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About Sickkids
About SickKids

June 17, 2014

A “live-fire” exercise in landing a Principal Investigator job

By Mackenzie Hill-Strathy

For SickKids research trainees Laura Anderson, Valentin Jaumouille and Lisa Muiznieks, the journey to becoming a Principal Investigator (PI) is just as long, if not longer, than becoming a staff physician, requiring the completion of multiple postdoctoral research programs. In today’s workforce, finding employment as a PI is becoming more challenging. Up-and-coming scientists need to find a competitive edge to stand out amongst the pool of other applicants. 

Last week, Anderson, Jaumouille and Muiznieks participated in PI Prep School, a program founded by Dr. John Brumell, a Senior Scientist at SickKids, through the SickKids Research Institute’s Research Training Centre last year. The program was established as an initiative to enhance the quality of mentoring and career development of trainees at SickKids.

After preparing a written application to a mock job ad, Anderson, Jaumouille and Muizieks were chosen to participate in this year’s program – a full day crash course on how to land a PI job. From participating in mock interviews to presenting to a panel of scientists, these trainees were given the opportunity to solidify their future research plan and receive feedback that could help them land their dream research job.

“It’s a live-fire exercise,” said Brumell. “By putting trainees on the spot in front of an audience of their peers and colleagues, the process really pushes them to excel. After going through this they will be very well prepared.”  

Achieving success in the PI interview process hinges on the ability of the trainee to detail the specifics of what he or she wants to research, while still explaining the greater significance.  

“As a scientist you tend to always look at very small, precise concepts,” said Anderson, an epidemiology trainee whose research examines the early origins of chronic diseases. “Realizing this taught me to step back and take a look at the big picture, at the greater context of my research.”

Jaumouille, a trainee in the Cell Biology, agreed that finding this balance is the most difficult aspect of preparing a PI job application. “It’s about finding that sweet spot – the crossroads where innovation and practicality meet.”

As the job market for PIs has narrowed, it is critical to for trainees to market themselves and network with members of the research community.

“Your research may be awesome, but you also need to build a presence and make connections with the people you want to be working with,” said Brumell.

In order to stand out from the competition, it is essential for trainees to be able to promote themselves as an independent scientist.

“Throughout my PhD and postgrad, we were trained to focus on the accomplishments of the team,” said Muiznieks, a trainee in the Molecular Structure and Function. “At this phase in our careers, we are transitioning to emphasizing our individual accomplishments.”

For Jaumouille, the most positive aspect of the program was the feedback. “Usually when you hear back from a job interview you just know if you got the job or not, you never actually get to hear what you did wrong.”

PI Prep School is a one-of-a-kind program that Brumell plans to continue and expand in the future. “The SickKids community fosters learning,” said Brumell. “My hope is that both the interviewees and the audience will walk away from the program ready to excel at this process in the real world.”