Mid-semester essay

Samantha Finkbeiner
5 min readNov 8, 2020

With graduate school application deadlines approaching, I have been considering what the next step for me will be after graduate school. Will I become a principal investigator (PI)? Will I become a laboratory manager? I’ve worked as a research assistant for a little over a year now and I’ve realized that I don’t really know what it’s like for my PI on a daily basis. I feel that having a better understanding of the perspective of a PI would allow me to make a decision on what type of research position I’d want to hold after graduate schooling. A principal investigator is an individual who responsible for “the preparation, conduct, and administration of a research grant, cooperative agreement, training or public service project, contract, or other sponsored project”, with this level of Individuals with less information tend to have a differing perspective than those who have more information as stated by Halpern (Halpern, 2019), so I thought it would be helpful for myself to compare and contrast the perspectives of what it’s like to participate in research as a research assistant to a principal investigator. My prediction is that the PI’s will have a much broader viewpoint with a greater depth of knowledge than a research assistant and that this difference in perspective would lead to a different experience within the research community.

The main difference between a PI and a research assistant is the role they play in organizing the research projects. Typically, the PI is the individual who has the expertise in a specific area and they organize multiple projects that are within their field of expertise. A research assistant, in general, will assist their PI in collecting data, analyzing data, and performing the experiments. The research assistants are given the space and opportunity to perform research (Like Marie Curie was in Radioactive maybe try to find a quote from that) which can lead them to gain more knowledge and experience which can help the research assistant to get a more prestigious position. A principal investigator is the person who often has full ownership of the research being done, while the research assistant might have some claim to a specific project; the principal investigator in the individual who funds the research so they have the overall say on the projects. This control over the project can lead to a characteristic of white supremacy culture to invade the research organization. Paternalism, in summary, is the idea of making sure that people know who makes the big decisions and that people know their roles or responsibilities within the laboratory group (Okun article). An important responsibility of the PI is to find different methods to share their laboratory groups research, this sharing of information is a portion of the research that the PI may dictate to another individual such as a research assistant. As a principal investigator, they are aware that they need to share their work in order for it to make a difference, this “role” of a PI to share their work, “Science studies are highly critical of the traditional conception of the public com-munication of science. Instead of the sharp distinction between science and its popu-larisation, they propose a ‘continuity’ model of scientific communication” (Bucchi, 2008); this quote from Bucchi touches on how in order to increase the public’s interest in scientific research, researchers should share their scientific knowledge more frequently over just hearing about these great “Wonder” discoveries in scientific research.

Research organizations tend to take principal investigators more seriously and demand more respect than a research assistant would. During seminars, in my experience, the conversation is dominated by the principal investigators who are in attendance, while the post docs, graduate students and undergraduate students often stay silent and absorb information. Are the PI’s aware that they dominate the conversation? Do they mean to take up as much time as they do with their questions? Typically, those who are in higher standing positions such as a principal investigator get responses to email requests much quicker than someone who would be considered, as my parents so lovingly put it, an “underling”. I think that these organizations that the PI’s are members of expect a lot from them, so in return, they give them as much support as they need.

When typing out an email to a professor, typically a student will take extra care in the wording and format of the email; occasionally the students receive very short, one line responses in return. The same thing can happen in research. Why? Sometimes it could be a response they quickly typed out because they didn’t have time to fully format the email, but often it makes those who receive the response feel as if their collaborator or PI are upset/unhappy with them or that they don’t respect them. This dynamic appears to be similar to the paternalism characteristic described earlier, but it appears a bit differently. In this situation, the research assistant may feel the power dynamic between them and the PI, which would mean that the research assistant knows that their PI makes the important decisions and that they didn’t have the last say, even as a lead on the project.

Research assistants are essential to a working research laboratory because they are the ones who get to do the behind the scenes work. This work was not meant in any way to shame or put down those in the principal investigator position, as we know from Halpern’s publication, “There is no view from nowhere; nothing that can be seen outside of the perspective from which we see it.”; the PI’s of the research world don’t have the full picture just like everyone else in life. However, as predicted, it does appear that the PI’s do have a greater viewpoint on the whole research field than a research assistant would, on average. The principal investigators have to know all of the information about their projects and are the person who is responsible for everything that goes on in their laboratory so it makes sense that they would have a more full view of the projects they are managing. Occasionally, PI’s might forget how highly they are held in the organization, and not be aware of the struggles or cultures that the organization has placed onto them and their lab members. I had set out on writing a piece that would help me to decide whether or not I’d want to become a principal investigator after finishing my graduate work, but instead I learned that PI’s were people just like the research assistants, but they just have a greater perspective on the overall workings of the laboratory. The idea of being able to keep all of these moving parts in a laboratory working together makes being a PI such an important goal of mine.