In Focus
Mar 3, 2017

A Glimpse into Scientific Research and Becoming a Principal Investigator

While science careers can be considered quite linear, there are several new and exciting routes that graduates can take to get into their chosen career paths.

Ava MeagherContributing Writer
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Sinéad Baker for The University Times

For many students, getting to the end of a tough, four year science degree is an exciting prospect. Once you secure your degree, however, it is time to start considering where you want to go next. The overall structure of a science career is very linear, although there are many different routes students can pursue following graduation. In Ireland, after completing an undergraduate science degree, it is common to complete a PhD followed by postdoctoral research. After this, people often seek out the coveted role of Principal Investigator which involves taking charge of a lab.

The first step on the research route is a PhD. The duration of a typical PhD is three to four years, almost entirely spent in a lab, at the end of which you write and defend a thesis. During these years, the aim is to publish a discovery. It is the publication that differentiates a successful PhD candidate from an unsuccessful one in the eyes of a future employer.

If your aim is an academic career in Ireland, often it isn’t necessary to do a master’s before your PhD and most graduates tend to skip this step. Speaking to The University Times via email, Professor Luke O’Neill, Chair and Professor of Biochemistry and Fellow of the Royal Society, explains that it’s important to “pick an area you are really interested in (as best you can), then pick the right lab, a lab head you feel you can get along with. Life is too short otherwise”.  

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The route into an academic career can vary from country to country. Moritz Haneklaus, who has just finished his PhD in O’Neill’s lab, did his undergraduate degree in general biology in Heidelburg, Germany. The usual practice there is to do a Masters before your PhD. During his Masters, Moritz did a placement in O’Neill’s lab and was offered the opportunity to return to do his PhD. He is supported by bridging funding (funding which tides a researcher over in between grants) to publish work from his PhD and is currently applying to do postdoctoral research.

It’s important to pick an area you are really interested in (as best you can), then pick the right lab, a lab head you feel you can get along with. Life is too short otherwise

While doing a PhD, the daily work varies greatly. You might be trying to set up a new technique for two months and spend each day trying different ideas until something works. You could work at the bench and do experimental lab work from Monday to Wednesday and then spend Thursday and Friday sitting at a laptop analysing the results. According to Haneklaus, one of the most important skills to learn during a PhD is time management.

This can lead to ups and downs for a researcher. If the experiments are working, everything is great. If the experiments aren’t working, it can be more difficult. These frustrating periods can go on for several months. Perseverance and love for the subject are crucial.

At every stage of this outlined career path, people leave academia to go into industry. At the undergraduate stage, a common route is through a graduate program provided by the likes of Pfizer or Abbott. Upon completing a PhD and entering the world of industry, you can usually start at a more senior level (like project manager) than an undergraduate would. The day to day work can be similar to the work of an academic, but it offers a more lucrative salary and you are more focused towards a linear objective that is likely to yield a profit. Many of the pharmaceutical companies in Ireland do their manufacturing and production here, with research and development (R&D) based elsewhere, so for those seeking some creativity in their work, academia offers the freedom of choosing your own projects and pursuing your ideas along with the opportunity to teach and inspire others.

Networking within the department and at conferences is paramount to finding a postdoctoral research position that suits your chosen career path

After completing a PhD, the next step is a postdoctoral fellowship. A postdoctoral fellow is a professional researcher who still comes under the umbrella of another Principal Investigator’s lab and grants, and receives training from them. It is common to do two to three postdoctoral research projects, each of which takes approximately two to three years, so the process is an arduous one, albeit a fulfilling one. On top of the intellectual labour is the difficulty in finding such positions. Gareth Brady, a postdoctoral researcher, explains that networking within the department and at conferences is paramount to finding a postdoctoral research position that suits your chosen career path. During the postdoctoral years, the work is similar to that done during a PhD except that the focus now is on publishing papers.

As with any research position, how you go about getting one says as much about you as your work during it. Brady advises beginning to apply for your own funding at this stage as this demonstrates independence, drive and an ability to write grant-winning proposals. Speaking to The University Times, he says that this ability is “becoming an increasingly defining edge in the selection process towards independence”. Career development fellowship grants are tailor-made for this purpose. Brady remarked that it is critical to “consciously direct your career so that the research and experience you accumulate makes ‘narrative sense’. You essentially want to carve out your own niche which matches your career track”. The importance of establishing a niche that becomes your area of expertise is fundamental to this. After three to eight years working as a postdoctoral researcher, to secure funding to run your own lab, it is necessary to be able to convince others that you have a viable original plan to work on different aspects of research.

As head of their lab, a Principal Investigator is responsible for bringing in grants and directing the research that goes on while also lecturing students. Very few people who set out in their careers to be Principal Investigators get to this stage, partly due to its tough workload and the fact that very few positions are available.

After being selected by the interview panel, most universities provide the Principal Investigator with a “setup fund”, enough capital to buy basic reagents and equipment, whilst they’re applying for funding to run the lab. Generally, the Principal Investigator would start hiring PhD students as the grants are easier for them to obtain. Postdoctoral salaries tend to come from larger program grants like those from Science Foundation Ireland (SFI). As more people are employed, they’ll all work on different facets of what the Principal Investigator is interested in.

A Principal Investigator must keep the chain of funding going, which makes the vital connection between grants and papers. As if to elucidate the importance of this, applying for grants is a skill in itself, referred to as “grantsmanship”.

The process is mutually beneficial for the Principal Investigator and their university, as the university gets a large lump sum of the grant secured by a Principal Investigator. In return, they try to cover as much as they possibly can (everything from legal advice to giving you the lab space) to allow Principal Investigators to get on with the business of research, bringing money in and teaching.  A Principal Investigator is a permanent position and usually after a five year probation period, an Irish Principal Investigator can get “tenure”.

The great thing is it’s an international business – you can go anywhere

One of the great things about a career in science is that location isn’t a limiting factor. Language isn’t generally a problem because everything is in English and the work itself is universal meaning it can be done anywhere in the world. O’Neill explains that “the great thing is it’s an international business – you can go anywhere”.

In the USA, a graduate with an undergraduate science degree is at approximately the same level as a second-year student in Trinity. A PhD in the US, therefore, is typically five years with the first two years spent in lectures, followed by the last three years in the lab to get to the standard of a European undergraduate. While doing an undergraduate degree or a PhD in the USA doesn’t fit very well into the European career structure, doing postdoctoral research there is seen as a rite of passage. Academia in the USA is seen as an opportunity to prove yourself, as it is extremely competitive.

So how does this contrast with an academic career in the arts? Getting into an arts PhD can be more competitive than a science one as the positions are rare. Although the cost of doing the research itself is less than for science research, there is generally less funding available. At the PhD stage the process is similar to that in science, and after that there is not very much postdoctoral research funding, so that people go straight into lecturing or teaching if there are suitable roles available.

If upon completing an undergraduate science degree, one decides that they don’t actually want to go into academic research, there are plenty of other options. It could be used in a different way by going down the routes of graduate medicine, patent law or science journalism. The skills of logical and lateral thinking are greatly prized by potential employers and there lots of opportunities available for graduates of any discipline. The fact that people with backgrounds in science end up in very diverse areas is a credit to the transferrable skills instilled in them.

The kind of basic research that a career in academic research entails can be both incredibly frustrating and unbelievably rewarding, as you join the frontier of human endeavours to learn more about the world in which we live, and indeed our own bodies. When asked about the best and worst aspects of his job, O’Neill replied:  “Best, a chance to make a real difference. What can be better than to be trying to make discoveries that might one day impact on human health?” As for the worst, he cites “admin”. O’Neill and his colleagues are clear on one thing, do what you love and you will find a path that suits you.

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