Pros and Cons of Young PIs
0 comment Monday, June 2, 2014 |
Thanks to all of you who had nice things to say about my last post. I am actually kind of excited about looking at young PIs. (If the young PIs on my blogroll are any kind of representative sample, the odds are good that could find a mentor that I would really enjoy working with.)Grad students are subjected to a lot of very generalized advice that gets repeated ad nauseum over the course of their dissertation studies. Much of that advice concerns choosing a mentor wisely...which is probably a good thing to keep in mind when choosing a graduate advisor as well as your postdoctoral mentor. Below I will bullet the arguments for and against working with young v. established PIs. The views listed below are not necessarily true, nor are they necessarily my opinion, except where noted. I just want to put this out there and see what teh internetz have to say about it.The benefits of working with a young PI:They are more intimately/recently acquainted with the bench and will probably continue to be so for some time.They are motivated help their students/post-docs succeed because they need those papers too!They are often more enthusiastic about the projects that they are doing - they had to come up with GREAT ones to get the positions in the first place, so you know that the project has got to be pretty exciting.The benefits of working with an established PIs on the other hand:Used to be assumed to have more stable finances (though I don't think that this is necessarily the case any more).*Their reputation is not riding on the backs of their current students'/post-docs' papers so there is (potentially) less pressure (I hate being pressured). [GrAdvisor told me when I joined the lab, "This lab already has a reputation. It will not be born or die with your dissertation. Therefore, your dissertation is yours to make of it what you will." This is a big part of the reason I joined this lab...did I mention that I hate being pressured? On the other hand, this attitude probably also contributes to his non-interest in my project.]The drawbacks of working with a young PI:Since they are more likely to be at the bench with you, they will likely know what you are doing all the time. [If you're anything like me, this has the potential to get a leeeeettle stifling.]They are also motivated to push their students/post-docs harder than an established PI because those early papers mean so much to grant applications and tenure.*Enthusiasm for the project is great so long as it doesn't translate to prioritizing lab work to the point of quashing quality-of-life/work-life-balance issues...which given the differential pressures on PIs (publish for grants! tenure! survival!) and post-docs/students (publish for CV/dissertation) can lead to some tension.The drawbacks of working with an established PI:In a large lab (unlikely with young PIs) it is easy to get lost in the crowd. When your project is producing, you're the star who gets all the attention. When your project is floundering, chances are there's someone else whose project is humming...guess who is more likely to catch the PI's attention? Who really needs the PI's attention?Established PIs are more likely to be involved with administrative tasks that take up a lot of their time = less direct access.Established PIs may have lost touch with the day-to-day of the bench. [Yes, I know we talked about that yesterday, but no, I don't have results yet - it takes a week to run the protocol that PI worked on for his dissertation.]With an established reputation, the PI is not depending on any particular student or post-doc. If your project isn't working out you're dispensable.As I said above, these are gross generalizations and there are plenty of established PIs who are invested in their minions' projects, and there are probably some young PIs who have funding up to their ears. But I do think that these are worth considering.Ideally, the solution is to screen potential mentors based on the individual rather than the generalizations. What I really want is someone who is enthusiastic and sometimes/often at the bench, but not over-bearing. Someone who is glad to see me in the lab, and with whom I enjoy interacting (which makes it fun for me to be at work) but who is not going to freak out if I work less than 80 hours/week. Someone with whom I can go the pub -- I've found that some of my best breakthroughs were originally recorded on coasters and bar napkins, and it would be great to have a mentor who realizes the value of this kind of unwound thinking and interaction. I want someone who loves my project as much as I do, but who can recognize that it is not the only thing I love in my life...also that we may not always have the same priorities on a given day and that this is OK. The trick is to find a happy medium. This is not as easy when looking for a post-doc as it is when you're a rotation student.How do you decide who to put on your list? And once you've got your list, how do you decide who's the one?*I think that the pressure to secure and renew grants is no longer skewed toward young PIs. This is increasingly obvious as lots of established PIs are having to let people go for lack of funding. What does still frighten me about the funding situation for many young PIs is the very short time in which they are expected to secure their first R01. The rumblings I'm hearing are to the effect of: start-up funds aren't going as far as they used to, and soft money institutions mean that once the start-up funds run out if there's no big grant the young PI is essentially forced out [ I've seen this happen at least three times to people I know at my home institution since starting grad school] -- so what happens to their students/post-docs? Is any of this true, or just nasty rumors?

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