Thursday, May 13, 2010

Responsibilities of a PI

The previous post reminded me of a document I once wrote about what I viewed as a PI's responsibilities. I just reread it, and it's quite a long list of responsibilities. It reminds me of why even thinking about trying to be a good PI is very intimidating. I've copied and pasted the document below.

Note: This list is from my point-of-view as a grad student. I realize it's student--centric. And I realize I've left off many professor responsibilities, such as teaching courses, university service, and grant and paper reviews. Even without those responsibilities listed, the list is looooooong.

What a PI should do

Get grants

Manage money ethically and fairly

Hire good students/postdocs/people

Have good ideas for projects

Manage the lab and people in the lab
-Mediate conflicts of interest/personality between lab members
-Minimize said conflicts by having good and fair policies in place

Ensure safety of lab and lab members

Make sure people get adequate training
-In the essential skills needed to do research
-In the essential skills in their field
-In the essential skills for their desired career

Give people a reasonable amount of intellectual freedom

Not abuse power
-Not ask students/postdocs to do PI's personal errands

Fairly divide non-research tasks (e.g. equipment maintenance, group meeting scheduling)
-e.g. make a list of non-research duties with approximate time commitments
-assign lab members duties so time commitments are reasonably fair
-if can't be fair, draw from a hat and trade every year or six months
-maybe senior students can have a break in responsibility, but otherwise, no favoritism

Not overwhelm lab members with trainees
-Have a plan for each additional lab trainee
-what project will they work on?
-who will train them with what they need to learn?
-ideally, they will receive training by joining a project they can help with
then their training is targeted, and their trainer gets something in return (help)

Give students and postdocs projects that will further their career
-*publication quality projects*
-not repeats of stuff some other lab did that may or may not be hard and time consuming
-not anything that isn't linearly related to their individual publishable project
-not favors for other people/projects they will not receive credit for
-if necessary, should be an explicit trade of favors between individuals
-not technician work (other than above mentioned non-research tasks, fairly divided)

Ensure people get credit when credit is due
-Manage projects so authorship is as clear as possible
-who will be first author?
-what is required to earn authorship?
-ensure people know if their contribution is a favor, not a contribution yielding

Introduce lab members to people in the field
-Talk up the lab members.
-Their career will impact your career. (i.e. their career good = kudos for you)

Send students and postdocs to present at conferences
-They need the exposure and network opportunities
-You also need exposure of their projects
-Again, their career good = kudos for you
-Help them network at these conferences

Give trainees expectations
-Vacation time expectations (grad school is long, they will need vacation)
-Hours and/or productivity expectations
-if you're happy with their productivity, you won't care about hours
-if their project is not producing, of course you'll want to see their commitment via hours
-years/publications required for leaving/graduating

Give trainees feedback
-What are their strengths?
-What are things they need to work on?
-What are their career goals? What do they need to work on for those goals?

Get trainees feedback
-What can the PI do to help trainees be productive?

Stay high level and big picture as much as possible
-You want good science getting done, they almost definitely want that, too
-Give them suggestions.
-Kindly argue with them about science (don't insult them, don't deride them, don't threaten them)
-Let them try their own way and make mistakes.
-Only insist on your way as a last resort.
-Amount of independence will change as lab members mature scientifically
-And/or senior lab members may direct junior lab members at a more specific level

Advise trainees on what is needed for publications, thesis and conference presentations
-The work will always be "in progress" (the beauty of science...)
-The work can always be better
-You can always figure out more stuff
-When is it enough to write up or present?

To micromanage, or not to micromanage? That is the question.

Love this discussion over at drug monkey.

And ok, I realize the question isn't exactly about micromanaging. It's about how to run a lab effectively. Should the PI know the nitty-gritty details of the science and techniques? Should the PI actually be in the trenches doing experiments? Or is the PI mainly a manager and fund raiser?

I wonder how, historically, professorships have developed into their current state? I've read some historical accounts of science. One I recall is an account of Millikan's oil-drop experiment. From the story, it sounded like Millikan at most had 1-2 trainees at any given time. In fact, Millikan is the sole author on the most famous of the oil-drop papers. (Although from what I read, this sole-authorship may have been somewhat shady.) Anyway, I wonder how the modern lab came to be, with several trainees per professor, and professors with more responsibilities than seem humanly possible to really handle well.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


Isis has made me paranoid about my pseudonymity. So, I removed a bunch of posts that were concerning me. Unfortunately, it seemed like the posts that would be most concerning if I were outed were also the most likely to have gotten comments. Hence they were probably the interesting ones. Oh well. Now I'm going to think about if/how I want this paranoia to change my future blogging. It's definitely true that science is an extraordinarily small world.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Teaching and Researching - not necessarily better together

I've written before about the problems I see with lumping teaching and researching into the job description of all college level professors. I know some professors can make it work, but I think many students lose and many scientists lose because excellent teachers must also spend significant time on research, and excellent researchers must also teach.

So, of course I was pleased to find this Nature article that mirrors my opinion. Of course I'm not pleased that research funding is highly likely to decrease. But I do think the article is correct that newer faculty at undergraduate institutions are suffering when saddled with a research load in addition to their heavy teaching load. And their students may suffer, too, if the professors in question can't work 80 hours a week. (Or even if they can.)