The New PI Goldfish

Dec 18 2015 Published by under [Education&Careers]

There's lots of ways to start a new lab. Some, however, have proven more successful over time than others. Whereas the responsibilities of different new PIs are wide ranging, most include advancing a research program. How does one do that?

I am a huge fan of taking a diverse approach to one's research question. My lab has had success working across different system and focusing on a couple of main questions, who's trajectories may be headed in distant or similar directions at any one time. I think the key to surviving in a time of tight budgets is flexibility and locking into a single question/system is unlikely to make that simple. Obviously many people find success going down a single rabbit hole, but I don't think I would be as effective at that.

With that said, the new PI cannot chase research projects like butterflies in a garden if the hope is to build a program that will attract external funding. You have two resources as a new PI that you must invest very wisely: Time and Money. They are finite and wasting either has far greater consequences for you that it does for your senior colleagues.

Really cool opportunities will come up all the time. Your ability to discern which ones are worth your resources, and particularly how much of your resources, will play a large part in whether your research program takes off or sputters. As tempting as it is to chase down everything that comes along, spreading yourself too thin is a bad trap to fall into.

Identify your bread and butter and invest heavily in that. Cultivate side projects that you contribute to, but don't do the heavy lifting for. Your grant writing and paper writing should mainly concentrate on advancing your core, with minor contributions to side things. The bar for funding, WRT preliminary data and proof that you know what you're doing is too high to mess around. If your goal is an externally funded research program, having initial focus is fairly critical, before you broaden your scope.

3 responses so far

  • L Kiswa says:

    Solid suggestions. One thing that has been difficult for me is finding the right balance between "bread and butter" and "stretch" goals in proposals. Don't want to appear to be too similar to work done as a postdoc, but also cannot over-extend too much. It has taken me 3+ years to get to the point where I feel my proposals are balancing these aspects. It seems a bit much, and I wonder how other relatively new PIs have fared on this?

  • Anon says:

    @ L Kiswa: Yeah, it is a constant struggle. I run a mass spec lab (non-core) with constant requests for collaboration (avg 1 request / week). Thus, I balance my portfolio around instrument time, ensuring that adequate (4month/yr) is devoted to projects I know will produce solid preliminary data, at least meeting the feasibility bar of my lab can perform X. My research program is 3 arms; 1 basic, 2 translational, with two other arms of research being for tenure relevant collaborations and collaborations that are just too exciting to pass up. I've started to get very picky about the collaborations, taking only ones that hedge my bets by giving me literature-backed up expertise in a field I could see myself moving into, or by charging $.

    In proposals and my professional development plan I balance aims as much as possible for 1 basic, 2 translational with at least one of the aims being a very low risk endeavor, one being a higher risk, and one being a "long-term" project that will ideally complete just as my tenure packet is assembled. So far this has worked and I have a relatively stable portfolio of projects. What has really started to trip me up is the evolution of trainee projects where central planning by me is not conducive to them actually learning how to "science".

  • As a general rule of thumb, I make sure that two aims are backed by a solid amount of data and feasibility, then have the third aim as my "reach". It still has to be feasible, but it typically has a little less backing and I acknowledge that while making it clear why it is so exciting that we should be able to pull it off.

Leave a Reply