To read the full version of this content please select one of the options below:

Becoming a PI: agency, persistence and some luck!

Lynn McAlpine (Oxford Learning Institute, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK)
Gill Turner (Oxford Learning Institute, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK)
Sharon Saunders (Griffith Graduate Research School, Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia)
Natacha Wilson (Cambridge Insights, Cambridge, UK)

International Journal for Researcher Development

ISSN: 2048-8696

Article publication date: 14 November 2016



This paper aims to examine the experience of gaining research independence by becoming a principal investigator (PI) – an aspiration for many post-PhD researchers about whom little is known. It provides insight into this experience by using a qualitative narrative approach to document how 60 PIs from a range of disciplines in one European and two UK universities experienced working towards and achieving this significant goal.


Within the context of a semi-structured interview, individuals drew and elaborated a map representing the emotional high and low experiences of the journey from PhD graduation to first PI grant, and completed a biographic questionnaire.


Regardless of the length of the journey from PhD graduation to first PI grant, more than a third noted the role that luck played in getting the grant. Luck was also perceived to have an influence in other aspects of academic work. This influence made it even more important for these individuals to sustain a belief in themselves and be agentive and persistent in managing the challenges of the journey.


The study, unusual in its cross-national perspective, and its mixed mode data collection, offers a nuanced perspective on the interaction between agency and an environment where the “randomness factor” plays a role in success. The function of luck as a support for sustained agency and resilience is explored.



This research was partially funded by the University of Cambridge Internal Funds; Elsevier New Scholars Programme; Leiden University; and University Skills Group, University of Oxford.


McAlpine, L., Turner, G., Saunders, S. and Wilson, N. (2016), "Becoming a PI: agency, persistence and some luck!", International Journal for Researcher Development, Vol. 7 No. 2, pp. 106-122.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2016, Emerald Group Publishing Limited