The PI Spectrum

May 09, 2019

As I’m nearing the end of my academic training, I’ve been thinking a lot about the ‘types’ of PIs I’ve worked with, what ‘types’ of PIs I work well with, and what ‘type’ of PI I may want to be one day.

So I made the following fun PI spectrum along with what I’ve experienced as the benefits of each ‘type’ of PI, their pitfalls, and whether working with such a ‘type’ of PI may be the right fit for a particular student. I’ve worked with all of these ‘types’ in varying capacity. It’s worth noting that different people succeed in different settings. And you may need one ‘type’ of PI in one stage of your career and a different ‘type’ in another. No one ‘type’ is better than another. Be honest with yourself and find what works for you.


1. The cheerleader

The type: Always enthusiastic, cheerleaders will support you in whatever you wish to pursue. They do not know how to say no. You tell them an idea, and they always say, “Yes, go for it!”

The benefit: Having your ideas supported feels great. Having someone tell you great job is also very encouraging and motivating. You feel like this type of person really cares and supports you, especially emotionally.

The pitfall: Not every idea is a good idea. Without constructive criticism, you will likely not learn to distinguish between a good idea from a bad one. You may end up wasting a lot of time pursuing a poorly thought out project.

Is this type of PI right for you? If you are the type of person to be very self critical, this type of PI may provide a wonderful balance. You frankly do not need someone to criticize you further; you get enough of that from yourself! You just need someone to offer emotional support and encouragement, and ultimately to connect you to resources, opportunities, and other people who can offer more practical guidance.


2. The robot

The type: Socially unaware and highly efficient, robots get straight to the point. There is very little chit chat or beating around the bush. If your scientific rationale is off, they will bluntly let you know.

The benefit: If something is wrong, it will be made evident to be addressed right away. This type of PI knows what they are doing and will make themselves be heard.

The pitfall: Such dry criticism is often very stressful and even painful. Not every person deals with it well. You may be led to feel like not just your ideas are stupid but you are just a stupid person.

Is this type of PI right for you? If you are emotionally mature and capable of taking criticism, this type of PI may help you grow tremendously. They offer a lot of heavily critical but useful advice and guidance. They’re not intentionally mean. Ultimately, they are critical because they want you to succeed. But they just seem genuinely unaware that you have feelings and may not be aware of the poor framing of their criticism. Do not expect this type of PI to understand your emotional needs or infer your emotional state though. You have to also be very direct and capable of standing up for yourself if needed.


3. The helicopter

The type: A micro-manager at heart, helicopters know exactly what should be done. And they want you to carry out their vision exactly as they’ve envisioned it. They want to know exactly what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.

The benefit: They are highly hands-on and very accessible. There is a very clear plan as to how to get from point A to point B. They may also check in very often to see how you are progressing so you do not need to ask for help; they will actively offer their aid. You will likely gain a lot of tangible skills very quickly.

The pitfall: You may not learn how to create a plan to get from point A to point B because it is always done for you. You may not have as much flexibility to explore or make your own mistakes and learn from them. Your creativity and pursuits may be limited by what the PI is familiar and comfortable with.

Is this type of PI right for you? If you do not have much experience in doing research, you will learn a lot from working with this type of PI. However, you will want to be proactive in asking questions and demanding explanations rather than just doing what you are told.


4. The demi-god

The type: As big shots with big names, demi-gods have seemingly infinite money and resources. Too bad you’ll never see them though.

The benefit: You are able to direct and pursue your own research interests in a financially secure setting. You have the freedom to do as you please.

The pitfall: You are solely responsible for your own progress. If you stop working, no one will notice or hold you accountable. If you are indecisive, no one will not be available to help you come to a decision. You may waste a lot of time twiddling your thumbs, trying to figure out what to do next.

Is this type of PI right for you? If you are highly independent and self-motivated, this type of PI will be great for you. You will basically have unlimited resources to push forward your own ideas. But don’t expect any support other than financial. You will likely want to seek out additional support in all other aspects on your own. But luckily, their big name will help you open many doors.


As with the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator or any other reduced dimensionality representation of traits, in reality, PIs fall on a spectrum. Also the same PI may interact in different ways with different students. Ultimately, the PI plays an important role in defining a student’s training experience but so does the institutional environment, department, colleagues, and many many many other factors.

So. What ‘type’ of PI are you?
What ‘type’ of PI is your PI?
What ‘type’ of PI will you be?