Dear PIs

Disclaimer: The term principal investigator is used synonymously for head of the lab/mentor/manager/… you fill in the blanks!

I wanted to start with “No need to state the obvious…” yet it seems no matter how many times the obvious is stated in academia, things doesn’t seem to change. Perhaps it is my expectations that is too high. But how can I not expect the most from a profession that is supposed to learn from the past experiences? If repeating and learning is in the core of science, and science is in the core of academia then the logic dictates that it is also in the core of academia.  It is not though, isn’t it?

I wonder how many of us have published articles with wrong results, not always knowingly of course. Some of those errors are simply mistakes, and there should be a tolerance too it from the community. No academicians should be afraid to correct themselves, even if it means retracting your own article. Yet we are… Because it will look bad, because it will remove 1 more article from CV, because… because… So many excuses.

Dear PIs, please encourage the correction of the mistakes in your own published articles. Most often you are the corresponding authors in these articles. So be that author. If the field has a bad attitude towards corrections, let’s change the field, let’s make it acceptable. Let’s make it so that the correct information stays out there, not mistakes.

I also wonder how many of us have been told  “to quit”,  told that “it’s not meant for you”. Unless you are my doctor, and you have to give me your medical opinion that would place my life out of harm’s way, I see no reason to be talked this way. I am sure those of you, who have heard similar things, felt mad, angry or sad. I am with you. It is up to you to see what is meant for you and what is not. If you show interest in learning, if you put your effort into it, you should be guided towards on how to make it work.

If you are bad mentor/manager, you have two options: Improve or quit being a mentor/manager. I will contradict myself and tell you to quit. Because your mistakes are hurting us. Being a mentor/manager doesn’t mean rubbing what we lack to our faces. It means pointing out those weakness in a constructive way, so that we can see for ourselves whether we can reach them or not. Our dreams are not yours to crash!

Have you ever been reminded that you are working “for” them?  It is a horrible feeling isn’t it? You were thinking we, humans, at this point in history, should be beyond slavery. What is this “for”? Why it is not working “with” them?

If you want people to work for you, you have two options: quit or QUIT being a mentor/manager! I shouldn’t even need to explain this. The number of years you have spent in this world, or the title you have, doesn’t make you a better scientist or more knowledgeable. We will work for an organization, towards a common goal or for a department. But we don’t work for “you”!

It is often this high level of experience that clouds the judgement. The experience turns into pride. How could someone be doing the same mistake for several years or decades? Are they idiots?

Yes you are an idiot sometimes. Sometimes we all are. Trying not to be an idiot is the most desirable outcome. But we all are just idiots sometimes. At least, have the courage to accept it when someone points it out to you. Because it is ok. The weakness in you, the fear of being wrong, we are talking to that: It is truly ok. 

You are busy, you have many projects to manage. It is not easy. You might think that we don’t understand, but we do. There are solutions that will not only make you a better mentor/manager but it also ease the burden on everyone. Don’t find a system that works just for you, but find a solid system that will accommodate different personalities, yet keep its structure over the years. In this system, focus on important aspects for early stages. For example, correctness over cosmetics which should come later or overtime… Why have a figure prepared with 3 different palette if you must retract the article 2 years later?  

Whichever system you find, remember “listening” is a must. If you call a meeting, and the person sitting across you doesn’t build full sentences, avoids the questions or gives short answers… maybe the environment was so poisonous that he/she did quit without resigning. Ask yourself, what could be different. When you think someone is a failure, ask yourself, why they couldn’t be a success. Is it just a simple mismatch or is it you? Do not just hear us, but listen us. 

We want to be respected, as much as we respect. We don’t always get it though. It starts when you apply for a position. If they know the name of whom you have worked it, they go and ask for references directly without consulting you, the applicant. So your rating is out there for them to see. “It is acceptable in academia.” But what about us? How are we to see the ratings of PIs? Unless you know the right person, you don’t get to hear who they truly are. Those right people (whom are objective, and not lived a privileged life in that lab) are not easy to find.

We want to know you PIs too. I hope I will be one of the founders of such a system whether I am in academia or not. As a colleague of mine said: “We rate the taxi drivers, we are rated by taxi drivers, why not Professors as head of the labs?”