How to think like a principal investigator?
One researcher’s quest to understand what it takes to be a successful head of a lab
April 19, 2022
Béla Z Schmidt is a senior staff member and science editor in the Switch lab at the VIB-KU Leuven Center for Brain & Disease Research. His quest to secure a principal investigator (PI) position did not have the outcome he had hoped for, and in search of answers, he spoke to more than a hundred principal investigators across the globe. In writing a book bundling their career advice (recently published by Springer), he hopes to help young researchers to learn to think like a PI.
On May 10th, the VIB Postdoc Committee is hosting a hybrid panel conversation with profs. Patrizia Agostinis, Gabriele Bergers and Savvas Savvides, three VIB PIs who contributed to the book, and author Béla Z Schmidt (register here!).
In anticipation of the event, we interviewed Béla about what he learned.
Congratulations on your book, Béla!
What made you set out to write a mentoring book?
“I did not start this project to write a book. This project was born out of the frustration I felt about not being able to get a tenure-track position and start a research lab. I became one of those “permadocs”— postdoctoral researchers who go from one lab to another without ever advancing to the next step of the academic ladder. When I realized that I was probably never going to succeed, at least I wanted to know where I messed up, or to put it more positively: what I could have done better.”
That was when you started to interview different principal investigators?
“Yes. I thought I was a good experimenter, I worked hard, yet my publication record was far from great and I had no hope of getting on the tenure track. Since I put in a lot of effort but I did not see the returns others around me were getting, I was suspecting that I was doing something wrong, I was not expending my energy in a useful way. I decided that the best way to find out what I could have done better was to talk to people who did succeed at setting up their own lab: the principal investigators (PIs) around me. Then the project snowballed and I ended up with advice from 106 PIs."
It is fabulous to tap into the advice of so many PIs, but some people may be somewhat puzzled that it was put together by someone who never led a lab himself.
“I would like to reassure those who are wary of taking advice from somebody who never became the head of a laboratory: the book does not contain my advice, it is a compilation of advice of over a hundred PIs. I forget the exact number of how many years of experience they represented all together but it was well over a thousand PI-years.
I spent over two decades working in academic laboratories on two continents, so I think I have a sufficiently good idea about how labs run to be able to ask relevant questions.
I am sure the book is also a reflection on who I am (I was asking the questions, after all) but I treated this like any other scientific investigation and reported the facts as I saw them. I cannot exclude that I paid more attention to some aspect than others as I was tallying up the answers – but I tried to report what the PIs told me as impartially as I could.”
There is plenty of career advice already available, some from Nobel prize winners like Sydney Brenner. What is different about your book?
“I think this book is unique in two aspects. First, it is based on career advice I collected from interviewing more than a hundred principal investigators from 44 research institutions in 11 countries, so I think it cuts down on the idiosyncratic aspects of each PI. Second, my primary interest during the interviews was less about the behavior of the PIs and more about what is going on in their head: how they think, how they make decisions, what they pay attention to or what they think is less important. In other words, I wanted to understand their way of thinking when it comes to scientific work.”
Students and postdocs of course have their own PI to talk to when it comes to mentorship. How can this book complement what they learn through their own direct network?
“Of course personalized advice from your own PI is great. But how much one-on-one time do early career researchers typically spend with their PI? An hour every week, maybe? Most of that time is taken up by analyzing data, planning the next steps, troubleshooting – there often is little time left for anything else, like explaining why a decision was made the way it was made.
My goal with this book was also to leverage the time of the PIs whom I interviewed: each of them spent about an hour talking with me yet their cumulative advice has already found its way to thousands of readers.”
What are some of the most surprising things you learned throughout your interviews?
“The most surprising thing was that although PIs run their research program successfully, they do not necessarily know HOW they are doing it. To some extent, this is normal, since we often take for granted what we can do with ease. We become more conscious of skills that we need to work on – until we get good at them and they become automatic, as well.
Unfortunately, it is hard to transmit what we are not conscious of: if you don’t know how you are doing something, you will likely not be able to explain it to somebody else, either. This is why some people who are excellent at something are not necessarily the best teachers.
For me, becoming and being a principal investigator is in itself a skill: some are naturally good at it, and some are not. People may point out that a lot of luck is also required to become a PI but I think those who become PIs purely based on luck do not stay in business long without the skills to maintain their lab.
We are all different – obviously. Different PIs do things differently although all ways seem to be working for the individual who is using them. But a direct consequence of our differences is that the way my PI does things may not work for me – I think a big strength of my book is that it summarizes advice from a lot of PIs, and often it shows the many ways different PIs use to do the same thing.”
Did it become the book you wish you had when you first started looking for a PI position?
“It would have been great to have this book at my disposal when I was starting out but it is far from perfect. For starters, there is nobody from Africa, South America, or Asia among the interviewees.
Also, I planned to interview as many people who tried to get on the tenure track and start their own lab but failed (like myself) – a “negative control” so to speak – as successful PIs. I thought that comparing the thinking patterns of those two groups would be the best way to tease out what the real success factors are. But I had a hard time finding enough of these aspiring but failed PIs to talk to me. Eventually, I abandoned that part of the project.
Nevertheless, I think this book is a great resource. One thing I learned during the interviews: finished is better than perfect.”
And did you gain the insight you were looking for when it comes to your own career trajectory?
“As I mentioned, I was frustrated and wanted some answers about how come I didn’t get to start my own lab. I found plenty of things I messed up, which helped me to close this chapter of my life. I even wrote a piece for the Careers section of Nature about what I, personally, was doing wrong.
I also learned how much I enjoyed interviewing PIs about how they work, and compiling what I learned into a book. If I can help younger people with similar goals, that would be a very rewarding outcome for me as well.”
Career Advice for Young Scientists in Biomedical Research
How to Think Like a Principal Investigator
By Béla Z. Schmidt
Hybrid panel conversation with
- Patrizia Agostinis, group leader at the VIB-KU Leuven Center for Cancer Biology
- Gabriele Bergers, group leader at the VIB-KU Leuven Center for Cancer Biology
- Savvas Savvides, group leader at the VIB Inflammation Research Center at UGent
- author Béla Z Schmidt
Pentalfa, ON1, Campus Gasthuisberg, Leuven or online via zoom
Organized by the VIB Postdoc Committee