MsPhD has some interesting responses in the comments to my post from a few days ago addressing the issue of strategic planning of an experimental research program. Here are a few particular excerpts that I will address below the fold:
Our mentors, beg to inform you, have ZERO novel ideas of their own.
I have NEVER met or heard of a 'mentor' who knows the ins and outs of technical things as well as the lab members do.
In this day and age, there are no PIs who can keep up.
[I]t belies the Apprenticeship part of the system. To get new things to work at the bench, you have to be willing to work at it. Yourself. Your mentor will not help you.
Just to be clear, MsPhD is speaking here about her own experiences--which seem to have involved a severe lack of effective mentorship. This is very sad, and represents a failure of the system.
However, this does not mean that there are no good PIs who are highly creative, excellent methodologically, and extremely effective mentors. There are many.
We really, really, really needs to get past the canard that it is a failing of mentorship and lab leadership if a PI does not (or even cannot) sit down at the bench side by side with a trainee ("apprentice") and teach the trainee the physical process of performing a particular technique. This has nothing to do with being a good PI and an effective mentor. It bears no correlation with whether a PI is good at generating novel ideas or techniques.
I know that it is hard to see from the very limited perspective of a post-doc who spends her day at the bench physically performing experiments, but the best troubleshooter of an existing technique and the most creative inventor of new techniques can be a PI who couldn't possibly sit down and perform them herself.
Sitting at the bench or having good hands has nothing to do with being a good PI. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. There is no positive correlation.
Some of the best PIs I know were nearly hopeless at the bench as trainees (and presumably would still be if they tried to do benchwork). And some of the most ineffective PIs I know--whose trainees are left to hang out to dry with no guidance at all and who tend to run away from these labs after a few years of no productivity at all--are themselves outstanding experimentalists and spend a lot of time at the bench.
In fact, if anything, there may be some negative correlation. Those PIs who are outstanding experimentalists could be highly effective post-docs without even beginning to develop some of the skills required to be a PI: leading a group, troubleshooting experiments you didn't perform yourself, being creative without being at the bench, etc.
Those PIs who are not outstanding experimentalists had no choice as post-docs but to develop these other skills, or else fail. So they developed them. And now as PIs, surprise surprise, they are effective, while many of their "better hands" compatriots turn out to have no choice but to spend most of their time at the bench themselves doing the experiments that they cannot lead others at performing, and not only have not developed talent at mentoring, but also no time for it.
It sounds like MsPhD has experienced an unfortunate lack of good mentorship, and her perspective on the role of an effective PI has been, not surprisingly, colored heavily by this. However, although she may not know this, that lack has nothing whatsoever with whether her PI can or cannot sit down at the bench and perform an experiment. That is a total red herring.