Hardly eHarmony – Your First Date with a PI

We just finished a very large grant on Friday with an experienced investigator at our institution. It was a three week odyssey of late night phone calls and e-mails. We had never met her or worked with her prior to this project, and to say it was stressful was an understatement. We had a wonderful time working with her, and worked very hard on her behalf. But at the same time that we were putting together an application, and learning the science, we had to learn to work together at top speed, and make very few mistakes in the process.

We pride ourselves on being able to anticipate and stay one step ahead of our investigators’ needs – and it’s a bit harder to do that when you’re learning to work with a new investigator, especially in a situation when both of you are under a bit of pressure.

What do you do, when you’re getting to know a new investigator, and the first project or two you work on is an application or a progress report with a short deadline?

  1. Ask the investigator about their research. Take a moment to have the new PI tell you about their work. It’s important to hear the investigator explain their work in their own words.
  2. Take the initiative – volunteer to take on aspects of the application or the report and ask the PI how often you should check back to share drafts, review work, and ask for input.
  3. Be transparent about your thinking – state that you’d be happy to draft the consultant letter for the PI’s review, state what you think the role of the consultant is on the grant, ask what the PI normally pays consultants, and ask if the PI would prefer to send the letters to the consultants directly or if they would like to be copied on your correspondence. When you are transparent about your thinking you help the PI know how you work and that you will completely address the issues they care about. They don’t have to worry or follow up on the small issues.
  4. Look for subtle cues and hints about their communication preferences – in the environment we work in ( a medical school) we learn clinic schedules quickly, and by the volume of e-mail, you can pick up when an investigator likes to communicate. For this proposal, my investigator’s peak time was 8pm on e-mail. I was always on e-mail at 8pm each night.
  5. Ask questions – what do you need from me? Deliver results, even simple results to build confidence. Addressing low hanging fruit builds confidence that you are the person he or she can trust and it helps the relationship to gel quickly.
  6. Be available as much as possible during crunch times. For the short duration, you’re in it together – and you’re the resource for your PI on this application. Be available as much as you can and you’ve earned the biggest gold star ever.
  7. Smooth out any rough patches with honesty and directness. Learning how to work together quickly is never perfect and snafus are bound to happen – it’s understandable. They are harder to handle because everyone is tired and stressed out. Address them, fix the issue and move on.

What steps have you taken to put a new PI at ease as you’ve jumped into the fray? What worked, and what did you learn? Do tell!

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