As a new PI what advice is likely to be of assistance? Eight of us old hands were recently asked by the THE to write some words of wisdom, which newly-minted PI’s may or may not have found useful. Their tenor varied. There was ‘Don’t worry: we are all just making it up as we go along’ from Cambridge colleague Ottoline Leyser – which sounds quite encouraging. Alternatively, readers were told ‘Conflict within the lab will be a given, and you should read up on interest-based conflict resolution’ from US-based Kathy Barker, which I found slightly terrifying and not particularly close to my own experience. And, I should add, I have never read up on conflict resolution, interest-based or otherwise. Perhaps I should have done. I did once attend a university staff development course on ‘Dealing with Difficult People’ which I found entirely useless and when I asked the course leader privately for some specific advice I was told that there are simply some people you will never be able to work with.
However, what struck me about these eight brief articles was that none of us discussed what we had felt as we moved on to leading our own group – other than a couple of contributors referring to angst (I think you can take that feeling as read). There is an awkward period of transition when you move from being an expert in your own, personal hands-on research to the person who gets stuck in the office and who is meant to know the answers to other people’s problems. I well remember the transition and my overwhelming feeling was of withdrawal symptoms. I missed doing my own thing, the joy of doing experiments and seeing my ideas blossom – or indeed bite the dust.
There was an interregnum, a period of a year or two when I still tried to fit in experiments in the gaps between lecturing (and writing lectures), thinking about – and penning – research proposals, trying to set up a functioning laboratory with the necessary equipment, talking to students and postdocs (and prospective students and interviewing postdocs), and all those other things that you don’t factor in when you land your first independent position but which eat up your time. I used to try to sneak into the lab for an hour or two….but an hour or two, for most sorts of experiments, just isn’t sufficient. Preparation of samples, for instance, might require a whole day of different steps which have to be fitted into that time-frame, not a series of two hour stints several days apart. Aligning the electron microscope might itself devour a large part of the time available before you ever get to look expectantly at your new specimen.
Above all I missed the excitement that looking at my new samples yielded and the feeling that something, anything, might be just around the corner which would illuminate and elucidate my thoughts. The work I had been doing at that time of transition involved looking at the deformation of thin polymer films in the electron microscope and the effect of different processing conditions on the structure within liquid crystalline polymers by light and electron microscopy. Progress depended on being familiar with the different possible textures and structures and hence required experience and what I always thought of as the skill of ‘pattern recognition’. Above all, it required a knowledge of the umpteen different kinds of artefact that could be introduced: by electron beam damage, by mishandling the sample or by misusing the microscope.
And then suddenly I wasn’t able to satisfy my own curiosity; I found myself having to attempt to get the same excitement from looking at someone else’s micrographs and to work out, from what they told me, whether or not I believed that what they were showing me was real and not just the product of yet another kind of meaningless glitch in preparation or handling. It simply didn’t fulfill me in the same way.
Of course in time you move on, the loss of the first person thrill fades and you get used to living your research through someone else’s hands. In time you learn how to quiz the students about their procedures so that time is not wasted on the worthless artefactual (even if beautiful) side-tracks The frustration that something that would have taken you an afternoon takes them a fortnight and it’s still not quite right begins to fade. At a later point the equipment will have changed so radically that you aren’t even capable of doing the experiment anyhow, and are regarded merely as a nuisance and possibly a danger if you stray into the laboratory. (Of course not all PIs completely stop doing hands-on stuff, different disciplines will make it easier or harder to keep your hand in. One of my professors even required me to (re)teach him sample preparation so he could do some consultancy work at the weekend.)
It is a sad fact that people get promoted to PI in large part because of their own first person skills in research, and then they have to stop working that way. Instead they are supposed to acquire a completely new set of skills, often with little training or even advice (points that the THE writers make clearly). Angst, panic and incompetence may all unfortunately ensue. A decent organisation should be able to rectify the lack of training, mentors and sponsors should supply advice to aid the unwary make the transition to full independence, but I am not sure there is any simple answer to the withdrawal symptoms I’m describing here. Instead, all the newly-crowned PI can do is to attempt to impart their own wisdom and experimental green fingers to the novices in their care. It isn’t the same, but in time it is possible to find a new enjoyment in watching the next generation flower and flourish. The memories of making personal discoveries down the microscope (NMR/ PCR/ Mass Spec/… insert instrument of choice) wither over time. The assistance offered to those who pass through the research team should not.