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To PI or Not to PI---that is the question

Submitted by Lori Conlan December 13, 2021

As a postdoc, I wrestled with the decision not to become a faculty member running a large research group (Principal Investigator, or PI).  Truth be told, I had never wanted to be a PI. As an undergrad I saw the job my PI had at a large state school, and it did not entice me. That said, I did think academics might be the way for me, so I went to grad school with a goal to be a faculty member at a small college. My grad school and postdoc experiences revealed: PI-land was not my cup of tea—and in fact, maybe even a faculty position at a small school was not the right choice. I remember making a list of pros and cons to clarify my decision to do something else. As I look back at that list, I can see the ways that the path I chose allowed me to have a career I love connecting with trainees, delivering professional development workshops, and changing training to be more inclusive for everyone.

Pro List: The reasons a faculty job appealed to me (and how I found a way to connect with these interests and values in my current job):

  • Solving Problems: As a faculty member, I would have led projects with my grad students and postdocs to solve biochemistry problems. There is so much satisfaction in an experiment that works to answer a scientific question. Those scientific wins make research so exciting.
    • The excitement of using my problem-solving skills to help trainees make career decisions or navigate challenging situations is amazing. The aha moment from seeing a trainee succeed is even better than a successful experiment.
  • Academic traditions: From welcoming new students to graduation ceremonies, the pomp and circumstance of academia fed my value of traditions.
    • Every job has traditions. Now these are big annual events for me, like the NIH Career Symposium. These large gatherings encourage us to form community and give me hope for the future.
  • Academic service: As an academic department member, I would serve on committees, teach courses, and guide curriculum. These parts of being a faculty member appealed to my desire to be part of the social fabric that moves science forward.
    • I sit on committees across the NIH and the US working on policies to make training better. I teach workshops on career and professional development. I have a larger impact than just at my own institution. As part of the NIH, I can extend my commitment to service across the United States.
  • Connecting with trainees: Faculty members have a direct influence on the lives of their students. Whether in the classroom or the research group, mentorship of trainees is important to me.
    • I have a larger mentorship role now than I could have at a small college or running a research group. I love when trainees can resolve a difficult situation and, even better, when they successfully move on to their next career step. I help trainees make life decisions that make them happier.
  • I was “supposed’ to: I feared that if I did not become faculty, I would be letting down my mentors/departments/science.
    • This guilt of letting down the “system” was alleviated by supportive people. Many of us who have chosen non-faculty paths discuss this. We are all successful regardless of which path we chose. Our research training allows us to find solutions to difficult questions…something every career path needs.

Con List: Reasons I did not want to be a faculty member (and how these relate to my current job):

  • Failed experiments: I am driven by success and waiting so long between successful experiments or paper publications was disheartening.
    • I love that every day, I see that the work I completed moved me a step forward. This is the biggest component to my career satisfaction since leaving research.
  • Constant need for new ideas: I was scared that I wouldn’t have enough ideas to run a whole research group. The PI needs enough ideas to keep everyone going for years.
    • Ideas are necessary in every job, but for me new ideas for career/professional development come more naturally than science ones. This helps me feel more successful and in control of my career.
  • Work on the same thing “forever”. When you start a research group it has the feeling that you will follow that research path forever.
    • Research always felt slow to me. Now my days move quickly from project to project.  While many research groups change direction, it felt slow compared to how quickly my job has evolved over the past 15 years. A good example is how fast we moved to a virtual environment during the pandemic to meet the needs of trainees.

With all these pros and cons how did I decide? Even though it was shorter, the con list weighed more heavily for me. I started to see that I could get much of what I wanted from a career as a PI through a different route that was a better fit for me. Success, to me, was seeing progress every day and doing new things. I am thrilled that I found a career that moves at a pace that excites me.

If you have a similar pro/con strategy and are struggling to decide whether the pro list or the con list is more important for you, perhaps a meeting with a career counselor can help. Talking it over with a professional can solidify how your list and your skills, interests and values will connect to your next job and your career satisfaction.   

Guest Blogger: Lori Conlan, PhD: Director of the Office of Postdoc Services & the Career Services Center, OITE. Part of the “Voices of OITE” 

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