proposals.

In becoming a PI, “there are certain things that were different” from what she expected, Avasthi says. But they aren’t all challenges. All in all, she says, being a PI “has been even better than I hoped.”

Managing management

When systems biologist Johannes Jaeger started as a PI at the Centre for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona, Spain, he was all about the science. “I was extremely excited to be able to do my own stuff with so many resources,” he recalls. But, he continues, “I was completely unprepared in terms of how to manage a group.” 

Early on, Jaeger made a few management decisions that he would come to regret. In one case, he hired a trainee based on their technical expertise, even though he had some misgivings about whether they would be a good match for his personality and advising style. He thought that the trainee’s knowledge would outweigh the “fit” factor. And the researcher did help push the lab forward—but they also proved difficult to work with and disruptive to the lab, Jaeger says. The lesson, he says, is that when it comes to hiring lab members, CVs can’t tell the whole story.

With time, Jaeger realized that not only was he unprepared for the managerial aspects of running a multidisciplinary lab—such as getting researchers with different backgrounds to collaborate and understand each other; overseeing the budget; and making sure that reagents for experiments were ordered, scientific equipment was maintained, and computational infrastructure was kept up-to-date—he didn’t enjoy being completely absorbed by them. Rather than feeling like he was doing research, it felt “almost like leading a small company,” he says, which wasn’t what he wanted. He missed having the chunks of time that he once enjoyed as a postdoc to do his own research, think, and write.

Hand-in-hand with the managerial responsibilities came the pressure to succeed, which Jaeger initially found difficult to cope with. Some of this pressure was self-imposed, with Jaeger setting research targets that he describes as overly ambitious and “unnecessarily scary.” But his high-risk project took almost 4 years to yield publications, which made getting grants difficult. Those were frustrating times, Jaeger adds. “I was worrying a lot.”

One year after passing his 5-year evaluation, Jaeger decided to close his lab to become the scientific director of a small institute in Austria. He is currently writing a book and teaching while considering his next career steps. His advice to new PIs who envision a traditional academic career is “to trust yourself and to let yourself grow into the role. It’s not that your life completely changes and you suddenly have to be on top of everything. You have some spare space and time to learn on the job, and that’s the only way you can do it.”

Facing greater exposure

For physicist Martina Müller, who runs a lab at the Jülich Research Center in Germany, the sense of exposure that can come with being a PI took her by surprise. “As a postdoc, you are responsible for yourself and maybe one or two students, but there is always a professor taking care of the final things,” she says. “And then from one day to the other, you are responsible for other people, money, teaching students, and so on,” says Müller, who also holds a junior professor position at the Technical University of Dortmund.

At times, being the one in charge forces you to be the bad guy when you have to make decisions “that are maybe not so popular” with your trainees, says Müller, who tries to cultivate a flat, nonhierarchical structure in her lab to the extent that she can. Earlier this year, for example, she had to tell a student that they needed to delay taking their summer vacation because the trainee’s holiday plans clashed with a coveted slot they had secured at a synchrotron facility.

It’s not just within the lab. PIs need to be ready to step up and defend their ideas and positions to colleagues and higher-ranking professors, within their institute and beyond, Müller says. This “costs energy, and if you are not completely an alpha person, this is something that you have to work on.”

What Müller expected least was the sense of exposure that she came to experience as a woman in a male-dominated working environment. As an early-career physicist, she had become accustomed to being in the minority, but she had never really felt set apart or experienced potential bias against her. Now, in meetings, she is all too often the only woman in the room, which brings a peculiar sort of visibility. “The focus is at some point on you, and you have to sit very straight” and be impeccable professionally, “and this also costs a bit of energy,” Müller says. Often, she also feels the need to show greater competence and say things more forcefully than her male colleagues to be treated equally. “I had not foreseen really how it feels to stand up or to be in many situations alone as a female.”

It helped that, as she started her position, Müller participated in a 2-year leadership training program for women in science. Even more useful has been developing a network of peers at her same career stage. “You cannot talk to your boss or students about certain topics,” such as work overload, conflicts with and between trainees, or gender issues, she says. The network offers the outlet she needs to talk about these issues with other young PIs who are experiencing similar problems. These conversations help her find the support and advice she needs to stand up for herself and manage the challenges.

Achieving balance

For microbiologist James “Jake” McKinlay, one of the biggest surprises when he started as a professor in 2011 was how challenging teaching—and the time management that comes with it—can be. His assistant professorship at Indiana University in Bloomington called for him to spend 25% of his time teaching, with the remaining 75% committed to research. He thought this would be a good balance for him—it was one of the reasons he took the job in the first place.

But the undergraduate course that he was assigned to teach during his first year soon became all-consuming. “I wanted my course to be really special,” McKinlay recalls, so he gave his students all kinds of projects and homework. “I don’t think I realized how much time it would take just to put together a basic lecture. … I tried to do too much too early.” Preparing the material for the course and grading the assignments left little time for research. “My research program all but stopped that semester, and that was really bad.”

The experience eventually forced McKinlay to dedicate specific blocks of time for his research and set more realistic standards for his teaching. By his third year, when he taught his first graduate course, “I was more willing to ease myself into it,” he says, which made both his teaching and research more enjoyable and effective.

The same time management challenge kept presenting itself in many forms. As a professor, you get daily requests to help students and colleagues, sit on committees, and perform community service, McKinlay says. It is essential that you learn to balance all these duties while also protecting your time, he adds.

Today, he always tries to help students and be a good colleague. But as McKinlay has become more established—he was promoted to associate professor in July—he has learned to be more selective in the tasks he accepts, for example only agreeing to review papers that he is really interested in. Saying “no” is difficult, but he knew that to continue contributing in the long term, he needed to secure tenure first.

Part of adjusting his workload and schedule also involved adjusting his own expectations of himself. “You can let aspects of the job, be it teaching or research or service, take as much of you as you let it,” he says. “It’s really forced me to recognize my limits … and to try to work within them.”

This mindset has proved important not just for McKinlay’s professional success and satisfaction, but also for his personal happiness. In addition to making sure he has time for work and his family, “I realized that I need to also dedicate time for myself, otherwise it’s not healthy … and it’s not fun for anybody.”

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