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Obviously a Principal Investigator (PI) has many responsibilities toward his or her subordinates, including mentoring them, helping to direct their research, providing funding, and resolving difficulties.

But, in practice, it is often possible for a PI to avoid many of these responsibilities and "get away with it". By this I mean that failing to address these responsibilities has little effect on the PI's own career.

For example, it is often understood that a PI should have some input when PhD students are writing manuscripts. A PI with a large lab may have a policy of leaving students to fend for themselves in this regard. With some intelligent selection at the hiring stage, this PI may ensure that most of his or her students are already capable of writing papers with no assistance. The few that slip through will fail to have a productive PhD, but this will not directly impact the PIs career all that much.

Similarly, a PI may be unable to come up with good research ideas, but this can be compensated for by actively seeking out graduate students who do have good ideas. Since it is rare to explicitly state in science who had the idea for a project, the PIs CV will still look good thanks to the papers the students end up publishing.

However, an example of an obligation is applying for grants. If a PI is ineffective at securing grants, it is very unlikely that their career will not suffer. Students and junior lab personnel simply don't have the knowledge or experience needed to put together a good application, and while post-docs can secure their own funding, the majority of funds in a typical lab is brought in by the PI. If the PI decides to not bother himself with obtaining funding, the lab will become financially hamstrung, research will suffer, and even to a casual outside observer it will be obvious that the scientific output of the research group is appreciably constrained.

My question is, which responsibilities cannot be avoided by a PI without necessarily producing severe negative consequences? If after a cursory examination, a PI's career seems to be going well, which responsibilities can we be certain have not been neglected?

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    That's actually a pretty good summary of how things actually work in my experience. At least, this question could be like a mini-instruction manual for the people I have "worked for" in the past. I also think you have answered your own question for the most part. Are you asking what responsibilties in addition to grant-writing cannot be avoided? Well, teaching comes to mind. Also, "which responsibilities cannot be avoided by a PI cannot be avoided". You have some repetition in there. – Faheem Mitha Apr 10 '14 at 22:56
  • I've never seen the phrase "obligate responsibility" before, nor does google seem to know if it. Did you invent it? – Faheem Mitha Apr 10 '14 at 23:06
  • I'm also curious about your reason for asking this question. Of course, that is not something you need to specify. – Faheem Mitha Apr 10 '14 at 23:12
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    @FaheemMitha As for my reason, mostly curiosity. Clearly, just because two people are both eminent professors with an impressive body of published research, doesn't preclude them from being very different in many ways (for instance, management style). But in what ways can we know that they must not be different (since we have the non-trivial information that they are successful scientists)? In other words, you could say I'm asking about common features which all successful PIs can be expected to have, by virtue of having been able to attain success. – Superbest Apr 10 '14 at 23:58
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    I see. A more blunt way to put it is - if "two people are both eminent professors with an impressive body of published research" doesn't preclude one of them being a crook, and the other one being talented. :-) Anyway, it's a good question. – Faheem Mitha Apr 11 '14 at 0:01
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My question is, which responsibilities cannot be avoided by a PI without necessarily producing severe negative consequences? If after a cursory examination, a PI's career seems to be going well, which responsibilities can we be certain that they have not neglected?

In my (extensive) experience with large labs, the only responsibilities that a senior professor can never delegate are networking, certain types of review work (e.g., reviewing for well-respected grants) and certain committee / administration / board work. Basically everything else seems to be fair game.

I find it interesting that your prime example are grant proposals - in many groups in my field, writing grant proposals is mostly a postdoc responsibility, so that is certainly not a duty that is never delegated. However, that might be an european speciality.

I would say your question is actually standing on ill assumptions. You assume that successful profs. are distinguished from no successful ones via the things that they still do themselves. In practice, this is generally not correct. In my experience, most large labs work well because the prof. has a track record of acquiring good people to do things for her/him, not because (s)he does so much her/himself. Further, successful profs. are able to establish mutually beneficial relations with those good people. That is, if you want long-lasting success, you cannot expect e.g., your postdocs to just write grant proposals for you all day because you told them to. You need to find a model how it is actually in their best interest to do so. All successful profs. I know are supremely good at binding strong people to them via the power of mutual interests.

Now, all of this is not to say that a prof. has to delegate everything, or that any given professor even wants to. I know many successful professors that would never delegate some aspects of their job (for instance teaching), either because of a sense of responsibility or because they just honestly like doing certain things themselves. This is just to say that I have seen almost anything being delegated in different large groups.

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