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How Do I Become a Principal Investigator?

By Valerie Clark
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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If you want to become a principal investigator, you must begin with a strong educational background, generally in a scientific or medical field. Most principal investigators hold a doctoral degree, though some have a bachelor’s or master’s degree with work experience equivalent to a higher degree. In addition to the degree, you should build a portfolio of research experience during your college career, ideally with results published in an industry-related journal.

In terms of education, a post-graduate degree is generally required for those who want to become a principal investigator. Depending on the field of study in which you want to be involved, be sure to encompass a sufficient amount of specialized coursework in that field. A good college adviser can help you determine which courses are best suited to your career track, whether it be academic or clinical research. In many cases, you may want to become certified to earn international credibility in a specialized field such as pathology or toxicology.

If you’re interested in becoming an academic researcher, you should have a heavy concentration in your field of expertise. Specific areas of research can include a range of subjects from statistical analysis to environmental law. Consider taking courses in research administration and grant writing, as well. Administrative and writing skills will help round out your skill set and improve your ability to become a principal investigator.

Beyond academia, many principal investigators are employed at contract research organizations (CRO). The nature of this research is commonly associated with safety risk assessment, drug development or analytical chemistry. Pharmaceutical and clinical research creates a demand for those who want to become a principal investigator. Principal investigators employed by a CRO generally make more money than those in academia.

The results of a principal investigator’s research do not typically belong to the investigator. Rather, the results belong to the sponsor funding the research. A sponsor can be a non-profit agency, academic institution or research organization. Ultimately, the research is typically published in an industry-related journal or trade magazine along with the name of the principal investigator and any other contributors. In many cases, this is the only recognition a principal investigator receives for the study results.

In general, a principal investigator is like a project manager. To become a principal investigator for a certain project means you are solely responsible for the initiation, progress and completion of the research. An academic researcher who becomes a principal investigator is the one who will be applying for funding and publishing the results. As a clinical researcher, the principal investigator is in charge of communicating with the client and completing the research. In cases where the research is funded by the government or requires approval by a governing agency, the assigned principal investigator must ensure compliance with the applicable laws and regulations.

Practical Adult Insights is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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