6 Types of Difficult PI

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Following my previous post about the challenges of dealing with difficult PIs, I thought I'd offer some specific examples and tips. Since each Principal Investigator is a unique case, you should analyze your situation and adapt your behavior and perspective accordingly. Remember, each difficult PI is different and combines some of the type casts below.

To help you remember that in every situation you can find a positive angle, I have added a point of hope and encouragement.

The Demanding:

This PI expects you to work on your projects long hours, often regardless of personal life and circumstances. In many cases these PIs are young, highly ambitious, on their quest for the tenure track trophy, and therefore highly involved in the student's project. The pressure of getting results for publication can make a student's life miserable and that of a graduate even more so.

  • Tactic: Such PIs will appreciate initiative and effort coming from the student. Initiate weekly meetings with your PI  - show him/her your current results, ask for advice, and discuss expectations. Show that you care about the success of the project and the lab. If the boss's expectations are exaggerated, explain your personal situation and negotiate for less expectations.
  • Positive perspective: Working under such PIs is challenging but can be rewarding and can elongate your publication list.

The Indifferent:

The other side of the coin, this PI is usually preoccupied with their own business and take little interest of the graduate's progress. Their door will be always open for student's questions and queries, but don't expect them to drop in on you and ask you how your research is progressing.

  • Tactic: In such a case you will have to take initiative to get feedback and help from your mentor. Find a way to increase his interest in your project by showing him surprising results or asking for his advice on a problem you're facing in your research.
  • Positive perspective: If you're an autonomous student you will have more space than you need. Freedom is a two-sided coin so make sure you're on the right side.

The Critic:

This PI is absorbed in the process of criticism more than in science. Most times he will always have something negative to say and in most cases his comments will not be productive. Positive feedback will be hard to get from him (because that would imply your work is perfect, and there ain't nothing perfect in life, right?).

  • Tactic: Since his advice is mostly not productive ask for advice from lab manager/technician, a senior lab mate from your lab or from a neighboring lab. Even so, be open minded when receiving comments from your PI, it might be helpful in certain cases.
  • Positive perspective: You will quickly see the work of others from a very critical point of view.


The Connected & Incompetent:

This PI is familiar with the current research in the lab yet he has not kept his knowledge up-to-date regarding current research tools. If a student asks for advice, he/she is usually redirected to the lab manager, to the most veteran graduate or to Google.

  • Tactic: Again, seek advice from other PIs, lab mates and published articles.
  • Positive perspective: You will develop self-learning capabilities and connect with other PIs and colleagues.

The Tyrant:

This PI dictates and decides every aspect of the student's research and is not open to any other idea or suggestion. In extreme cases this PI will take full credit for each success and lay blame for the failures at the feet of the student.

  • Tactic: In extreme cases tyrants take from you the only thing which is worth in pursuing a PhD – your intellectual freedom. See bailing out section below, you should seriously consider this step.
  • Positive perspective: If your graduate studies are to learn the technicalities of the work, then you will learn how to master these techniques and how your boss's mind works.

The Abusive:

This kind of PI yells insults and plants fear and dread in the hearts of his /her students as part of a managerial tactic.

  • Tactic: If a one-to-one talk fails to lessen his/her behavior, limit your contact with your PI and use the help of your lab mates. If the abusive acts are illegal, report and bail out.
  • Positive perspective: You will have a sympathetic supporting group in your lab mates.

Have a personal story about your unbearable PI? Please share with us in the comments below!