Career, Science

The Dark Side of the PI Model

Over at Bits Of DNA Lior Pachter discusses how busy people like Mike Snyder or Eric Lander manage to write dozens of papers each year.

Short answer: have lots of postdocs!

Snyder manages 36 postdocs,  13 research assistants,  11 research scientists, 9 visiting scientists, and 8 graduate students. (…)

In my department we have strict headcount limits (12 for senior group leaders, 15 for some even-more-senior group leaders) exactly to prevent PIs from building such empires.

This so-called “PI model” for biology arguably makes sense.

The focus of experienced investigators on supervision allows them to provide crucial input gained from years of experience on projects that require not only creative insight, but also large amounts of tedious rote work.

Modern biology is also fraught with interdisciplinary challenges, and large groups benefit from the diversity of their members.

But the PI model, a.k.a The Empire, has a dark side:

There is a more cynical view of the PI model, namely that by running large labs PIs are able to benefit from a scientific roulette of their own making.

PIs can claim credit for successes while blaming underlings for failures. Even one success can fund numerous failures, and so the wheel spins faster and faster…the PI always wins.

Indeed, as I discussed before the PI model can be an exploitative system. See here (Why Science needs continuous leadership support) and here (“Superstar professors with massive research groups are bad for science” I agree).

So if you are looking for a postdoc position, stay out of a 36-postdoc lab – no matter how famous the PI. Rather choose a mean-and-lean small lab with a nurturing and supportive environment.



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