CAREER COLUMN

Principal investigators are people, too

Recognizing that fact could help researchers in their journey through their graduate studies, says one second-year PhD student.
Amanda Facciol is a second-year PhD student at the University of Toronto, Canada, where she works with behavioural geneticist Robert Gerlai on modelling alcohol-related deficits in zebrafish.

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Biochemists in a laboratory discussing a folder

Everyone feels the pressure of research, so students and principal investigators should work together to foster a healthy and happy laboratory environment.Credit: SolStock/Getty

During my academic journey, I have been exposed to many different research fields, principal investigators (PIs) and laboratory environments. Not all of those environments have been perfect for my research, but all have taught me a lot.

I remember a period of six months during my master’s studies when every research-related discussion ended with a defeated feeling. I was told to re-evaluate and repeat experiments almost continuously, and research started to become a chore.

Situations like this are common in graduate school, and demotivating thoughts, such as ‘I am not cut out for research’, or ‘this field is not for me’, can become a daily occurrence. Sharing my experiences with fellow graduate students, I often heard individuals complain about their PIs, blaming an unsupportive or overbearing supervisor for their slow progress.

When things are going badly, blaming your PI or complaining that they are just “not a good supervisor” is an easy path to take. Although these complaints might sometimes be justified, it is important to keep in mind that PIs are individuals too, with their own commitments, interests, abilities, limits and stresses. Remember that you are not the only student in the lab. If a PI seems distant or unresponsive (especially in e-mails), understand that they are perhaps dealing with other things. You have a right to be given attention, but do not always expect immediacy.

Whether they are a budding scientist, as I am, or already an experienced PI, everyone feels the stress and pressure of research. PIs and students should work together to understand each other, thereby promoting a happy, healthy and prosperous work environment.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00413-5

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged. You can get in touch with the editor at naturecareerseditor@nature.com.

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