Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde (or, as I like to call her, Dr. J) has a post up about the very interesting topic of PIs who continue to work at the bench physically performing experiments in their own laboratories. She was very impressed by the time-management skills and dedication to benchwork that this requires:
[A]ny tenured PI still doing experiments probably has some seriously efficient work habits, in addition to a deep-seated love for the benchwork. Hats off to you, Unnamed PI.
Needless, to say, PhysioProf has some opinions about this topic.
Before we get to my opinion, I also want to share with you Dr. J's good explanation of some of the benefits of PIs performing experiments, that go beyond the performing of those experiments:
Since he's down in the lab doing experiments, he's readily accessible to help troubleshoot other folks' experimental woes, and to help recognize when someone's seeing something Rilly Cool (I'm sure PP had a post about this, but can't find it, sorry). Seems like an obvious point, but again I know a lot of PIs who hole up in their offices to write grants (understandable....) and as a result miss out on times where they could easily give a boost to a lab-member's science.
I haven't physically performed an experiment since the first year after I started my lab. However, I do not just sit in my office with the door closed on my computer all day when I am in town. Rather, I make the rounds of the lab at least once a day, checking in on people's experiments, seeing what is going on, helping with troubleshooting, etc.
And I spend explicitly bracketed time on a regular basis with each of the small project-based teams within my lab discussing design and planning of experiments, analysis of data, construction of data figures and manuscripts, troubleshooting, and long range project planning and time management.
If a PI likes to physically perform experiments, and she can find the time to do so, then by all means go for it. But it is a total crock that it's some sort of moral victory to do so, and some sort of moral failing for a PI to not perform experiments with her own hands. (And I know this is not what Dr. J is implying with her post, but this pernicious idea is out there.)
Frankly, I am no more capable of physically performing experiments with my own hands than any of the trainees in my lab, and by now, probably less. What I am more capable of doing is writing grants that keep the lab well-funded so trainees can, you know, get paid and eat and have a place to sleep and shit. And I am more capable of mentoring my trainees and guiding their science in the ways I described above than anyone else in my lab. And I am more capable of getting invited to deliver seminars at other institutions where I sell the work of my trainees as being exciting, valuable, and scientifically important so that they attract attention when they, you know, are looking for their own independent positions.
Based on all this, it would be a disservice to my trainees, my lab as a whole, and our scientific progress for me to spend time sitting at the bench doing experiments. It is vastly more productive for me to spend my time on high-leverage tasks like working on grants and manuscripts, mentoring my trainees and guiding their science, and traveling to deliver seminars and invited conference presentations to keep my trainees' work prominent in our field.