If you stay put as a PI, be sure to move out of the shadows

Starting out as a principal investigator in your postdoctoral institution can make sense, but you need to make sure you stand apart from your former boss, says Laura Piddock

October 7, 2016
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Times Higher Education recently published a range of advice for academic scientists starting their own labs. But no one specifically addressed the situation where an academic is becoming an independent principal investigator in the institution in which they have carried out their previous research. This has both distinct advantages and distinct pitfalls.

There are many reasons for remaining at your postdoctoral institution, including personal ones. But an increasingly common motivation is that the institution in which the new PI has been working has become a centre of excellence, and has a large number of PIs with expertise and sophisticated equipment not available elsewhere. While the recommended route to becoming a PI is to work in several different institutions, we need to look at this emerging model and how it can be made to benefit the new generation of PIs.

I say this, in particular, because we have recently lost a highly valued member of staff who was never able to shake off the view that he was still a member of my team. This was despite his having very clear and different expertise from mine. Having moved to another institution, he will now get the recognition that he deserves.

My advice to new same-institution PIs is as follows:

  1. Work in a unique field. It must be absolutely clear that you are doing something very different from your previous supervisor.
  2. Do not share the same part of the building as your ex-supervisor. Many universities act as research “hotels”, so while it is tempting to share a lab with your former supervisor (as they have all the pieces of equipment that you could possibly need) it should not be done. Otherwise, you will be perceived as still being a member of their team, and not independent.
  3. Have a mentor who is not a collaborator. This is very important, otherwise the two areas can become blurred and collaboration will always take precedence. Never underestimate how ambitious and ruthless some academics can be, so it is extremely important that you are mentored by someone who has no vested interest in your career. But the mentor should be within the same discipline as you so they understand the unspoken rules and what is required for success.
  4. Beware of colleagues who wish to collaborate with you instead of with your previous supervisor. The latter has the track record in that area. You were their student/postdoc, therefore working on and developing their ideas: brutal but true. Be sure that the person seeking your collaboration is coming to you for your unique skills and not for another reason, such as the relative ease of gaining your expert feedback without giving due credit. Be aware that such collaborations may also provoke conflict between you and your previous supervisor, with whom you may still have ongoing collaborations. Decide which collaboration is of most value to you!
  5. If you are a woman, also seek a female mentor. The pitfalls of being a female academic cannot be overestimated but, sadly, not everyone recognises this. Mentoring by someone who is only a few years ahead of you in the academic career ladder should be mandatory. If this option is not suggested to you, find your own mentor.

I hope that my advice will help fledgling PIs become the future stars in their chosen field, irrespective of where they choose to work.

Laura Piddock is professor of microbiology at the University of Birmingham

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