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.