Sciquester Tales: PIs are just not "creative" enough

March 4, 2013

from someone on the Twitts going by @ilovepigenetics

Annoyed that PIs prefer to cut positions vs. experiments. #sciquester #dotherightthing #shortsighted Fewer jobs=less taxes=less funding

this was followed with an interesting response to YHN:

@drugmonkeyblog Do the right thing. You have a responsibility to your trainees.

and the lunacy goes on (reverse chron):

  1. @SciTriGrrl @BabyAttachMode I choose to pay my people and live on 75% salary. Is it hard, yes. Am I lucky that I can do it, yes.
  2. @SciTriGrrl We are smart people. Don’t take the easy solution. Figure out a smart solution.
  3. @BabyAttachMode @SciTriGrrl Who needs the $ the most-a PI who makes ~100K or a student who makes $25 K?
  4. @neuromusic @drugmonkeyblog Find ways to make it cheaper. I’m very disappointed. You have a responsibility to those you took on.
  5. @SciTriGrrl Cut your salary. Don’t hire new people, but your first responsibility is your trainees. $25K doesn’t support a student or a PD.
  6. Lessons from my Father: Cut YOUR salary if you must, but pay your people first. The #1 rule I learned from my Dad, a small business owner.

There are two main problems here. The first one is related to whom the PI owes “responsibility”.

The NIH Grant funded PI typically has a number of responsibilities in my view.

She has a laboratory of employees and trainees with a good bit of smear between who is an employee and who is a trainee. On the one end is the straight-up employee who is a technician and on the other end an undergraduate “volunteering in the lab for experience”. The former might have a reasonable expectation of life-time employment (within the confines of normal variation and the grant cycles). In between there are the postdocs who are on for a 2-3 year training stint without explicit expectation of a life-time job and graduate students who are there to achieve a semi-defined task (the doctorate). The PI has a responsibility to do well by these people, there is little doubt. But there is also little doubt that perfection cannot be achieved for everyone. Not everyone is going to have an outcome commensurate with their expectations. This is reality, not evidence of a PI who is uncaring, irresponsible or insufficiently “creative”.

The PI also has a laboratory. This is the edifice built by and for the prior trainees, the current trainees, the future trainees, the PI herself…and her University. Sometimes this laboratory has been inherited from a prior investigator (or a chain of investigators). It may be a laboratory that will obviously be passed down to subsequent investigators. It may be a laboratory that has enjoyed considerable University support over the years. It may have enjoyed considerable support from a specific Institute or Center of the NIH. The PI may have to compromise on other responsibilities to service her responsibility to the laboratory, from time to time.

The PI has a career. She has to continue to publish papers, secure funding and supervise research to keep this career going. You may view this as a selfish responsibility but hey, if you are complaining about the fact that another person is taking a career hit by the PI not being “creative” enough…you need to explain why one person’s selfish goals are to be prioritized over another’s.

The PI has a life. Just like you do. Sure they may be further along in years, stage(s) or whatnot than you are. They may have some things that you cannot see yourself ever attaining (like a mortgage, twopointseven kids and even a stay at home spouse. perhaps college bills for offspring). And their salary is clearly higher. It looks to you like they are totes moneybags and should just forgo 25% of their salary so that someone else can stay in their job for another 6 months. Guess what? It’s time to get real. NIH grant supported investigators do make a lot more than postdocs do, mostly, but they are by no means insanely compensated. And just like you, they went through a period of training and fell into debt, behind the mortgage curve, behind the 401K explosion, they came along post-pension, etc, etc. Just like you they nursed ancient cars through postdoc and into the first years of faculty. They ate pasta. They did all that and got lucky to get a job. And started a life. And now they have people who depend on them to maintain that life. My sympathies are limited for those who claim that the people farther down the path just aren’t responsible or creative enough to ensure that each and every person to come through their lab achieves the same outcome as they have.

There is another big one, this one related more to “what” the PI owes responsibility. I might suggest this is even the first priority of the NIH funded Principal Investigator.

The PI has a responsibility to the grant. You know, the tax payer funded money that has been dropped on the laboratory, under the PI’s guidance, in expectation of some sort of return. A return of information, otherwise known as published papers. Yes, the PI has a HUGE part of her creativity and responsibility tied up in making sure that some science actually occurs. Published science. It is very easy for the trainee who has just been told that they have two months to find a new job to overlook this. The PI should be a good steward of the public purse. And sometimes that role is going to conflict with the above mentioned responsibilities to staff members. This is why the salvo from @ilovepigenetics about prioritizing salary lines over experiments drew my attention, btw.

If you keep people employed “over experiments” this means that the experiments aren’t getting done. Or aren’t getting done efficiently. Then where are we? If you can’t buy reagents, can’t analyze all the samples in the freezer, can’t support cage costs, can’t maintain mouse lines, can’t buy rats, can’t recruit human subjects, can’t afford scanner time… then everything in the above list crashes down. Because eventually productivity suffers, no new grants come in, no new trainees can be afforded, the dollars eventually run out and everyone needs to be fired.

Just to avoid firing one postdoc today.

postscript: This Twitt is also spectacularly clueless about the fact that the current extra good news of the sequester comes after a good 5-8 years of serious squeezing and pressure on the NIH budget and NIH funded scientific labs. PIs have been scrambling like crazy to be creative about funding, maintaining trainees salary lines as far as possible and to get the most work done that they can. Like crazy. For years now. And believe you me, this ain’t news to any postdoc with half a brain. They’ve known about how bad things are for ages. If they’ve been burning the midnight St. Kern oil to write fellowships and papers and assist the PI with grants (so that s/he can get one more out per cycle) then hey, I’m a bit sympathetic. Somehow I suspect not all of them have been doing this though….

59 Responses to “Sciquester Tales: PIs are just not "creative" enough”

  1. Dave Says:

    Right but if you keep “experiments” over people, you still need people to do the bloody experiments. Most PIs I know have very few lab skills and even less desire/time to get their hands dirty, so eventually productivity will suffer in the same way. You cannot run an effective lab with undergrad help only. You just can’t fucken do it.

    As with everything, balance is key. This is a time for PIs to assess who and what they really need.


  2. Jonathan Says:

    “And believe you me, this ain’t news to any postdoc with half a brain.”

    Far be it from me to pronounce judgement on the state of postdoc neurodevelopment out there, but a lot of the recent sturm et drang does seem to be a result of some members of the current cohort only just having raised their heads up off the bench for the first time in a while, causing them to be startled by the current state of the landscape.


  3. drugmonkey Says:

    You cannot run an effective lab with undergrad help only. You just can’t fucken do it.

    And yet people do. Just like some people get by with on grad student at a time, plus themselves. And just like some people have technician-only labs. And there are very likely a few NIH grants that are being run by a single PI, laboring away by him/her self only.

    Science is very diverse, my friend, even if we just gate on the laboratories which are funded by the NIH.


  4. Jerm Says:

    It’s clearly time for the NIH to just drop the graduate fellowship program entirely and let departments choose how to spend the available remaining money and what level to support trainees. This would have the dual benefit of letting these pie-in-the-sky graduate students know early on that they are on the wrong side of an absurdly warped supply-demand curve.

    How bad can it get for these kids to make them stop the endless self-justifying and producing yet more cutesy comics and videos?


  5. becca Says:

    In fairness, I think you missed the macroeconomics lesson embedded in the first tweet.

    For everyone, NIH funded academic labs, academia broadly, private industry, even government, to a degree, the world is the same. You want to get the most outputs based on the fewest inputs. That means, fundamentally, that absent conscious long term thought, or counter forces (i.e. unions), all systems will squeeze all the blood from every employee possible. Right now, a good many industries and most of the NIH academic funded labs I’m familiar with are positively Freaked Out about either future of the industry, or grant funding, or whatever revenue streams they do have. The outcome of this is that they are locked out of the ability to think about which systems will foster their ability to do the work over the long haul in the optimal way. Instead, they all make the individually rational but collectively disastrous short-term views of productivity goals.
    It’s why corporations are holding onto cash instead of hiring, why industry is realigning away from research, and to the degree they do research focusing on lower-resource intensive non-experimental science (e.g.: bioinformatics over chemists in pharma), and why few good jobs are being created. It’s why public sector employment is shrinking when we have an abundance of good work to be done and good people in need of jobs.
    A PI choosing papers instead of trainees is a great example- individually, it’s by far the most rational choice, particularly in the short run. In the long run, does it matter how much “knowledge” you create and document if no one is around to cull through the crap and understand the important bits? It sounds laughable with the “PhD glut” we have now. But the truth is, there’s a nasty feed-forward loop with a lack of *appropriately* trained workers and a lack of *appropriately* rewarding jobs. There is a vast gap between “knowledge created” and “knowledge implemented toward betterment of humanity”- how do we examine how much of that is simply due to the contours of the knowledge we’re discovering (all the low hanging fruit is picked?) and how much of that is due to the local-minima incentives being aligned to publish publish publish, but never DO anything?

    Now, I’ll readily grant that #sciquester, by its structure (and design?) is pretty much guaranteed to foster short-term thinking. I don’t blame any PI for making any particular choice, though I’ll actively applaud the ones that take personal salary hits to save a trainee. But to ignore the larger societal trends at work here… seems… suboptimal? Hostile to the basic analytical intellectual skills that make you a scientist? Ostrich like? Twice as dumb as toast! Yes, that’s what it seems like to me.

    This is much, much bigger than your job as a PI. It’s likely much bigger than our particular country and our middle class, which may well be going the way of the dodo. It’s about how to structure a modern economy when a disruptive revolution in productivity of knowledge has happened. And I sure don’t have an answer, but I can at least see it’s a lot bigger than what happens to a given $25k.


  6. Anon Says:

    I’m kind of on the flip side of all of this since I work as a grant manager. Drug Monkey’s absolutely correct that the PI owes the grant first and foremost. That grant CANNOT and WILL NOT be renewed if the performer fails to perform. Those of us who make the decisions to cut funding on specific grants don’t take into account how many grads, undergrad, post-docs are funded. We look at the progress being made and decide if the deliverables will be met within our expectations. If the answer is no we cut the performer and find a new one.

    It is up to the PI to have sufficient grants to cover each of the projects and personnel in his or her lab. Those of us who manage the grants do not manage a PIs entire portfolio and have no responsibility towards those brought in to do the work beyond interactions with PIs and Co-PIs.

    In short, a grant is for completing a specific task. It is not free money to be used however the PI feels it should be used.

    As far as the sequester goes, all moneys that have been already transferred are still allocated to the grantees. So if your grant money has reached your research foundation you should be good for the term of that grant. Renewals and not cost extensions are at risk at this time. None of us knows what will happen to those, nor will we know until the renewal time comes.


  7. drugmonkey Says:

    In short, a grant is for completing a specific task. It is not free money to be used however the PI feels it should be used.

    Not precisely. A grant is not a contract. It is, I would argue, an agreement to generate a reasonable amount of scientific progress on topics reasonably related to the stuff proposed in the original application. “reasonable”, of course, is up for debate.


  8. arlenna Says:

    DM, should I infer that you’re assuming that this person hasn’t also been playing the NIH game for the last 7-8 years, and that s/he isn’t the demographic you describe in the paragraph about the PI having a life and isn’t someone who has also been scrambling like crazy to be creative about ways to keep research going in the face of a tougher funding climate? Because in all likelihood s/he has, based on the interest and passion on the topic and the comment about paying the people rather than self.

    I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that PIs (and/or their institutions if so committed) bear part of the brunt of a lower budget. I also don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that by weighing the budget in favor of a person, you’re more likely to get some proportion of value towards the experiments that is greater than if you get rid of that person and just have the mice sitting around in the animal room being fed and watered by the institutional tech. Cutting people cuts experiments completely (because certainly at my institution at least, my non-research responsibilities are such that I would never be able to be useful by stepping into the lab–I do not have the time blocks in the day even if I stayed in the lab until 10 pm). Not cutting people means experiment scales might need to shrink, but at least somebody will be around to do them.

    The focus on trainees is also variable between types of institutions–I’m at a land grant state institution, so it IS part of my job to provide a training environment. If I get a grant from NIH to do research, and that grant’s budget gets cut, then it would be more consistent with that mission for me to lower my own paid FTE on the grant rather than cut out an opportunity for a trainee to work on the project. Contributing back to the community (which we at this type of institution are expected to do) involves maintaining educational/training opportunities as well as producing research outcomes. If those two missions are so important to someone that they believe they should be maintained as best as possible, then yeah, reducing the support for one’s self is a reasonable way to achieve that.


  9. Brian Says:

    First, one must be careful about who the cohort of PIs we’re talking about. If you’re talking about an untenured assistant professor, cutting one’s salary can be (and often is) career suicide. Plenty of assistant profs are fired (even pre-tenure decision) for not bringing in enough and not covering their salary enough. If the PI loses his/her job, so does everyone else in the lab.

    Second, for those institutions where tenure isn’t the guarantee that most think it is, cutting one’s salary coverage can result in loss of research space, which would also lead to losses in personnel.

    Third, among the PIs with “real” tenure (salary guarantee), I agree that they (we) should cut our salary coverage before cutting anything else. With tenure at my institution, they can’t reduce my salary even if I cover 0%. I fully plan to cut however much of my coverage I have to, to keep my lab running as-is. Once that revenue recovery is gone, however, then I will cut the lab by one person so that I can keep the remaining (most productive) projects moving. The experiments will be the last thing to go, because believe it or not, most of us PIs got our jobs because we were (and still are) damn good in the lab (even if a bit rusty)…better than most of our trainees (hence the fact that we got the job to begin with). That’s the way it will go if more grant funding doesn’t arrive in the next ~15-18 months.


  10. Dennis Eckmeier Says:

    Before cutting experiments and salaries, one should first try to become more money efficient.

    There are many aspects in how institutions but also laboratories are run that allow for a lot of improvement in money expenditure. Especially when it comes to power consumption, choice of equipment, materials or animal keeping. I see waste every day.

    Institutions on federal funding should reconsider making policy to encourage a behavior that will reduce running costs.

    I also was only half joking when suggesting on Twitter to move to linux vs Windows and Apple and to move away from yearly licensed research software. There a are free alternatives out there. They may take a little more work but by today, many of them reached the quality we are used to. How many licenses are you running? on computing and statistics software, office software, graphics suites, etc? An annual Matlab licence alone is worth about 1% of my annual income… just saying.

    Of course I don’t know whether these things would add up to the amount any lab loses by the sequester. However, I know that in some labs saving possibilities without cutting on people and productivity first, are there.


  11. From GI Jane, Senator Lillian DeHaven:

    ” Jordan, nearly every working day I’m forced to make decisions that would have Solomon himself shittin’ golf balls, and half of those decisions are about political survival. I don’t resent that. So if you’ve come here lookin’ for me to apologize for keeping alive… you better pull up a chair, ’cause you’re gonna be here for a while. “


  12. dr24hours Says:

    PIs do not have to apologize for their salaries. The laborer is worth the hire. Falling on our swords only perpetuates the idea of the scientist as the academic ascetic. It perpetuates the problem. If you demonstrate you will cut your own salary to keep doing the work, then soon they will cut your salary to that point and ALSO NOT GIVE YOU THE DIFFERENCE to pay for other help.

    The only solution to this is to totally restructure how science is paid for. The universities squeeze the NIH egregiously on indirects. No U should be allowed more than 40%. Marble floors and microdeans! Universities should be PAYING for science. Not profiting off of it.


  13. Grumble Says:

    The single biggest expense in my lab is people. Salary+fringe takes up >90% of my grant budget. There is literally no slack for me to cut anywhere else. Therefore, if my budget gets cut due to this ridiculous sequester, the very first thing I will have to do is fire my technician. You know, the one who (a) has been with me for years and knows how to fix everything, and is so clever and enthusiastic and helpful that he ends up on all our papers, and (b) has a family and mouths of his own to feed.

    I can’t cut students, because I’ve committed to them and the college won’t let me. I can’t cut post-docs until their term is up. Cut my salary? Who is going to pay my mortgage and save for kids’ college and pay the property taxes and keep the house and car in good repair and buy all the food?


  14. Sick of It Says:

    For some, it is a perfect opportunity to “let go” underperforming employees. Productivity goes up when the guillotine comes out!




  16. Eli Rabett Says:

    What Brian said. There is a thing out there called Institutional Base Salary which is going to cause all sorts of fun if you try and cut PIs salaries.


  17. bacillus Says:

    As a matter of interest, how many of the senior PIs that show up here would be more than happy to re-enter the lab if they didn’t have to spend so much time chasing the money? I’m at a government lab, so it is expected of me, but is the “show me a 40-year-old lab jockey and I’ll show you a failure mantra” still alive and kicking in academia? Is lab work really considered to be beneath the dignity of the average well-established PI?


  18. arlenna Says:

    It sure isn’t dignity for me, bacillus–I would love to be back in the lab. I just don’t consistently have the available time. Sure once in a while I’ll get a week or two where I have whole afternoons open, but for the most part my schedule is like that of an undergraduate researcher who can only come into the lab once a week for 2 hours. Typically those students don’t get a lot of functional work done because experiments take longer than that.


  19. arlenna Says:

    (of course I am not senior, lol)


  20. TheThirdReviewer Says:

    No U should be allowed more than 40%. Marble floors and microdeans! Universities should be PAYING for science. Not profiting off of it.

    I wish the NIH had the power to say that their portion of the cuts would be coming out of the indirect costs only. We are talking about trimming the fat on the lab side, but what about the administration side?


  21. I suppose I would enjoy doing experiments, but we use so many different new techniques in my fucken labbe these days, and I don’t know how to actually do any of them. One of my grad students was telling about some complicated plasmid construct she is making, and I was all like “Cool! What restriction enzymes are you using and what size bands are you cutting out of your gel and did you phosphatase the fucken ends of the plasmid?” And she looked at me like I was fucken deranged.

    Anyway, it would be fucken stupid for me to work at the bench, because that is an extraordinarily low leverage activity for someone with my breadth of knowledge and experience in the biosciences.


  22. Former technician Says:

    I spent nearly two decades as a technician and was RIF’d more than once due to grant crushes. I moved into an office and made myself less disposable. I do all of that paperwork that my boss doesn’t know how to do. My boss is a senior PI with emphasis on the senior. He has not kept up with the University’s policies and procedures. I do all of that. If I were to be cut, he would have to figure all of that out for himself.

    Looking from a different side, our University has seriously bloated bureaucracy and could use some indirect trimming. Yes, we have marble buildings and multiple layers of Deans and other administrators. Many of whom have JDs and MBAs. Our school is run by lawyers and accountants who would not easily give up the indirect costs that they have been steadily increasing every year.

    My meager salary may help the lab limp along and keep a postdoc another year, but cutting an administrator or Dean could save multiple trainee jobs.


  23. Dave Says:

    I think most of us would prefer to stay at the bench full-time if we could.

    It has always been odd to me that we spend years training to actually do the experiments to answer the questions that we want answered, and then right when we become the most productive and skilled at doing that, we sit our arses at a desk and chase the cash. Bit like a college athlete getting a first-round pick and then becoming the teams general manager. Makes no sense. It is just not the most sensible use of training in my view and means you have to hire a whole team to do something which you could probably do better yourself. But of course you would need a guaranteed salary so that you could do this, and we all know that’s not happening.


  24. Dave Says:

    ….but if this mess continues I can certainly see a lot of PIs becoming sort of one-man labs, much like a staff scientist position. Perhaps science will benefit if that were to happen.


  25. drugmonkey Says:

    It won’t.


  26. whimple Says:

    DM: …postdocs who are on for a 2-3 year training stint
    Yes, and then they are trained and ready to go on to… their next post-doc position!

    In any event, your institution is perfectly free to re-allocate their indirects to support your lab. The very first place you should turn to paper over salary gaps is your chair/dean.


  27. drugmonkey Says:

    Btw, if all you want to do is “stay at the bench” you have no reason to become a PI. Not worth it. You have to want to run a research *program*.


  28. drugmonkey Says:

    Oh for sure whimple. They’d love to keep that 5th postdoc funded in the BSD lab instead o extending the young asst prof with the just-missed 13%ile score


  29. whimple Says:

    Academic science is a business. If the University can get more value (indirects) out of the BSD’s 5th postdoc than the young asst prof’s career, they should fire the ass of that asst prof. It’s not like there won’t be an endless stream of replacement asst prof wanna bees to slot in after the herd is culled.


  30. drugmonkey Says:

    Lemme just get you my dean’s number….


  31. Dave Says:

    Btw, if all you want to do is “stay at the bench” you have no reason to become a PI

    Bollox! I’d be happy to do research all day every day and publish my work. That’s what science is DM. I have no desire to be a full-blown PI and run a research program, but if I want to carry on doing science that’s my only choice unfortunately.


  32. drugmonkey Says:

    There are plenty of people who have carryed on without being a PI


  33. Dave Says:

    To pursue their own ideas?


  34. drugmonkey Says:



  35. Dave Says:

    Ha! Yeh OK DM.


  36. antistokes (allison l. stelling) Says:

    All this reminds me of a moment I had in grad school. I had been trying for two days to tune the laser, and was getting no power out of the darn thing. (For reference, my background at the time was in synthetic organic chem. I wasn’t trained as a laser person in undergrad.)

    So, I marched up to the prof’s office. (He usually hired a postdoc in p-chem to run his Raman lab, but the postdoc that was training me got into a really bad car accident my first summer of grad school and I’m thankful he’s still alive.) Along the way I ran into several fellow grad students who looked at me and asked why I wasn’t down in the laser lab.

    I looked at them and said, I need to talk to [the PI]. They said, oooo Allison he’s Writing Grants right now!!! Do not Bother!!

    I looked at them again and said, the Laser is Down. And continued on to his Office.

    In his office, the man was, I believe, working on this 2 computer screens on at least 2 manuscripts and possibly a grant or 2. All at once. I knocked politely, and he looked up at me and said, what’s wrong?

    And I said, the Laser is Down. I tried for two days to fix it.

    He paused, saved a few things on this computer, and said, Let me Take A Look.

    5 min. later we were down in the laser lab. He took one look at it and said, Allison, the Argon Ion laser needs a new tube. Order one; it should still be under warranty.

    (I was very relived that it was Not My Fault– the laser was at the end of its use time.)

    Then he went back to writing grants, and I got to order a new laser tube from Coherent.

    There’s a reason these people are the Bosses. They Know What They are Doing. Good PIs should be treated like small business owners in whom capital (taxpayer money) is invested. The business is the lab, and producing publications which shows they trained students is the product. The return on the investment is a student that knows how to work in an industry lab.

    (heh all the Random Capitalization of Nouns shows I’ve been in Germany too long….)


  37. Grumble Says:

    Allison, your story sounds so familiar. I can’t tell you the number of times one of my students, post-docs or techs tells me about some technical problem they’ve been trying to solve for the whole day, and I walk into the lab, fiddle around for a bit, and voila! problem solved.

    But, as CPP says, technology is starting to outpace my technical knowledge. Soon I’ll lose the magic touch.


  38. But, as CPP says, technology is starting to outpace my technical knowledge. Soon I’ll lose the magic touch.

    This is bullshitte. Not knowing how to sit there and do the shittee has nothing to do with being able to guide trainees through troubleshooting. I have masterfully directed troubleshooting situations while having almost no understanding of the underlying technicalities.


  39. drugmonkey Says:

    Your trainees are kind to tolerate you, PP!


  40. MorganPhD Says:

    For every anecdote where the PI is a masterful troubleshooter, there is the anecdote about the clueless PI who doesn’t even know where their lab is located…


  41. Spiny Norman Says:

    You misspelled “masturbatorially,” CPP.


  42. Effective troubleshooting is 99% process, and only 1% special knowledge.


  43. DJMH Says:

    Bit like a college athlete getting a first-round pick and then becoming the teams general manager.

    Yeah, except that college athlete has spent college, plus a decade+ of grad school plus postdoc, getting better at her game.

    The athletes generally aren’t doing a lot of sports after age 35, either.

    That said, playing around with your own experiments can be fun in a way that other people’s data isn’t. I always liked one PI I knew who told me he would regularly spend a couple of days piloting out some crazy idea. If it worked, he’d hand it off to a trainee to pursue; if not, he’d go back to writing grants and reading papers for more inspiration for crazy ideas…


  44. Dennis Eckmeier Says:

    Dear PIs, with great grief I hear you feel misplaced in your positions and you want to go back to the labs. I want to make a job proposal.

    I am a second year postdoc. I love reading papers, generating big ideas, developping projects, writing grants and manuscripts and reviewing other people’s papers. I also love to manage, teach and direct people, to develop experiments and interpret the outcomes. I take great pleasure in keeping a system running. Like a lab. Sadly I have to sit in the lab the whole day getting frustrated over experiments while you are sitting in your offices getting frustrated over administrational work. That sounds pretty idiotic to me!

    Also, I have a lot of experience in thinking techniques through and establishing new and latest methods in the lab. I am being very thorough, that’s why my PI calls properly designed rigs after me. I am everything but a one-trick pony. I don’t have “golden hands” so I was able to make all the experience I need to teach somebody else how techniques are done.

    I know, usually the postdocs should free you from lab time, so you can do management work, but why not hire a postdoc to free you from management time, instead?

    Please consider this proposal.



  45. antistokes (allison l. stelling) Says:

    @ MorganPhD

    Yup. I’ve seen a few clueless PIs as well. Usually younger ones fresh out of a Prestigious University that had no idea how to think outside of their narrowly defined field.

    They were pretty lackluster teachers as well, since they trained on research only grants b/c their PI (usually some at the top of their field) didn’t want them to “waste time” teaching. (Mine had me on an RA for quite a while, but decided toward the end of my PhD that I should probably get out of the laser lab for a bit and had me do an ochem “problem set” section. I quite enjoyed it, to be honest– and, you do not truly know something until you’ve answered the same question about reaction mechanisms 50-odd times.)

    It reminds of something Ridcully said in one of the Discworld novels (forget which one): “Students?! What are *students* doing at a *university*?!”


  46. MorganPhD Says:

    I think there are attentive, technically gifted PI’s throughout the spectrum of the tenure system, just as there are some clueless new PI’s and some equally clueless senior investigators.

    The skills needed to run a successful lab are different than those you perform on a daily basis when in graduate school or a postdoc. Bench skills naturally atrophy and grant writing and review skills get more of a workout.

    The problem isn’t that most PI’s can’t perform experiments as well as their trainees. There is a problem when there is a disconnect between the PI and the everyday goings-on within the lab. When the PI doesn’t know how much supplies cost. Or when the PI doesn’t know what his/her people spend their days doing. Or how long it takes to do experiment X.


  47. Dave Says:

    Yeh but the idea that you have no business being a scientist unless you want to be a office-junkie PI and direct some bloated “program” is fucking ridiculous to me….personally.

    If every PI was given a small grant with 100% salary and money for supplies (or, god forbid, colleges picked up their salaries), there would be a lot more money to go around and science would be better for it. Trainees would be limited and techs would be research assistants.

    That’s the way science used to be done. Scientists in the lab doing science. Shocking idea I know.


  48. Dave Says:

    …and of course PIs are awesome at trouble shooting. That’s what their trained for. That’s what they are good at.


  49. antistokes (allison l. stelling) Says:


    Yeah, I know. And some of the ones in academia right now would perhaps be better suited to a research only environment (Germany does this with the Frauenhofer Institute– it does seem to push everyone into doing short-term applied research, but that is what the country needs right now).


  50. Joe Says:

    As a PI, my time is much better spent writing grants and writing papers than working in the lab. However, last year I overheard one of the trainees complaining about her difficulties getting a clean DNA prep and I thought how wonderful it would be if that were the worst problem I was facing.

    For those extolling the fun of bench work, I think they should consider the fun of directing a project. I will never forget the first time when as a new asst prof with a new tech, I told the tech about a cool idea I had, he went off and tested it and brought me the result the next day. I have a hypothesis one day about how one small part of the world works, and the next day, without lifting a finger, I have the answer. How cool is that?


  51. Dave Says:

    For those extolling the fun of bench work, I think they should consider the fun of directing a project. I will never forget the first time when as a new asst prof with a new tech, I told the tech about a cool idea I had, he went off and tested it and brought me the result the next day

    Much better when you have an idea, design the experiment and collect the data yourself in my view. Nothing quite like seeing that Western light-up just as you hoped it would in the dark room.

    But….each to their own.


  52. antistokes (allison l. stelling) Says:

    Another story from gad school:

    As part of my PhD work, I got to fly to England about once or twice a year to do ultrafast infrared experiments on proteins. Towards the end of my PhD, I was doing the data workup to process the raw spectra and think about which experiment we should do next to best utilize our limited time on the instrument. I had a person helping me do the lab work (I think she was a postdoc at that point)– taking tons UVvis spectra, mostly.

    The PI had popped in for a few days. Usually he spend his time talking with the other PI-types at the facility, reading the latest in the literature, making sure I and the other students were on track with the IR experiments, and answering his never-ending emails from collaborators and students.

    The other student had taken a break from the UVvis work to help me process the raw data, and I looked up from a math-induced haze and noticed the PI had vanished.

    I went over to the UVvis lab and looked in the window. Then, I went back to the data analysis room with a stunned expression on my face.

    The other student looked at me and asked, “Are you OK? Where’s the PI?”

    I said, slowly, “He’s….taking the UVvis spectra….”

    The other student got a horrified expression on her face. “Should I go ….?”

    I shook my head. “Noooo …. he had a little smile on his face, I think he’s having fun…. let’s finish this analysis and then go interrupt him….”


  53. Eli Rabett Says:

    Eli, having spent years and years as a funded PI, is now semi retired and back in the lab as a post-doc. Much more fun:) esp if the labs are in nice places to be.


  54. Spiny Norman Says:

    The single most highly cited scientist I know (H-index well past 150) works in the lab, productively, every single day.


  55. miko Says:

    Awesome, sounds like I’m going to be a great PI! I always know what other people are doing wrong.


  56. zb Says:

    “Cut my salary? Who is going to pay my mortgage and save for kids’ college and pay the property taxes and keep the house and car in good repair and buy all the food?”

    But, of course, this is true for the technician who gets fired, too, and even more so, since he looses his whole salary, while you only loose a portion.

    One could argue that the loss of your productivity due to decreased salary is greater than the value that the technician ads to the project, but absent a good case for that argument, this decision is simply about power and nothing more. You get to decide, so you decide that his mortgage will go unpaid, rather than that yours will go underpaid.

    I dismiss the notion that by cutting one’s own salary one undermines the long term future of science, a profession that people should be willing to pay for, because the same short term thinking applies to firing the technician — and, presumably having undergraduates, graduate students, post-doc trainees — and the PI take up the slack. In one scenario, you’re underpaying someone; in the other you’re asking everyone to work more for the same pay. It’s the same difference.


  57. Dave Says:

    I interviewed for a post-doc with Sir Alec Jeffreys at Leicester (you know, the guy that invented DNA fingerprinting and HASN’T yet won the Nobel Prize) and he spends a lot of time at the bench working side-by-side with his students.


  58. Grumble Says:

    “In one scenario, you’re underpaying someone; in the other you’re asking everyone to work more for the same pay. ”

    No, you don’t get. If I can’t pay the technician, the work he does now won’t get done. Period. Money is roughly proportional to productivity.


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