Around this time, as graduation speeches and ceremonies and celebrations come to an end, young scientists are preparing for the beginning of their new careers. But where does one begin? What kind of life can a new scientist expect? How does one find meaning and purpose?
Those who are looking for some good old fashioned advice might turn to Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the father of modern anatomy and neurobiology. In 1897, he published a book in Spanish giving some pretty bold advice to young scientists. The MIT Press publishes the English-language edition, Advice for a Young Investigator.
From chapters titled "Beginner's Traps" to "Diseases of the Will", Ramón y Cajal addresses - in a startlingly relevant and humanistic way - the questions, problems, self-doubts and fears that scientists must face, the qualities that a good scientist requires, and the pitfalls and failings of bad scientists.
"Defect for defect, arrogance is preferable to diffidence, boldness measures its strengths and conquers or is conquered, and undue modesty flees from battle, condemned to shameful activity."
The book reads like a Poor Richard's Almanack of witty aphorisms, amusing instructions, and moral proclamations.
"It is fair to say that, in general, no problems have been exhausted; instead, men have been exhausted by the problems. Soil that appears impoverished to one researcher reveals its fertility to another."
"Most people who lack self-confidence are unaware of the marvelous power of prolonged concentration. This type of cerebral polarization (which involves a special ordering of perceptions) refines judgment, enriches analytical powers, spurs constructive imagination, and - by focusing all light of reason on the darkness of a problem - allows unforseen and subtle relationships to be discovered."
"If a solution fails to appear after all of this, and yet we feel success is just around the corner, try resting for a while. Several weeks of relaxation and quiet in the countryside brings calmness and clarity to the mind."
And lest we forget the book was written in the late 19th century, Ramón y Cajal also includes some advice about the proper type of woman suitable for the "man of science"...
"What qualities should grace the young woman chosen by the man of science? This is an extremely serious question because it is undoubtedly true that the moral qualities of the wife are a decisive factor in the success of scientific work...so many careers have been thwarted because of feminine vanity or capriciousness!"
This book has remained a perennial conference bestseller. Not bad for a 109-year old book!