(PI: Project Initiator, I get this term from proposal-writing) I am an undergraduate student (and have been off and on over the last 7 [now almost 8] years). I went to a professor at my university with a novel idea. I was able to provide good answers to their questions and they are willing to conduct the experiment with me. This would likely take the form of a "Research Problems" 1 to 3 credit course this semester, and next semester, and a few grants, including possibly a grant to work over the summer on the project (they would be listed as a sponsor).

I am wondering about credit, I came up with the idea, and I would mostly be focusing on this (and maybe one other project at a time) for the next year (I am planning to take less classes to focus on it, and even graduate even later). It would probably be less of an "assistant" role. I am wondering about how credit would be shared or what my professor might expect. I know often the first name on the paper matters a lot, would the professor expect to put their name first? If so, if I take on the role I expect too, would it be interpreted that I was an undergraduate assistant of some sort that sort of helped? I just don't want to lose credit/recognition for the idea and be recognized for the work I am planning to do (as a foundation on which to submit future articles -- possibly without an institution or company attached).

I am hoping to maybe become an independent researcher, and I want to start building my reputation with this.

Thank you


I think I may have misunderstood the term "PI" a bit. I just basically meant the person who came up with the idea and got the project started/organized (but not necessarily remaining in a managing role or providing oversight). Perhaps I was a little "overzealous" in saying it.

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    I think it would be good if you could mention the field you are working in. My feeling is that it might depend a lot on that. Commented Jan 1, 2022 at 6:49
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    PI is not "project initiator" its "principle investigator", and generally refers to the individual who has legal responsibility for an externally funded project. Commented Jan 1, 2022 at 12:27
  • @IanSudbery Thank you for the clarification, that is a good thing for me to know. When you say "externally funded project" could you clarify, the context in which I learned this term could imply that, but was also used for projects internal too an organization. Commented Jan 2, 2022 at 2:09
  • @SeverinSchraven Quantum communications/physics Commented Jan 2, 2022 at 2:09
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    The term PI may be used internally for the person who is officially responsible a project Again, it would be the person accountable, even via non-legal means, for the spending of the budget. Its highly unlikely that an institution would ever consider an undergrad a PI in this situation, as it has no way to enforce that accountability on a non-employee. Now, PI is also often used, informally to mean "the boss". If someone refers to "my PI" they probably mean their boss. Commented Jan 3, 2022 at 1:13

2 Answers 2


If you enter into a project with another person, you should set the expectations of everyone at the beginning. You need to discuss this with the advisor, If you tell them that you are hoping to be first (or sole) author on the work when done, then that has implications about how much they need to guide you and participate.

If you make it clear that you want the "credit", then you are also making it clear that you want to do the intellectual work to make it happen. Another person could still advise you with feedback, but if they contribute intellectual content to the work then they are an author also.

Since the original idea is yours, you probably have a claim, at the moment, on first (or sole) authorship, but that can change depending on the participation of the other person.

But don't make up titles for your role, such as PI.

  • I think misunderstood the term, I recently took a course on writing proposals (NASA L'Space NWPEE Academy). Perhaps I was a little overzealous with term. Good thing for me to know before I would use it in this context haha. Not looking for sole authorship, but am looking to put the majority of the work in or at least about 50%. Didn't know if it would be appropriate to ask for primary authorship (given that that comes to fruition). Commented Jan 2, 2022 at 2:12
  • Primary authorship is a whole other thing. Most subject areas have their own principles for establishing that, being the project PI is sometimes one of them, but is my least favorite. There are whole threads here on that.
    – Bill Barth
    Commented Jan 6, 2022 at 18:53

For funded work where money is coming from your school or a government agency the Principal Investigator is the person responsible to the grantor for prompt reporting and correct use of the money according to the applicable regulations.

Government agencies typically have long documents that explain how proposals are to be prepared in response to their Requests for Proposals or similarly titled things. Your university probably has a department for grant handling called something like the Office of Sponsored Projects or similar who actually legally sends the proposal from PIs to the agencies and handles the bureaucratic issues (depending on US state and agency). Each entity will have rules on both sides for who is PI eligible mostly depending on position and educational background. Both ends must agree. Exceptions are possible, but I’ve never heard of one being granted to an undergraduate researcher. Position permanence is also part of the formula and undergrads tend to graduate before projects complete. Professorships are generally more permanent, and those kinds of personnel tend to stick around long enough to not worry about them leaving the project midstream. If you’re not at a university, then you’d have to learn all those regulations yourself or hire a specialist company to do it for you. Each agency’s programs will say if who is eligible and if companies can apply.

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    Thank you, I just took L'Space Academy, the PI basically was the person on the team who came up with the idea (and wound up leading the team). I think I was a little overzealous with the term, I will update the question. Thank you for the info. But PI != first author necessarily right? Commented Jan 2, 2022 at 2:20
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    That's right. I have a first-author paper from an unfunded project that I would not call myself the PI on. It's not really even project, just something sorta theoretical that I noodled about on dry-erase boards, chalkboards, and paper until it came together. A friend checked the equations for me before I wrote it up, and I sent it in as a solo-author journal paper. Several similar papers have come out since which I think are better, but I don't have time to pick them up and implement them in my code to or time to analyze them side-by-side. Wouldn't count myself as PI on this "project".
    – Bill Barth
    Commented Jan 2, 2022 at 16:48
  • thank you, I appreciate the detail and completeness of what you are saying. Commented Jan 2, 2022 at 21:38

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