This afternoon I have a meeting with my boss, my “PI” – the head of the lab I’m a PhD candidate in. Just in writing that I used a couple of terms that people might not be familiar with. So, as I work on preparing for the meeting, instead of trying to do a fancy post, I thought I’d do a quick post on the different jobs and titles people have in labs. 

extended version on the left (posted 09/12/21). original on the right (posted 06/21/21)

note: text adapted from past post

The head of the lab is the “PI”. Depending on where you look, PI can stand for “Principal Investigator” or “Primary Investigator” (or isoelectric point, but that’s a whole different story…). They fund the lab (through grants) and have the final say over what experiments get done, what equipment and reagents (chemicals used for experiments) get ordered, what papers get submitted, etc. The actual ordering is done by our lab manager and scheduling and grant-submitting by our scientific administrator (she also does scheduling and other administrator-y stuff for several other labs in the building). ⠀

When it comes to day-to-day experimental goings-on, some PIs are really “hands-on” while others are very “hands-off” – and great ones will really cater their styles to best help their trainees (e.g. meet more often with those who want it and less often with those who find formal meetings stress-provoking, preferring instead to have more casual chats).  Some PIs (especially those with relatively newly started-up labs with few members) still do “bench work” but a lot of the time they don’t have time because they have a TON of responsibilities – like writing grants and papers, going to meetings, giving talks around the world, etc. ⠀

I’m a PhD candidate at CSHL on Long Island in New York. The “candidate” title indicates that I have passed my courses and my qualifying exam and am now working full-time on my thesis research, which will culminate in a dissertation (written-up epic saga of my PhD research) and an oral thesis defense. PhD programs typically take 4-7 years. I’m in my 5th year and hoping to graduate this year if my research will cooperate with that time frame!⠀

Once I graduate, the next step for me will be a postdoctoral fellowship, more commonly referred to as a “postdoc.” “Postdoc” is also used as a noun to refer to the people who are doing a postdoc, and, as the name implies, they’ve already earned their PhD (usually in a different lab) so they have more autonomy but also more is expected from them. Often this “more” includes mentoring undergraduate and graduate students.⠀

People often take postdoc positions in labs that are related to what they’ve been doing, but not “too related” – instead they want to join a lab where they have something to bring (e.g. maybe they can help teach people how to purify proteins) and the lab has something to offer (e.g. maybe they can teach them how to synthesize pharmaceutical compounds to test against them). (Note: those are both super broad “skills” and usually it’s more specific).⠀

Postdocs can last a couple years to even 10 years or so, and sometimes people take multiple postdoc positions (1 after another) often while trying to find a PI position for themselves (it’s a really tough market).⠀

Speaking of the market, you by no means “have” to do a postdoc, and many people don’t. It’s mainly done by people who want to go into academia. Many people go straight from PhDs into jobs in industry (pharma or biotech companies, etc.), consulting, science writing, science policy, etc. There are lots of jobs outside of academia! But my goal is to become a research professor at a small primarily-undergraduate institution (PUI), so a postdoc is the next step. ⠀

There are different names for scientists who (often having started as postdocs) really prove themselves in a lab, take on a ton of responsibilities, often have multiple projects going, etc.) – these include “research investigators,” “staff scientists,” etc. (though not all started out in the lab as postdocs). One such “research investigator” who used to work in our lab, Elad, has been my main non-PI mentor throughout my PhD journey.

CSHL is a research institution, not a university (we just have the small graduate school  – and graduate students studying at the nearby StonyBrook can do research here too) so we don’t have undergraduate students. But during the summer sometimes we get “URPS” – undergrads working in our lab through Undergraduate Research Programs.⠀

At universities, undergrads can be vital “year-round” members. In fact, when I was an undergrad I was at a school (St. Mary’s College of California) where we had the opposite grad/undergrad situation – we ONLY had undergrads – the school’s a small (but awesome) liberal arts school that doesn’t have graduate science programs. The first couple of years I did research, the lab I was in was literally just me and my professor, biochem prof Dr. Jeff Sigman. Towards the end we got a couple new students I got to help train – one, Mikayla, is now in an o-chem PhD program at UCLA!⠀

Coming from that tiny lab environment, it took me a while to get used to the terminology, hierarchy, etc. of “academia” (it helped a lot that I did a summer of research at UCSF after my junior year, which introduced me to people like “postdocs” and “research technicians”).⠀

Research technicians are the unsung heroes of the lab – these workers usually have at least bachelor’s degrees in science. Some are doing it to gain more research experience before applying to grad school or to kinda “try it out” before deciding if grad school is for them, whereas others do it more as an “end goal job” – there’s hierarchy even within technicianship, so techs can work their way up to getting more responsibility (and making more $). ⠀

Depending on the lab and the amount of experience the tech has, they might mostly do things like make stock solutions (concentrated versions of solutions that you can mix and match and dilute to make custom solutions), manage tissue culture (feeding cells in dishes and flasks), etc. or they might be given whole projects to work on (in which case they’re sometimes called “research assistants”)⠀

In undergrad I had to do everything myself including making media (liquid bacteria food), autoclaving things, (sticking things in a really hot high pressure oven to sterilize them), etc. But here we have a media maker, Adriana, who does that all – it’s SO AWESOME! But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a lot of work to do – it just means I have more time to do other work and can focus on carrying out experiments. ⠀

A couple other types of folks you might find in a lab are “facilities managers” that often work for multiple labs (e.g. we have someone who runs our cryo-EM and another person in charge of our “home source” x-ray beamline & computational stuff).⠀

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