So, do you want to be a PI?

During a postdoc many of you will be asked whether you want to become a Principal Investigator (PI) – an academic position of financial and intellectual independence, with direct responsibility for recruitment and management of other scientists. This apparently simple question raises many others...
So, do you want to be a PI?

In July 2008, I started my postdoc at the CRUK Beatson Institute in Glasgow. My first experience abroad, a new life in a new country (the UK), speaking a different language (Scottish), new lab mates... whoa! One of the first questions I got from colleagues, probably even before they knew my name, was “So, you want to be a PI then?”. This question was so popular amongst postdocs that it almost replaced the “how are you?” question, to which I used to reply politely, until I noticed that nobody listened to my reply, and it was not an actual question (it took me a while). Going back to the “do you want to be a PI?” question: I really didn’t know what to answer.

Everybody implied that since I had embarked on a postdoc I had a clear vision of what my future would hold. Yet, at that time I barely knew what being a postdoc meant, and my only goal was to become a good one. Was it about being good with the pipette? Good with the knowledge? Or was it about being independent? While preoccupied with these questions about my current endeavour, how could I know if I really wanted to become a PI? Do I have what it takes? Or even more so: what does it take to be a PI? I felt anxious, almost hopeless. Yet, this question resonates in most interview rooms, and is asked over and over during coffee breaks and meetings – it is almost a cliché icebreaker. Someone might have even had this question long after becoming a PI, if they look young enough! The problem is that most people ask or answer this question without realising what it implies or entails. Here, I want to discuss why I think this question may be flawed.

The main issue with this question is the way it depicts the scientist’s career and what it means to be a PI. As scientists, we grow up being told, or soon realising, that the scientific career is a pyramid: one starts as a student and, through a very linear path, ends up as a PI – the long-sought-after top of the pyramid. There are a few problems with this view, at least from my perspective, and we need to cure them.

I will define the first flaw as the “trap” fallacy. As it is now apparent from the many different career paths available to a scientist*, our career path looks more like a network than a pyramid. At every career step, multiple job options may arise that require the expertise you developed. The fact that these paths are defined as “alternative careers” perpetuates further the pyramid view of science**. Yet, restricting one’s career options to a linear pathway has several drawbacks. The first is that a scientist might be “forced” to a job that he/she might not fully enjoy, or that is not tailored to his/her skills. This often happens because of some previous commitments or promises we might have made to our younger selves and we cannot let them go (something along the lines of “I always wanted to be a scientist”). Sometimes we are simply not brave enough to abandon a career in which we invested many years and efforts, so we simply hang on. Importantly, if for some reasons one has not achieved the expected goals for moving up the ladder (a usual discussed example is the lack of publication, but this is debatable and a topic for other discussions) one might end up being stuck and frustrated. Another seemingly paradoxical reason for being trapped is success. If during your early career stages you have been successful (again, we can define this as the number of good papers you published), you (and the people around you) might create the expectation that you are made to be a PI. “You are too good to leave academia,” they say. You might even convince yourself for a while. But then at some point you will have to face the worst enemy: yourself. A good track record is certainly required to progress, but don’t let previous success be the only determinant of your future choices without a clear rationale. As it appears from this description, the “trap" fallacy is what blocks the career progression that one really aspires to because of a too rigid view of the scientist’s career. Realising when it is time to let go can be liberating, empowering. I have seen people reborn after making the tough decision to abandon academia. Better a happy*** medical writer than an unhappy scientist.

The second flaw with this question is what I define as the “illusion of arrival” fallacy. Many see the PI as THE academic position. The sign of success and accomplishment. Becoming a PI is not a natural transition but the point to reach at all costs, to avoid being considered a failure. This view provides an incredible incentive to competitive people, and also to those who are not but are drawn into this game. The problem is, becoming a PI is not the end. There is no arrival in science, as there is no arrival in any job, or in life (apart from the obvious one). I came to this conclusion when I started my PI position in 2012, at the MRC Cancer Unit in Cambridge. I entered my office (not many have the actual privilege of an office – I am so grateful to the MRC) and all I found was an empty desk and a computer. Nothing was more frightening. I am a PI now. What do I do? And suddenly I had the feeling that what I had just achieved was not a goal, but rather a new beginning. All the doubts that peppered my postdoc vanished, but now many other doubts appeared (and I leave these doubts to another time). The PI position is certainly an important transition to becoming independent and to working on something you really want to, but is it really the arrival? Had I spent my postdoc years too focused on what I wanted to be, so that I didn’t savour the present? Was I too anxious about the future to appreciate the present? This lesson was important for me: it made me realise that there is no “arrival” in this job – you are in constant evolution and instead of focusing too much on “what is next” I needed to focus on the present. If you do that well enough the future will reveal itself. Yet, some of you might think that if you do not plan well in advance what you want to do next you might preclude some important options. True, one needs to find a balance. All of us are aware (maybe not at very early career stages, but this is where your mentor would help) of what is needed for a successful career. Do your best not to preclude this career but be open and wise not to overwhelm your present with worry for the future. Love what you are doing now; things might be very different in the future and you might miss this moment.

So, is “do you want to be a PI?” the right question to ask? I am afraid not. I think it is not realistic to ask this question during an interview, or to a colleague. We should probe other aspects. For instance, does our fellow postdoc know what it means to do a successful postdoc? What is his/her understanding of what it takes to be a PI and the skills needed? When discussing with friends this question, I like to compare it to asking a novice runner if he/she would like to run a marathon. Yes, one could set a goal, an ambitious one too, but without knowing the monumental effort needed to achieve this goal, all you will assess is an intention, which often ends up with dropouts and/or injuries, and pressure to perform.

I conclude with this quote, which summarises this lengthy article in just a few wise words: “To love the journey is to accept no such end. I have found, through painful experience, that the most important step a person can take is always the next one.
―Brandon Sanderson, Oathbringer. This quote was given to me by Dylan Ryan, a postdoc in the lab.

PS: Even as a PI I keep on asking myself the same question.

*The number of career options varies in different countries, but the main point remains.
**I would argue that even being a PI is an “alternative career” since the type of work that you will be doing as a PI is far from what you have learnt during your postdoc and requires a completely new set of skills that, unfortunately, very few tell you about.
***One might ask what happiness is, but this would need an independent discussion.

Top image of post: 'Chemical Interactions' by Christina Schmidt, C. Frezza lab.

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