I found the transition from Early Career Researcher (ECR) to Principal Investigator (PI) much harder than I expected, and not just for the obvious reasons. One clear distinction between these stages is grant income, and I, like most academics have had difficulty building up a solid stream of grant funding. I’ll write about that another time. Here, I thought I would reflect on another aspect: how the day-to-day job changes, and the ways that can affect self perception.



When I was an ECR, I took an active part in every level of the research; from data collection and entry, right through to analyses and paper writing. This is not uncommon and gave me a fantastic grounding in every aspect of research. As I started to build my team, I continued to have a detailed handle on every aspect of the project. I taught all team members how to run the tasks, how to manage, clean and analyse the data, and of course how to write up the findings.

Somewhere along the way, as my team grew, it became impossible to keep on top of this level of detail. Nowadays I leave much of that to members of my team, who are ably supported by each other and by others in the department. I provide overall direction or a sense of vision to the team. I make decisions and talk through all aspects of study design and results of analyses, but I no longer have a handle on many of the details. Of course I also try hard to find the funding we need, though often this takes longer than I would like! My role now is thus quite different from how it used to be, and for quite a long time, this felt a little uncomfortable.

It is clear looking around me that this change is natural, and I have found it interesting to reflect on what I have learned from the PIs who have been important to my career development. Various things stand out. My first supervisor provided fantastic vision, having an incredible understanding of the whole field. He also showed me how much more manageable things seem when you plan your activities to make sure you will achieve what you need to in the time, and I began my journey of learning to write with him. My next supervisor was, and remains, one of the most inspiring and encouraging people I know. I continue to turn to him today when times are hard and I need a lift. He also taught me how important it is to choose people you like to work with, and some of my happiest work memories are of bouncing around ideas with him, moving them forwards in the process.

“What I love most now is discussing ideas with members of my group, either all of us together or one-to-one”

Subsequently, several further PIs provided access to their team members when I wanted to take new techniques or methodologies into my work. I learned from them that interdisciplinary work is much easier when you have collaborators willing to share their and their teams expertise, but also that for me personally, responsive communication was essential.

These days I am generally comfortable with this change in role. What I love most now is discussing ideas with members of my group, either all of us together or one-to-one. I get great satisfaction from watching each individual develop and I do my best to point them to the right person if I cannot myself teach them what they need to know. They often learn from one another and we have a lovely give and take feel to the team. I pick new members very carefully to make sure this delicate balance is maintained, involving current team members in the decision making.

As well as supporting individual team members with developing their ideas I focus quite a bit on planning, so they can progress well without getting overwhelmed. I continue to teach them to write, and writing remains at the heart of my role, something that I enjoy more with every year that passes.

So, to others out there feeling as if they no longer do the important stuff as they progress up the ladder, have a think about all the different things you now do and how that contributes to the development of subsequent generations – and remember how fulfilling that can be.

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Thalia Eley

Author Thalia Eley

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