Career area: Academic research group leader / principal investigator (PI) – EMBL Fellows' Career Service

EMBL Careers

A life science careers blog for early career researchers

This blog aims to inspire early career researchers exploring different career options. We provide interview-based profiles of life scientists working in diverse science-related careers and articles on a broad range of career-related topics, with new content added on a regular basis.

Career area: Academic research group leader / principal investigator (PI)

Leading a research group as a principal investigator at a university or research institute is a common long-term career aim for PhDs and postdocs.

Roles and responsibilities

The exact responsibilities and conditions for a PI role vary depending on the country and type of institution – for example, how much teaching is involved, and whether the position is tenure-track, permanent or for a defined period. 

The responsibilities of the role are likely familiar to early career researchers. We nevertheless include some of the important aspects below as a reminder: 

  • Establish and run a research group:
    • Set the research vision and scientific direction of the group.
    • Attract funding by writing grant applications.
    • Recruit and lead a research team; supervise and mentor masters, PhD students and other team members. Establish an organizational framework for the lab and manage the budget.
    • Oversee the group’s research – including providing guidance on projects and scientific good practices.
      • Some PIs also continue to carry out research work themselves.
    • Establish and manage scientific collaborations.
    • Oversee the dissemination of the labs’ research outputs (findings, protocols, materials) through publications, talks, data/code deposits and other activities.
      • If applicable, liaise with the institution’s tech transfer office regarding innovations with commercial potential.
  • Contribute to teaching and academic administration duties (e.g. committees) at your institution.
  • Provide scientific service to the community (e.g. peer reviewing manuscripts and grant applications, participation in working groups, conference organisation, PhD examinations).
  • Further develop and share expertise in your research field, by remaining up to date with/contributing to the literature, and attending/presenting at conferences.

Knowledge and skills

The EMBL Fellows’ Competency Framework describes competencies that can support an academic research career.  This was developed based on interviews with EMBL group leaders.

List of competencies in the EMBL Fellows’ Competency Framework, grouped into 6 areas. For a full description of each competency, please see the linked document.

Language and teaching requirements

A common question from postdocs interested in roles in Europe is whether teaching experience will be required and whether knowledge of the local language is necessary. We asked about this in a careers and skills survey carried out in autumn 2020 (summary / full results here).

  • Regarding teaching:
    • For research institutes not associated with a university, most respondents (12/19) indicated that teaching experience is not a consideration in hiring decisions.
    • For respondents based at university departments or university-associated institutes, the majority of respondents (7/12) indicated that – whilst some teaching experience would be advantageous – excellent candidates will be considered without this.
    • For university departments, at least some experience is usually expected or advantageous – but for most this did not have to be extensive (only 2/45 indicated that extensive teaching experience was required).
  • We also note that the type of institution seems to correlate with language requirements – with group leaders in university departments often needing at least some knowledge of the local language. This may be linked to undergraduate courses being taught in the local language.

Career entry and progression

Many junior principal investigators are recruited via open, competitive calls. However, sometimes departments are willing to consider hiring candidates outside the regular calls, particularly if their research fits well and the candidate can bring in start-up funding that will help establish the group (e.g. in Germany, Emmy Noether; UK, various Career Development Awards). Faculty members report that they are open to being contacted by potential candidates when there is no open call to discuss potential opportunities (see our survey here). 

There have been several attempts to shed some transparency on what factors are considered in faculty hiring decisions – including:

as well as other interesting quantitative analyses, including

and discussions including:

We highly recommend the resources above. During your postdoc, these can help guide your priorities. If you are still a PhD student or plan a second postdoc position, it is also important to consider carefully what you will need to get from your (next) postdoc to achieve your career aim, and choose a postdoc role carefully with this in mind.

We also note that, while in most cases it is possible to enter a PI role directly from a postdoc, in some countries a researcher position can be a typical or optional intermediate step between postdoc and official group leader role. It is therefore helpful to understand potential career paths and specific requirements for becoming a PI in the countries you are applying to. We include some resources for choosing a postdoc and understanding career structures in different countries in the ‘want to learn more’ section, below.

Career progression: We estimate that more than 90% of EMBL alumni who obtain a group leader role remain in research principal investigator roles or gain more senior leadership positions (e.g. departmental head) [based on our career tracking study]. Some remain at the institution they were a junior principal investigator at for their entire career, but others move their lab during their career. A small number (~5%) transition to industry roles or very occasionally move into a service/infrastructure role (1%) or leave research (<1%).

Why consider this career area?

In our careers and skills survey, scientists working in PI roles told us that they appreciate that their work:

  • is intellectually stimulating
  • allows me to set my own direction and think independently
  • allows me to be creative

Want to learn more?

Additional resources on this blog

Articles on academic careers

Preparing for an academic interview – a career panel discussion (Part II)
Preparing for an academic interview – a career panel discussion (Part I)
How do group leaders recruit postdocs?

Sources / further reading


Career structures by country

Below are some resources about academia across different European countries. Discussions with mentors/alumni/people in your network will also be key to gain up-to-date knowledge about the culture and career structure in your target institutes/departments (see also slides on academic networking from USCF here). 

  • LERU academic career maps for Belgium (Flanders), Finland, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland (German-speaking area) and the UK. The maps show the different research positions available in an institution, the levels of responsibility, how they are funded at each stage and how a researcher may progress from one level to the next.
  • More comprehensive information about academic career structures by country from the European University Institute (focusing mainly on traditional universities as written for social scientists/humanities students) 

Planning your path – choosing the right postdoc


Further internal resources

For EMBL fellows

Within EMBL, further internal resources (e.g. recorded career seminars) can also be found on our career exploration intranet pages.

Informational interviews

For all career areas, we highly recommend first learning more about the careers using the resources above, then conducting informational interviews to gain further insights directly from former PhDs working in career areas that interest you.

Last update: November 2022

EU flag and text, co-funded by the European Union
The EMBL Fellows' Career Service incorporates the EMBL Interdisciplinary Postdoc (EIPOD) career development programme. EI3POD and EIPOD4 have received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreements 664726 (2015-2020) and 847543 (2019-present) respectively.