I think most people are somewhat familiar with the chain of command in other jobs: CEO, CFO, other COs, supervisors, superiors, etc. But, if you have never worked in a lab, I’m assuming you have no idea what the hierarchy is. The lines are blurry, but I’m going to tell you in general how we all line up.
Principal Investigator- also known as PI
This is the bossman. It’s his (or her) lab and solely he is in charge of hiring and firing people within his lab. He is also the money. Part of science is applying for grants (asking
for money) so that labs can be stocked with all sorts of things!
What kind of things does a lab need? In addition to all those beakers, flasks and stir bars that most people immediately think of, labs also need freezers, refrigerators, centrifuges, pipettes, cold boxes and all kinds of consumables (gloves, tubes, etc). A lab will also need chemicals (zomg, chemicals!). I would estimate that within my current lab, we have ~ 200 different kinds of chemicals in either liquid or powder format.
A PI will also need a staff because most have to give up doing hands on research and instead become the brain of the operation. He reads, he pulls information together, he reviews papers and writes. His staff is almost exclusively doing the hands-on research. That’s where the rest of these people come in. I’m going to start at the bottom and work my way up.
High School / Undergraduate Students
High school students typically come to work during the summers to gain experience and see what it’s like to work in a lab. I can’t imagine doing that in high school. I found a lab to be overwhelming after graduating college so kudos to high school students who have the confidence to do this!
Undergraduate students will spend anywhere from just a semester/summer in a lab to all four years. Some only work during the school year but others will stay on all summer. Most will use their research towards their degree (as in writing a thesis at the end of their college career) and the rest are probably looking to put it on their resume/med school application.
This is where I started my life in lab. Technicians are usually people who have just graduated college with a degree in science. In my case, I coupled that with not knowing at all what I was doing with my life. I felt as if I was only qualified to work in a lab so that’s what I pursued. Typical turnover for technicians is about 2-3 years. That’s enough time for the newly minted graduate to say “Hey, science rocks!” or “I’m going into finance.”
Some technicians are older, however. They enjoy the work and stay. I know some career technicians and, quite frankly, they are awesome. While it’s low on the totem pole, techs are really essential to efficiently running a lab, especially very large labs.
Each lab uses technicians differently, but in general, techs do a lot of lab grunt work. I was in charge of our personal stockroom and needed to order things in a timely manner so we didn’t run out. I also had to maintain lab consumables that required a procedure to them. What the hell does that mean? I was in charge of preparing tips, stock solutions, and common lab reagents. These were things that you couldn’t buy directly from the store but had to mix together a few things before it was ready to use.
Most technicians also get to do research. Their tech responsibilities come first, but that normally can’t fill an entire 40 hour week, so a technician will work with an older lab member on their project and, if they’re confident enough, branch out on a project of their own. Being a technician is an excellent learning experience for anyone who wants to work in science. You learn so much and will gain an appreciation for any technicians you meet in the future.
I’ve heard them also called “pre-doctoral students,” but that’s just silly. These are students who have joined a graduate program and will do their doctoral research in the lab. How long does it take to do all your doctoral research? It depends, but on average it’s ~ 4-5 years. I was a graduate student for six years but only five of those were doing research in a laboratory (my first year was all classes and much like college). I’d say this group is the most stable group in the lab. They are there for a decent chunk of time and know very well how things run.
Graduate students are watched in the beginning by older graduate students or post docs, but their goal is to become independent researchers. They are meeting with other professors out of the lab that govern how their research is going and how they are growing as scientists. By the end of their time there, they have written and defended a thesis and are ready to become post docs (or give up science all together because they are so burnt out…)
One small note: different PIs have different traditions for graduating Ph.D.s from their lab. My PI has us sign the post-defense champagne bottle with our names and defense date. We were all numbered, as well. I believe I was the 21st graduate student to get a Ph.D. in my doctoral lab. Another PI has the new Ph.D. open the bottle of champagne and wherever the cork hits the ceiling, he must sign his name and date. Getting my Ph.D. was one of the best days of my life.
Post Doctoral Associates (sometimes also called Post Doctoral Fellows or, more simply, Post Docs)
These are the lab workers that have defended their Ph.D.s and are continuing to do research (aka – they are totally insane!). In all but rare cases, these people have left their doctoral labs and picked up research in new labs. Many stay in the same field but some branch out. Personally, my doctoral work was in cancer and viruses but my post doctoral work is in cellular signaling. I wanted to broaden my horizons. Post docs usually hang around for 2 – 5 years. Yes, that’s another 2 – 5 years of being a lab rat beyond your graduate work. You are no longer required to meet with outside professors to check your progress and are considered an independent scientist.
If you’re a post doc too long, the institution you work for will typically rename you a staff scientist.
Post docs and staff scientists will eventually branch off, start their own labs, and begin this process of getting money, hiring technicians, graduate students and post docs so the cycle will continue.
Now that I’ve explained the set up. I can explain the list of authors on a published paper.
Consider this reference (Figure 58.1):
Anyone can write the paper: graduate student, post doc, staff scientist, technician, even undergrads! The person who primarily did the work is listed first and the other who helped are listed next. The final name in the list is the PI in charge of these people. Sometimes labs collaborate so the last two or three names might all be PIs, but the other ordering of names remains the same.
Aside from the PI, who is considered the most senior in the lab? The person who has been there the longest. If you have a technician in your lab who has been there for 14 years, they are well respected. If you are a new post doc to the lab, you are relying on the graduate students and the post docs to teach you the ropes. If you are a new graduate student, you are revering the post docs and elder graduate students. The lines are blurry but the general hierarchy is there.
As a final thought for this post, here’s a comic from www.phdcomics.com (love them!)
Me, myself and I