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Lab Rats

The PI tells you why

(and you've heard it all before...)

The Eternal Postdoc 19 April 2005

www.lablit.com/article/23

Postdoctoral angst is all part of the service

When lab bosses swoop down on their herd of researchers like a leopard hungry for prey, it is usually the younger and weaker lab members that get caught.

Editor’s note: PI is short for "principle investigator", one of the technical terms for the person in charge of a research lab.

When your group leader wants you to do an experiment they will usually give you a good reason why you want to do it:

1. Publications

"This is a sure-fire Nature paper, or Science or maybe Cell. Either way it’s going to be a classic!"

2. Fame

"You are going to be known as the one who did X, or discovered X, or are going to be X expert of the Y world!"

3. Career advancement/funding

"This paper is going to get you your fellowship, postdoc, job etc. They’re going to be throwing money at you forever if you work on this!"

4. Money

"You should set up a company.
This is a winner!"

5. Helping mankind

"You’re going to be able treat tumors with this."

6. Attractiveness to the opposite sex

I have no actual examples of this but it’s been implied! For example: "X and Y [both very attractive] are going to be impressed if you present those results at the meeting."

Of course, like other seasoned postdocs, I have heard it all before and am ready with well thought out deflecting tactics. The group leader knows this too, so when he or she swoops down on their herd of researchers like a leopard hungry for prey, it is usually the younger and weaker lab members that get caught. So the first year PhD student ends up pursuing several Nature paper projects and is told "you are so lucky to be so close to having a paper at this stage of your project!".

What many group leaders don’t seem to realise is that the main reason most people do research is because they love pursuing their own ideas. I may be called a romantic idealist but I think that if you don’t enjoy the scientific process in its own right, the promise of fame and fortune isn’t enough to keep you going through the drudgery that is cutting-edge research.

So group leaders, keep coming up with those great ideas, but don’t be offended if your carrots are not taken seriously and tell us why you want the experiment to be done, not why we want to do it!