Blog Post October 10, 2017

This burning question keeps postdocs up at night

For many postdocs, this is the question. It keeps you up at night. You try to think about other things, but it usually comes back to the same conclusion.

Do I want to be a PI?

For many postdocs, this is the question. It keeps you up at night. You try to think about other things, but it usually comes back to the same conclusion.

You went to graduate school for a PhD in biology/genetics/biochemistry/and so on.

You earned the PhD, you garnered a postdoc position in an established lab, and are making progress with your project. You have a publication or two on the horizon, and have maybe even won a highly prized training grant.

The next logical step is to become a Principal Investigator (PI), and start researching your own questions and ideas. This is what you should want. Otherwise, what was the point of all your hard work?

It has become clear to me through conversations with other postdocs that I should not become a PI. Many of my peers are exhilarated about the possibilities in running their own lab. They stay up at night reading papers and making plans. I’m in awe of their dedication and ambition.

I’m a naturally anxious person. When I contemplate becoming a PI I immediately think about the years of begging for money, struggling to publish papers, and having little time for a life outside of the lab. If you aren’t 100% committed to your research and truly love what you work on, this is not the life for you. 

At the same time, I am constantly plagued by guilt. Guilt about doing something other than pure academic research with my PhD. Fear that I will be considered a failure if I don’t become a PI. Shame for caring what others will think of me.

I by no means want to leave science. I love performing experiments and optimizing protocols. The Williams lab has provided countless opportunities to expand my scientific skillset, and has instilled confidence in my technical abilities as a scientist. For that reason alone, I am happy I chose the academic postdoc route. In fact, depending on what part of the country I move to next year, I might even pursue a second postdoc.

But part of the reason I started writing for the JAX blog was to explore other career options, particularly those based in science writing. My past posts have covered the process of self-reflection, and I’ve been taking time to figure out what I want from my career.

I crave a job where I make an impact, even if it is small. I want to help other scientists explain their research to the public, or aid in the writing of grants and publications. My favorite part of editing is making a cluttered idea coherent; in making the ostensibly complex seem cogent. I’m interested in further developing these skills and using them to communicate science in multiple forums.

If you are reading this and have thoughts to share, I would love to hear from you. You can reach me at Have you felt the same pressures during your postdoc (or even graduate school) training? Or have you had the polar opposite experience? I’m hoping to cover this topic more in the future, and your comments are much appreciated.

Ellen Elliott, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow at The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine in Farmington, Conn. Ellen works in the laboratory of Adam Williams, Ph.D., where she is studying the function of long non-coding RNAs in TH2 cells and asthma. Follow Ellen on Twitter at @EllenNichole.