Diary of a new PI

So here I am, I’ve survived the transition from post-doc to lecturer. For the uninitiated, PI stands for Principle Investigator which started as an American term but has been widely adopted. Strictly speaking it refers to lead investigator of a research proposal and this will generally be a university lecturer who does research or someone with their own lab in a research institute. For anyone who missed it you can read about my job hunting experience here, and here!

When I was a post-doc I took a course called ‘How to become a PI’, which incidentally was very helpful, one of the things Anna Price advised us to consider was that in surveys PIs say they are unsatisfied with their work-life balance. The work-load isn’t unbearable but I reckon I averaged 60-65 hours a week over the year. This was more like 70 hours a week in the autumn term and 50 a week over the summer.

I ended the second of those posts saying the start of the year was a rush in both senses of the word and that pretty much sums up my whole year. It’s taken some sacrifices, mostly to my social life and my blog, but it’s been worth it.

Support – I could not have done this without help

I’d like to offer some helpful, insightful advice to people starting their first year in September but I’m not really sure I have much perspective yet. I’m sure there are many ways to survive and be successful in the first year but the things that have made the biggest difference for me have been things I had only limited control over. My post-doc supervisor Guy Tear not only guided my post-doc research but has been a mentor to me as I’ve moved into my new role. He has allowed me to take my research with me and is always ready with some advice if I need it, his support has been invaluable and it’s rarer than it ought to be to have someone who is so supportive to act as a mentor. Then there are my new colleagues who have also been amazingly supportive and encouraging, becoming a lecturer can be (and usually is) a daunting experience and to have brilliant support from both previous and current colleagues is amazing and fairly rare. I’ve also drawn strength from the many other scientists who blog and tweet, there is an amazing community at your finger tips pretty much any time of the day and night so I think I’m very lucky to be doing this now and not 20 years ago when you had to work a lot harder to reach out to the rest of the scientific community.

My final source of support for research has been a book ‘At the Helm‘ that my previous lab bought me as a leaving present and I guess this is the one piece of advice I can offer – get this book. Parts of it are very focussed on the USA (Such as the visa section) but on the whole it’s a great book, and the only one I know of that provides advice for people starting their own labs. I definitely found some of the advice really helpful. It prepared me for things I hadn’t even stopped to think about, such as how I would feel about having a different role in the lab.

The teaching

I had previously taught a few tutorials but had no lecturing experience so I was required to undertake a Postgraduate certificate in Higher Education. This is not a PGCE, which is full time and qualifies you to teach compulsory education, it is part time and only qualifies you to teach post-compulsory education. Some people think these are a real pain but I have to say for all the time it takes up it did help me to be a lot more confident in my teaching ability. We have a choice about whether we attend classes or whether we do an online learning version. Whilst turning up for classes seems like it will take up more time, you don’t have to find the motivation to set aside time and go through the material on your own. I wholeheartedly recommend that anyone who has this choice takes the attending version, just as you need support to get your research started having support for your teaching is invaluable, at least it was for me. Wednesday afternoons were a chance to debrief the previous week and compare experiences with my class mates, this was not only helpful but fun, I made some great friends in the class and learnt so much more from them than I would have on my own with twice as much time to study.

And yet…

Despite all of this support there were still days when I wanted to sit at my desk and cry, either from frustration or just because it can all be quite overwhelming. There are bad days, there are tight deadlines, there are university processes and procedures that no one explains to you, IT failures and yes, at one point, I even managed to get locked out of my office.

But this wasn’t so bad, thanks to many lecturers I know who talked candidly about their experience of starting out I knew what to expect. Knowing I might feel like this helped me keep some perspective which made the bad days much easier to cope with and it’s not as if there weren’t tears along the way when I was a post-doc.

Is it worth it?

Definitely! When a student says ‘you really taught me something, thank you’, when you get your first funding (However modest), when your first reagents arrive, when your first lab member arrives, you remember why you wanted the job.

Back to blogging?

I actually have no idea whether I will manage to find more time for my blog this year or not but I’d like to, maybe now I’ve unpacked I can blog my second year in the job!

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2 Responses to Diary of a new PI

  1. Hi Sam,
    I’ve enjoyed your posts in the past, and it’s great to see you back blogging. Thanks for taking the time to post again. I wish you all the best in your research!

    • Thanks, I was a bit nervous blogging again after so long so it’s really reassuring to read that someone is glad I did! It felt great to be writing again so hopefully I’ll be able to find some time for more posts.

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