What does the day to day life of a P.I. entail? They seem irritable, stressed, always on their computers or in meetings. But what are they doing? To address this ancient mystery, Tipbox went in to investigate. We went in search of answers by asking several P.I.s to describe their average day. There are common themes to every story, and so, from this, we generated an example day in the life of P.I.

8:30 – 09:00 Check emails

In the time it took you to pack up last night and get in this morning you find yourself greeted with a plethora of emails. Students who want your advice. Your postdoc who has found something “you just would not believe” and then another email four hours later with the subject, “RE: Never mind, false alarm.” Collaborators that want stuff from you – everyone always wanting more stuff. And of course, the papers you’ve been asked to review. Reply to those later.

09:00 – 10:00 Contemplate limitless possibilities (life admin)

Because you are now your own boss, you can spend time doing whatever you want without the fear of someone always looking over your shoulder. This is good for that feeling of freedom. But also bad for the limitless possibilities for procrastination. You use this time to make some phone calls you’ve meant to make, phone your energy supplier to switch company, call to complain about the poor service from your breakdown cover. Perhaps it’s your wedding anniversary next week, and you need to shop around for that perfect gift. Get that life admin done; no one will be there to judge you. And it really does have to get done. Quick! Now’s your chance!

10:00 – 11:00 Meet undergrad

As a P.I., you will usually have a meeting scheduled at least once per week with one of the undergraduate students you are mentoring or who may be carrying out small projects in your lab. Unless you are one of those P.I.’s, who work in a research institute and never have to deal with this. As much as their enthusiasm and even naievity is admirable, undergrad meetings are usually a chaotic hour-long rant about how they don’t know what to do with their life and are they working hard enough and will everything turn out ok in the end? They look to you for all the answers. You are this great superhuman wizard who has all the answers to all the questions. You’re a P.I.!  Surely you can help them figure out what they need to do to succeed. You give this your best shot, tell them to keep motivated and apply for things then let out a sigh of relief as they leave. Your work here is done. You can’t break to them at this stage that, list most people, you’re still figuring things out, too.

11:00 – 12:00 Lab meeting

Why is the lab meeting always right before lunch? So, all you can think about is how hungry you are and how you might not get your favorite meatball sandwich after all this has finished. That shining beacon of hope in the middle of your day. You look up and the person presenting has squeezed 20 tiny graphs on one poorly labeled PowerPoint slide, and you wonder if it’s worth mentioning that no one has a clue what the speaker is talking about. No, keep thinking about the sandwich.

12:00 – 13:00 Lunch

Finally, lunch! Something you can get excited about, although you’ve ended up just grabbing a quick egg mayo – all that was left in the canteen – and you’ve had to go straight back to your office as one of your collaborators has sent you an URGENT email about that grant you are writing together. Goodbye lunch, hello frantic cost calculations and literature searches.

14:00 – 14:30 Meet postdoc

That postdoc you hired (not the awesome one, that other one) wanted a meeting. You’re stuck with this guy for another two years so you might as well try to get on board with his crazy ideas. You listen to him tell you about how this thing he found and has only seen once in an experiment with no controls is going to be the next Nature paper. You smile politely and tell him to go away and conduct the experiment properly. He leaves feeling deflated but on the right path, and maybe now you can finally finish that sandwich.

14:30 – 15:00 The side earner

Most P.I.’s will have a cheeky little side earner they keep to themselves. Consulting, writing for government agencies, anything and anyone that needs help with that tiny area of expertise that you have. Grasp hold of this opportunity! And milk it for every little bit of extra science you get to actually do yourself!

15:00 – 16:00 Faculty meeting

This is the time in the week when all the P.I.’s get together to complain about everything and anything. I teach too often. I have too many students to look after. My pension is not good enough. We need better everything, now! School meetings, faculty meeting, theme meetings. All the meetings all the time. All the complaining to be done.

16:00 – 17:00 Teach

As a P.I. working within a university campus, it is often required that you teach your skills and expertise to students. So, you spend hours putting together a PowerPoint presentation that you are sure those students will love. And who wouldn’t love to hear about the regulation of DNA demethylation during the DNA damage response? It is riveting material. You get there to find half the students haven’t bothered to turn up. Three are asleep at the back, and the rest are casually glancing at their phones. Who cares, it’s home time! Well not really, finishing at 5 pm would be nice, wouldn’t it? What you really find yourself doing is finally having time to reply to all those emails and write that grant! Woo!

This is just a typical day in the life of P.I. There are so many more things that are expected of the P.I. You also need to squeeze in review papers, write your own papers, read someone’s thesis. You will be asked to examine PhD vivas now that you are an expert in your field. This means reading someone’s entire thesis and preparing questions — exhausting stuff.

There’s also a lot of perks to the job, no one is going to feel sorry for you when you’ve been invited to speak at yet another conference in Mexico this month, and then you’re off again to New York in a month. We all know you will spend half a day giving a talk and then spend a week getting a free holiday out of this trip. So, the life of P.I. can be busy. But it’s not all bad.


Fancy writing for Tipbox? Got an awesome story to tell? Then we want to hear! Drop us an email at tipbox@abcam.com with story pitches, ideas, hilarious bants, or maybe you just want a bit of a chat. Whatever it is, we want it. And then we'll share it. You may or may not become instantly famous.