Your PI

Principle Investigator. Its science’s fancy name for the guy who funds you to do lab work for him.  Basically it translates to “your boss”. Now I mention in an earlier post that one of the perks of being a grad student is you get to choose your boss. And to use another fancy sciencey term, this choice is unprecedented as compared to most other fields. In most corporate structures, you are assigned a supervisor. Whether you like him or not isn’t something that the company considers. And he essentially controls your livelihood and, in part, your life. My dad works for AT&T (via several buy-outs of other companies). But I can tell you, he’s gone through several bosses. You can really tell when he has a shitty one and a good one. Like right now he has one that is really considerate and not overly demanding. Compared to his last one, that’s a god-send. So that choice that us grad students get is quite unique and extremely important. I was very lucky as an undergrad. I got paired up with a man who I can truly call one of my best friends, Dr. Leon Tilley. He introduced me to chemistry at the college level and to research. He is still the person I call when I have a question I just can’t answer or a suggestion for an idea. But I didn’t really chose him as my PI, it just sort of worked out that way. Now when I came to UConn, I needed to make a choice as to who to work for. It was one of the most difficult choices I’ve had to make. Now you may be like im being overly dramatic, but I’d come up with not only a list why this choice is critical but also some qualities to look for in a good PI. Bear in mind that neither of my PIs have all of these qualities, but so long as the ones important to you are met, that person is probably a safe bet:
Why is this choice so important:
• You will be working for this person for the next 4-6 years of your life. You will undoubtedly be spending an ample amount of time with him or her. Do you really want to have to meet with someone you are uncomfortable with for more than half a decade?
• The research that you do as an graduate student is dictated by your PI. This means (most of the time) you become his disciple. The work you will do upon graduation will most likely have something to do (if not be identical) to the work you were doing as a graduate student. So essentially even after you leave you Ph.D. lab, your PI will still be haunting you 😛
• Jobs. The work you do and the reputation of your PI will ultimately determine you likelihood at getting that dream job, be it in pharma or in academia.
• Publications and Timeliness. Your PI also determines how long your indentured servitude lasts and how well known you are in your field based on how often he publishes.

Questions to ask:
• Funding: What are your sources? Are they relible and renewable? How much? How often does this potential PI apply for grants? (If your PI is writing grants too often, you will never see him. However if not often enough, you will be underfunded. I am not of the school of thought that believes you PI’s only job is to get your group money; there needs to be time to talk to your PI. You generally want NIH or NSF funding because its that’s not easy to get, meaning that PI is doing impactful work. and it can be renewed. And as will most things in life, the more money the better.)
• Publications: How often does he published? Is it at least more than once a year? How often has he published in the past three years? How many students have several publications? Where does he publish? Is this the kind of journal you want to be publishing in? (Depending on the types of journals and the number of students a PI has working for him, how often he published is relative. However if you look at the first three questions, you can get a general prediction on how many pubs you can expect to see working in his lab. I would say don’t restrict yourself to a PI that only publishes to ACS journals. They are hard to get into and you may only walk away with one publication. I know the old saying is quality over quantity but I’d take a few OBC papers* over a single JOC paper during my career as a graduate student. Its important to get as many publications as possible so look for repeat names on their papers!)
• Website, Technology and Age: Does the group have a website? Is it well maintained and up-to-date? Does the PI have a grasp on the current tools available to chemists? Is he willing to purchase new tools? How old is the PI and when did that PI get Tenure? (Unlike previous generations, our generation grew up with the internet. So we have a tendency to want to see things as up-to-date as possible. And moreover its not hard to maintain a webpage with all the tools available today like Dreamweaver or its open-source alternative nVu. So look for a well maintained page, it means the PI is up on the times. Technology is also key in the lab. My group is well-known for microwave chemistry and we are slowly acquiring flow reactors to get into that as well. Not only does this give you experience but it would likely lead to publications just simply by using a new instrument. Now for the weird question age and tenure. It’s important to chose a PI who is tenured. I wouldn’t risk your research on the chance that your PI could lose his position at your institution. That being said, I would recommend that you look for someone that just recently has acquired tenure. They are likely to be highly active in their field because they still have the pre-tenure publish-as-much-as-possible mentality. However, they may be not as…harsh…as they were pre-tenure. I also tend too look for younger PIs just because you are more likely to relate to them/they are more likely to be up on the times. That is not a rule but a trend I’ve seen.)
• Communication and Personality: Does he seem like a reliable nice guy? Is he “driven” or demanding? Is he prompt at replying to e-mails? Does he use text messaging? Does he care about his students (I think these are sort of obvious questions except for the text messaging one. I really love the fact that my PI and former PI use text messaging. Its very convenient when you are in a situation where e-mail is just too slow.)
So that’s all I got for today. Just my thoughts on PIs and what you should look for. By no means are these all the criteria you should look for. And these are only my opinions, what you look for will vary from what I do. However, I hope these thoughts give you some guidance if you are reading and you are a pre-grad student or if you are currently looking for a PI! Ckellz…Signing off….
*As a side note,  we unfortunately got rejected from Organic and Biomolecular Chemistry because we got one bad reviewer. We are either going to appeal or resubmit elsewhere. It was a disappointment but not the first time I’ve had an article rejected. So just keep your fingers crossed for me and I will update you on the status of that article.

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2 Comments

  1. Keep up the good work Chris!


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