Principal ways to become a Principal Investigator

christine-helen-foyerHow likely are you to become a research group leader or principal investigator (PI)? This was a question posed by Christine Foyer, professor of plant biology at Leeds University, UK, during the Women in Science lunch at the FESPB/EPSO conference in Prague this week. As this year’s invited speaker, Christine related her career story to an audience of 40 delegates, describing her route to becoming a PI as being quite haphazard, with little strategic planning involved: “I spent eight years as a postdoc”, she said, “until the money ran out, and I became unemployed for six months. During this time I considered all opportunities that came my way; I had a family to support and so I looked for a permanent job that would ensure my family security”. Whilst, fortunately, this led to Christine securing an excellent permanent position at INRA, France, which led on to a string of leadership positions, she admits that , these days, competition for permanent academic posts is much tougher and it’s very useful to know what is required if you’re hoping to “make it to the top”.

On this note, Christine referred to a study by van Dijk, Manor and Carey (Current Biology, 2014), who carried out a quantitative analysis to predict who is most likely to become a PI. They found that success in academia is predictable and depends on three main metrics: (1) number of publications, (2) the impact factor of the journal and (3) the number of papers that receive more citations than average for the journal in which they are published. However, two other qualitative factors figure in the equation: the academic institution and the scientist’s gender also play a significant role in the academic hiring process.

For those who keep up to date with women in science issues, this latter factor won’t come as much of a surprise. The low number of female PIs is a controversial issue and, although policies and practices are attempting to address the imbalance, it remains the case that men are more likely to be hired as a PI than women, even when they have the same publication record. Furthermore, the authors suggest that, currently, journal impact factor and academic pedigree are rewarded over the quality of publications, which may dis-incentivise the communication of findings, collaboration and interdisciplinary collaborations.

van Dijk et al developed a model to calculate your likelihood of becoming a Principal Investigator:, and for those whose score doesn’t look very promising, there are lights at the end of the tunnel: the authors advise that those researchers who take longer than seven years to become a PI have more citations per paper than those who become PIs more quickly, suggesting that scientists who publish more important papers in low impact journals can still become PIs, but that this route takes more time.

Christine concluded her highly engaging talk by adding some further recommendations to improve your current academic profile: get a good mentor (whether within or outside of your institution), who will give you helpful advice and support you – they can be invaluable for raising your awareness and confidence levels; arrange research visits and collaborate with scientists at more prestigious institutions – this will help to raise your academic value; learn to write well – have a vision of the story you want to tell and fill in the detail later; finally, and most importantly of all, keep things in perspective, stay positive and don’t take criticism personally – after all, it’s only a job!

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