Professor, PI or Doctor?

Jun 21 2010 Published by under Education, Tribe of Science

A comment at Prof-like Substance caught my eye.

You called yourself a PI? What's with all these biomedical people referring to a professor as a PI? In some fields a professor is a professor. An academic title is more dignified than an administrative acronym.

I have a simple poll. Please select the equation that best summarizes your view of the relative status of the honorifics of "Professor", "Doctor" and "PI". For this purpose assume we're using the generic Professor to refer to all professorial ranks, not the specific for "Full Professor". PI, as you are answering the poll, means whatever you think it means.

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In the comments you might as well expand on the rationale here.


The best I can come up with is that the smaller the group which can rightfully use the title, the better. Reflecting on this, however, it is clear to me that your definition of a PI is critical here. I tend to use Principal Investigator (sometimes Principle Investigator..YHN says meh) to mean someone who has written an application that has successfully garnered research funding. But then what do we call a n00b Asst Prof without major funding who nevertheless heads a research group? I'd probably call her a PI too, particularly if she was actively applying and otherwise giving every indication of being a person who would soon head up a major research award. A near-retirement graybeard who had pottered away without major funding for an entire career? Umm.... dang. Definitions are complicated. Help me out in the comments, eh?

38 responses so far

  • Dr Becca says:

    I chose PI>Prof>Dr, for pretty much the logic you describe up there. Obviously, anyone with a doctorate is a Dr, but they are not all professors. Likewise, you can be, for example, an adjunct Professor without having your own lab (although I suppose adjuncts are rare in science, so this may not be the soundest of reasoning). But like you say, to be a PI you do need your own lab, and this is pretty much the holy grail, amirite?
    (as for the taking-up-space graybeards, you can't do research without funding, and if you're not doing research, I wouldn't call you an "investigator." So they get demoted back down to professor)

  • Who gives a flying fuck?

  • Cassidy says:

    I think of PI and Professor as mostly equivalent, but I tend to alter my language based predominantly on who I'm talking to. I'm a grad student, so when talking to other grad students I would say "my PI". My family doesn't know what that is, though, so to them I'd say "my professor". And when talking to an undergraduate about a PI/prof, I tend to refer to them as "Doctor So-and-so.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    you can't do research without funding
    This betrays a certain myopia. Not all research costs a ton of money and there are places where institutional funds cover some of the costs. So if someone was doing rat behavior, had built up a bunch of operant chambers over the years with academic senate grants or what not...and the department covered 24 rats a semester or something....
    or, if in cognitive psych and all you needed was five computers, five push buttons and a bunch of sophomores required to participate for course credit....

  • Anonymous says:

    Bless you, DM, for remembering the little people.
    I associate PI with someone who is managing the money. I would be willing to bet that people who do research on the cheap (and aging greybeards who have never been expected to bring in money) do not call themselves PI.

  • qaz says:

    The reason a lot of people I know use "PI" is that not all people think "professor" means any professor. In particular, people in nasty hierarchical departments can get in big trouble for calling themselves a "professor" when they are only an "assistant" or an "associate" professor.
    So our friend Prof-like substance may only be Prof-like (being an assistant professor), but is definitely a PI-substance.
    Personally, I think it's a crock, and we should all just call ourselves professors. But I have found myself when faced with this sort of situation saying "I'm faculty. My official title is... ." Sometimes I say, "Oh, it's my lab. I'm the faculty here."
    PS. I do know one friend who (as an assistant professor) got out of a speeding ticket in Eastern Europe when his friend explained that this was "Herr Doktor Professor [X]" to the policeman...

  • Angela says:

    To me Dr means someone with a PhD or MD, PI = principal investigator on an active research grant and Professor is someone who has climbed up to that rung of the academic ladder. I don't think of them as mutually exclusive titles, a Professor or a Doctor can also, but don't necessarily have to be a PI.

  • leigh says:

    what do we call a postdoc who has garnered her/his own source of funding?

  • Cashmoney says:

    what do we call a postdoc who has garnered her/his own source of funding?
    "postdoc"

  • pinus says:

    @leigh
    you call them a postdoc?

  • Cashmoney says:

    You owe me a coke pinus.

  • Alex says:

    I prefer professor over PI because it encompasses my full range of responsibilities, while PI is just part of my responsibility. In physics, I rarely hear of students refer to their research advisors as their PIs. Usually they say "My advisor" or "My professor."
    To me, the responsibility of advising a research student is a broader one than the responsibility of being a PI on a grant. As PI on a grant, I am responsible for making sure that the research is conducted. As the advisor to a student, I am responsible for that student's scientific growth, including activities that are not part of a grant. Indeed, if the student show particular promise in an area not covered by a grant, it may be that my best course of action as a teacher and mentor is to help the student with a project that is not part of my grant, and is cobbled together from whatever resources I can scrounge. I am no longer that student's "PI" if the work we do is not covered by a grant, but I am that student's professor, advisor, and mentor.
    Besides, in many parts of the university the faculty advising research students may have little or no grant money (e.g. humanities, some social sciences, mathematics, the arts, etc.). "PI" is not an accurate description of the role that these faculty play, but their intellectual relationship with their students may still be very similar to yours. I prefer "professor" over "PI" because it captures the things that all of us do, irrespective of the funding situation in our disciplines.

  • chall says:

    I chose the Professor > PI > Doctor simply because I haven't hear PI as much before I moved to the US. As far as I was concerned there was Doctors (MD and PhDs) and then researchers... and then Ass. profs and Professors. If you had a chair at the uni, you were a prof. If you did independent research in your lab but didn't have a professor title, you'd be a researcher or lab head (head of a lab).
    Professorship also indicates that people "gave you a rank" whereas PI some agency gave you funding... both are achievements, just different. THen again, I assume that a professor means that you are both a PI and a doctor... a PI can be "only" a doctor.
    I guess it might be indicative that the term PI is not a commonly used word in my native tongue? Professor and doctor however are.

  • keely says:

    qaz: My first PI (when I was a freshman undergrad) once yelled at me for calling one of my course instructors a professor. Said professor has a Phd and a hell of a lot more teaching experience than PI, but he's an adjunct who ONLY teaches, so apparently he's not good enough to be called a professor. I was instructed to address him as Dr. so-and-so, but my usage of professor had been "and then my biology professor..." When discussing a teacher's relationship to me, I thought "professor" referred to "person with Phd who teaches college courses." But clearly, I had no idea what a horrible mistake I was making. Thank goodness my PI straightened me out.
    If nothing else, I suppose I did get a very early lesson about how little respect teaching-only faculty get at research focused universities.

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    I have always had a hard time taking the "PI" title seriously, because it still makes me think of Tom Selleck. Maybe James Garner or something on a good day.

  • NFQ says:

    I'm a graduate student in the physical sciences. I think I use different terms when I'm talking about the same people in different contexts. A person is a PI if I am talking about how they manage their research group ("My PI changed our meeting time to Thursday"), a professor if I am talking about their role wrt education ("What did you think of the projects Prof. So-and-so assigned in [Course Title]?"), or a doctor if I am addressing/referring to them respectfully but not directly discussing their research group or the courses they teach ("Mom, I want you to meet my advisor, Dr. So-and-so"). ... I may have mischaracterized that slightly, it's sort of off-the-cuff, but that's a decent first-order approximation. My point is that I don't think of them as differently ranked, but rather as having different connotations, different emphasis. (And someone could obviously be one, or two, of these things without being all three.)

  • PI generally means someone who is leading a research group, in my mind. (As an aside, leigh kind of has a point because postdocs applying for funding are listed on the grant as the "principal investigator".)
    Professor is a purely academic title... but that doesn't mean it's better or "more dignified". Besides I can't recall having ever called anyone by that title; I use "Dr." unless/until I'm on a first name basis.
    Bottom line: if you get twisted out of shape over what title someone uses for you, you really don't have enough to worry to about.

  • My thoughts parallel biochem belle's in @17. PI leads a research group, even if it is just him or her and a grad student. The titles professor and doctor cast wider nets - including TT/NTT, lecturers, and so on, and so on.
    But, wait, you can be a PI and not be in academia at all e.g. at a private research institution. So the PI>Prof distinction breaks down because in that case you're comparing apples and oranges. I think.

  • becca says:

    "professor" (= title and rank) > "doctor" (title only) > "PI" (NIH jargon for moneybags)
    I have remarkably strong opinions on this, based on how I've seen people respond to the different titles (i.e. using "professor" is quite beneficial for those with a certain background, using "PI" is quite detrimental for those with a certain hangup; "doctor" is safe except with those who want casual and like to joke about physicians)

  • Coturnix says:

    Herr Professor, the image that comes to mind is of a 19th century German philosopher from Yena or Freiburg - serious business. That's the top.
    Doctor, well, anyone can do that, just finish med school šŸ˜‰
    P.I.? Through 10 years of grad school I have seen the term "Principal Investigator" on grant proposals. I have not seen anyone actually use the term, certainly not the acronym, until I discovered science blogs years later. I had to ask what P.I. stood for. I sometimes use it these days because it's faster to type than the alternatives, but has no real meaning to me.

  • Dr. O says:

    I voted Prof at the top for two main reasons. 1) "Principle investigator" is used for individuals who head up projects in many different areas, not just academia, and it isn't always reserved for individuals with doctorates. Example: Hubby's previous "PI" in govt had only a bachelors degree. 2) Also, PI means very little to individuals who aren't in science, while professor is a term I can use to describe what type of job I'm looking for when talking to friends/family outside of academics.
    Otherwise, in my own little science world, PI would be at the top.

  • Doctor, well, anyone can do that, just finish med school šŸ˜‰
    Of course you don't need an MD to be called Doctor, Herr Professor Zivkovic.

  • In my corner of the physical science universe (astronomy), I find Professor to be of the highest ranking. We don't use the term PI much in astro-- maybe I'd use it if I were doing some "part-time" work that wasn't my thesis work, and getting paid for it. Then, instead of talking about "my advisor", I'd talk about my PI (someone who is a PI on a grant with funding who I am doing some research for that is not necessarily my thesis research). Doctor is anyone with the PhD. Professors (in my mind) are necessarily Doctors and PIs. PIs can be Profs (but don't have to be), and are (in astro) almost ALWAYS Doctors.

  • Bob O'H says:

    There's a definite difference in useage depending on which side of the Atlantic you are on. Over here, it's clear that Professor > PI > Doctor. Doctor (in academia) is someone who has their PhD. A PI is more senior: they are in a position to manage their own project, with money and staff and to be the formal supervisor of students (this is my situation at the moment). A professor is a senior appointment, with all the prestige that goes with it.
    Anyone not a full professor in the US would be equivalent to a lecturer or senior lecturer in the British system, and there are equivalent positions in the rest of Europe.

  • European Academic says:

    This really depends on where you are.
    UK/Ireland:
    Dr

  • James Davis says:

    Honestly, since I was listed as the 'PI' for a project while an undergraduate (You'd be surprised what kind of research you can manage to pull together on a shoestring budget), I'd say that PI isn't the top title, not by a long shot.
    Doctor and Professor are, however, pretty interchangeable. I can't think of anyone who feels slighted when one is used instead of the other. I tend to prefer to call people Doctor, as that's a degree title inherent in the person, whereas Professor is more of a job. (When I have my own Ph.D. and a Professorial position I will prefer Dr. over Professor. Being called "PI" would seem weird to me.)

  • European Academic says:

    Ups, sorry, the "less than" characters messed up my comment. So I'll use LT instead.
    UK/Ireland:
    Dr LT Lecturer LT Senior Lecturer LT Professor
    Scandinavia:
    Dr LT Docent LT Lektor LT Professor
    Some countries in Southern Europe (in direkt translation):
    Dr LT Docent LT "Irregular Professor" LT "Regular Professor"
    USA/Canada (from what I understand):
    Dr LT Assistant Professor LT Associate Professor LT Full Professor

  • Anon says:

    I chose Prof > Dr > PI. I'm an astronomer, so PI sort of means a different thing for us. While they are the lead scientist on a specific proposal, these can be observing proposals rather than grant proposals. We often write several observing proposals during the year, and it is not uncommon for a graduate student to write observing proposals applying for telescope time for at least some of the observations for their thesis. Thus, even though I don't have a PhD, I am PI on several projects. The Prof > Dr follows much of the logic discussed above.

  • jojo says:

    In my area, somehow PI just sounds casual. E.g. "Oh yeah, that was the PI." Professor sounds more formal. Dr. Is OK but it can be confusing what with the MD aspect (especially in biomed labs where a PI may be a Dr (MD) but not a Professor).

  • Joseph says:

    I agree that these titles are too context dependent and too person dependent to be all that useful as distinctions. I also worry about a focus on rank and status as that can lead to "top down" thinking. Anybody can have a great idea or contribute the key piece to a research project.

  • Joe says:

    I voted "other" PI>Doctor>Professor. My MRU uses the term "professor" to refer to anyone who teaches a class and some of those people do not have Ph.D.s. Also they started giving "research assistant professor" titles to staff people (holding Ph.D.s) so that they would look better when applying for funding. Thus the "professor" title has become less meaningful.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    CPP @#2
    at least 193 people as of this writing.

  • becca says:

    193 isn't really that impressive, since at least some fraction of your blog readers are procrastinating grad stduents. See: http://www.phdcomics.com/proceedings/viewtopic.php?p=41360 (333!)

  • What becca said. That just proves that this is marginally more interesting than their soul-destroying thesis research.

  • nobody says:

    These terms aren't hierarchical.
    A doctor is someone with a doctorate. They don't need to be a professor or a PI. Heck, they can be an unemployed poet.
    A Professor is someone with a tenure track university gig. They might or might not have a doctorate. They almost always do in the sciences where you need lots of infrastructure to do your research. But as you move towards the arts and humanities, you find more professors who don't have doctorates who just did such amazing research that no one cared about the piece of paper. That's less often the case with degree inflation. Even vis arts programs are starting to get PhDs, which is a relatively new development in the last decade or so.
    A PI is someone who runs a research program with lab space and underlings contributing to the project. They're almost always a doctor and they're often professors, although PIs in industry are obviously not professors. Professors in the arts and humanities are usually not PIs, even though they do research: their research typically doesn't involve grants and it is usually something they can do on their own as long as they have a computer and a good library.
    Calling someone one over the other is a matter of context and specificity, not degree of respect.

  • HFM says:

    I would vote PI } Prof } Dr.
    The PI is the person with the moneybags, and who therefore probably owns your sorry ass. Usage: "Wow, she's the PI of Large Project, she must be brilliant", or "If I don't get this paper into Cell by the end of the year, my PI says he'll have me deported".
    Professor is the tenured or tenure-track person teaching your class, who controls your fate only in the limited setting of that class. Usage: "If I don't finish this stupid lit review by the end of the week, the professor will give me a zero."
    And Dr is what you call them when you can't use either of the above. They don't control their own fate, much less yours. Usage: "That's DR Smith, I'm a postdoc, and yes I'm old enough to drink", or "He's just a lecturer, call him Dr Smith".

  • Passerby says:

    It's Dr So-and-so, Professor of Blah blah blah, who is also PI for the following funded studies...more blah blah blah.
    I personally hate the title 'Professor', it sounds presumptious and old-fashioned, and kissy-ass in some instances when students come whining for a break.
    It's a job descriptor, like PI but titular. In some instances, however, it's use is considered a sign of deep respect - at least in Europe and Japan - for senior professors who have earned their stripes a dozen times over. They're freaking clever, still work like dogs in their 70s and 80s (and are sharp as tacks, too) and thus deserve to have their feet kissed now reverently and then.
    Here in the US, the guy down the hall who is a revered God in his specialty, may still be just Fred to the rest of us. He has probably put in time as a dept chair and later as University deanlet and may have a funded chair in his dotage. OTOH, he may also be working as hard or harder than his lab entourage (and thus is reliably found slaving in his office on Sunday night, when you need to ask a technical question), may be the scourge of the departmental seminar series, and thus only close associates and a few friends have the privilege of using his given name. The rest use Professor, Dr or Sir, as needed.
    Depends on their...ah...research genealogy.

  • As a program officer and scientist at another federal science agency (not NIH) here's now I use the terms:
    Professor: a member of the teaching faculty at an educational institution of higher learning (typically anyone with a rank of assistant professor or higher).
    Doctor: anyone with a medical degree or PhD.
    PI: a person who is the leading contact on a proposal or research award. PI is NOT a title. I would never say "Dear PI Smith". PI is the identification of who is ultimately in charge of a research award. Example: Prof. Smith is the PI on award #######."

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