What does a Principal Investigator do?

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  • Written By: Carol Francois
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 02 November 2019
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A principal investigator is an academic researcher who receives funding from external agencies to conduct research into a specific item or area. Although the investigator is responsible for all the research, he or she may hire research assistants, associates, or other academics to assist on the project. There are three primary tasks completed by the principal investigator: applying for funding, completing the research, and publishing the results.

In order to become a principal investigator, you must have successfully completed a doctoral degree. Funding for research projects are provided by a wide range of research institutions, post-secondary education organizations, and private corporations. For positions in publicly funded institutions, candidates are typically required to complete other duties, in addition to research. For example, a principal investigator in a university has a specific teaching load that he or she is expected to complete.

The primary task of a principal investigator is to apply for funding. He or she is responsible for identifying potential projects or sources of funding within his or her area of expertise. Almost all funding or granting agencies have a structured application process. The academic must submit a research digest, indicating exactly what they intend to research, methodology, and time line. If there are any expected results or outcome, it must be included in the application.


It is important to note that many research projects are multi-year. Funding is provided on an annualized basis, with strict reporting requirements on how the funds were spent. In general, each grant provides a specific budget for staff, equipment, and materials. Any specific restrictions on how the funds can be spent are provided in the digest and must be followed.

Completing the actual research project typically requires additional staff, resources, and support. In the humanities, many investigators complete the majority of the work themselves, but in the sciences, there is typically a team of people on each project. Hiring staff, setting project time lines, and monitoring progress take up a significant amount of the investigator's time.

The end product for most research is a published research paper. However, private companies may want exclusive rights to the research and the final results. In this situation, the results are not published, but provided directly to the firm who funded the research. It is important to remember that all academic staff are required to publish a specific number of articles in reputable journals or magazines each year. Most combine their research and publishing requirements into one project.


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Post 7

@TreeMan - I'm not positive, but I think a lot of the clinical research investigators come from universities. I even think some doctors do personal research that they can publish about different treatments.

I think most of the reasoning behind that is that researchers at a university would be more impartial toward the results than someone who was getting paid by the government or the pharmaceutical company and could be swayed one way or another toward writing a result.

Does anyone know of any private companies that offer principal investigator jobs? I'm sure pharmaceutical companies are one, and I've heard some controversy over oil companies having employees write scientific reports. What are some other industries?

Post 6

I always thought it would be interesting to be the principal investigator for a clinical trial. You would be one of the first people to get to experiment with a new drug and see whether or not it worked.

I think it would be especially cool if you were the first person to report on a drug that cured cancer or some other major disease.

Are the people who run things like FDA clinical trials university researchers, or are they employed by the government just to do research?

Post 5

I think it all comes down to the professor. When I was in college, I had professors with a lot of grad students who taught a lot of courses, and they were excellent at it. At the same time, I had professors who you could tell hated to teach. I think it is just a trade off.

It is just the way the system is set up that principal investigators who want to do research often have to be at universities where teaching is required. At the same time, some people really want to teach at the university level for a living and have research be secondary.

Personally, I would be most interested in the teaching part.

Post 4

@Monika - Having a university level course load can be pretty time consuming, though, depending on the subject. When I was a grad student, my advisor had five students working on individual projects as well as a few of his own personal projects. I addition to all of this, he had to teach 10 to 12 hours of classes every year. That's a pretty similar load for a lot of professors.

Researchers can hire additional staff if they allocate the money in their grants. Even then, the staff is usually just an undergraduate student who rarely have all of the skills to analyze data or write manuscripts for publication.

Post 3

I see no problem with universities requiring their principal investigators to teach classes. It seems like this is a standard practice in the industry and they should have no trouble juggling their duties.

As the article said, principal investigators can hire people to help them with their projects! It's not like most of them have to do all the work on their own.

Post 1

I really don't think that principal investigators should also be required to teach. A good research does not necessarily make a good teacher, you know?

When I was in college I remember taking a few classes with professors that mentioned they were doing research or whatever. These were usually my least favorite classes. These professors were usually fairly inaccessible and seemed pretty uninterested in the teaching process.

I think researchers should research, and teachers should teach. No one should have to do both!

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