What We Think Is Happening in Science
It’s common in science fiction – a doctor or a scientist comes up with some fantastical invention, suddenly eclipsing everything we knew. The scientist works alone and knows everything, can do everything.
While this can work for a fiction setting or premise, this is not how science is done in the real world. Quickly, it is becoming almost entirely impossible to work alone. Some papers, like the 2001 publication of the full sequence of the human genome, have so many authors that it’s like reading through the begat verses in the Bible. Science as it’s done in science fiction often doesn’t mirror the real life culture or process very well.
Real-Life Lab Roles
In many nations, funding is appropriated from the government for research purposes. In the United States, the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institute of Health (NIH), Department of Energy (DoE), Department of Defense (DoD), the research offices of each military branch, and others serve as major sources of funding. They each have very specific, and often erratic, interests that must be met in terms of research goals. Industrial funding, the Holy Grail of academic researchers, is even more finicky. They never have to reveal or even have good motives and can, at the drop of the hat or change in economic conditions, pull their support.
Everything in science focuses on the ability to secure, retain, and satisfy funding.
Principle Investigator, or PI
The PI is the person who has, traditionally, been focused on as the people who make the big discoveries in science fiction and, to some extent, the real world too. They’re the people who have the most visibility in the scientific world and are typically considered the head of the lab.
However, in real life, they rarely if ever are hands-on in the lab. They take a more advisory role, helping students and post-docs determine possible avenues to take the research. They must also understand their students’ and post-docs’ research to present at conferences and in funding proposals. They spend a significant amount of time writing grant proposals to fund their lab’s research and in recruiting people to conduct the research. In academic research, the PI can also take on administrative and teaching roles.
Post-docs are the unsung heroes of science and fill a position that until relatively recently wasn’t quite as common. As the requirements to become a research professor become more and more stringent, the need to produce a greater number of high-impact publications increases. Post-docs are usually people who have the goal of entering academia and are trying to pad their CV with more publications than can (usually) be achieved as a graduate student. A post-doc position can also help a person be a more competitive candidate in industry.
In the lab, post-docs are highly knowledgeable people who enter their work with an already wide variety of techniques under their belts. They tend to be (but aren’t necessarily) mentors of graduate students and are some of the powerhouses of bench-level research.
Graduate students work directly under a PI and are usually mentored by an older graduate student or a post-doc to learn new techniques. The PI writes grants to fund the research a student does, but students design experiments and answer questions pertaining to their research. Their success in research often determines when they (perhaps even whether or not they can) graduate. Graduation usually happens after a defense, or when students present their research to other PIs in the department and they agree it is worthy work for their chosen degree.
For the first couple of years, graduate students also take classes. They are also often expected to perform as teaching assistants, the rigor of which varies from institution to institution and class to class.
More important in very old labs and very young labs, undergraduates can be independent researchers, but often they perform rote tasks to assist a graduate student or a post-doc. These tasks can be very time consuming and important, so having a lesser experienced researcher performing them can free up the older and more experienced researcher to do sensitive or crucial tasks.
Undergraduates’ primary concern is, as always, their class load. Research can help them get letters of reference for graduate school, links to jobs, and pad a resume, but is not a critical component of a bachelor’s degree in science or engineering.
Lab Managers are different from the structure above in that they usually report directly to the PI and operate in a more parallel administrative structure. They ensure that equipment remains in working order, that common supplies are ordered and available, that safety protocols are followed and protective equipment is available, prepare for inspections, and help students or post-docs learn a common technique to ensure uniform procedures across the lab.
Lab Managers are usually hired by bigger labs or by PIs who have heavy administrative duties. Labs without a lab manager usually shove off many of these tasks onto graduate students or post-docs or, more commonly, leave them undone. Presence of a lab manager is one of the biggest difference makers in lab culture.