Review: Advice for a Young Investigator by Santiago Ramón y Cajal

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Right when I joined the lab, I got this book from my PI (principal investigator, or My Boss), who had gotten it from his PI when he first started. I’m ashamed to say that I had never heard of Santiago Ramón y Cajal before this, but apparently he’s one of those big guys in science? This classic guide for new grad students is practical, informative, and often humorous, but probably a bit outdated given the cringe-worthy emphasis on the dominance of men in research and the supporting role of women.

Introduction

Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934) was a neuroscientist who made great contributions to the scientific community in Spain. He wrote and illustrated the first histology textbook in Spain, wrote many books (including this one!) to aid his students and colleagues in achieving productive scientific careers, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine along with Camillo Golgi for their findings on the structures of the nervous system, and is deemed the father of neuroscience. This translation is one among many that stemmed from the original Spanish version, but the goal of translators Neely and Larry Swanson for this fourth edition of their translated work is to provide a more modern translation of the original that will remain relevant for students today.

Discussion

Advice for a Young Investigator is actually quite entertaining, given that it was written in the late 1800s when scientists were focused on doing science and not much on anything else. The flowery language that Ramón y Cajal uses amuses me greatly, and I’ve read some of these grandiose passages aloud just for the heck of it and couldn’t help bursting into giggles afterwards. Not to say that what Ramón y Cajal’s written is not inspiring, but it’s definitely just a little behind the times, haha. And some passages, like the following, led to a lot of re-reading and trying to figure out what Ramón y Cajal was trying to say…

The cajoleries of vanity, the effusions of instinct, and the caresses of fortune pale before the supreme pleasure of experiencing how the wings of the spirit emerge and develop, and how when working harmoniously we overcome difficulty to dominate and subdue elusive nature.

These extremely flowery passages with Ramón y Cajal’s great insights into what qualities an young investigator should have (concentration, passion for reputation, taste for scientific originality) as well as what he terms the “diseases of the will”, or types of people to not end up like: bibliophiles (who focus on reading everything), contemplators (who study nature for “its aesthetic qualities”, megalomaniacs (who plan more than they do), and instrument addicts (self-explanatory). The latter section was, in my opinion, the most interesting part of the book, since it reminded me of a Buzzfeed list. 😀 Another helpful section was on the stages of scientific research, going from observation to experimentation, making a hypothesis, and proving the hypothesis. I’m constantly surprised by how much politics there is in science nowadays, and that seems to have been the case even back in Ramón y Cajal’s time.

Far from humbling one’s self before the great authorities of science, those beginning research must understand that – by a cruel but inevitable law – their destiny is to grow a little at the expense of the great one’s reputation. It is very common for those beginning their scientific explorations with some success to do so by weakening the pedestal of an historic or contemporary hero.

The one section that really put me off about this book was on the social factors that were beneficial to scientific work. Here, Ramón y Cajal talked about the work-life balance (which was fine and dandy and is still discussed today), but also talked a lot about marriage and family life… for the man of science. Obviously, for his time period, women were not “scientists”, but I still cringe whenever I read about “the scholar’s wife.” I guess the advice that Ramón y Cajal provides that’s still relevant today is the following:

As a general rule, we advise the man inclined towards science to seek in the one whom his heart has chosen a compatible psychological profile rather than beauty and wealth. In other words, he should seek feelings, tastes, and tendencies that are to a certain extent complementary to his own.

(And then he follows that up with more cringe-worthy characteristics like “a sensitive compliance with his wishes” and a “warm and full-hearted acceptance of her husband’s view of life”, but I’m just going to ignore that part.)

Conclusion

Advice for a Young Investigator is a classic read that has been passed down from PI to grad student over the last few decades, and Ramón y Cajal’s wit and humor complemented by his extravagant narrative makes this an interesting read. However, I feel like there must be more recent works that hold the same amount of wisdom for young investigators without being sexist in the process.

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8 thoughts on “Review: Advice for a Young Investigator by Santiago Ramón y Cajal

    • I had very similar thoughts, honestly! On the other hand, there’s a fine line between being true to the original author’s writing/meaning vs. changing everything so that readers can understand it. I foresee more revisions to come… 😉

  1. I tend to agree with you that there’s probably something equally informative but less sexist that people can pick up! I’m also not a fan of the flowery language, so I think I’ll be passing on this one. I have yet to read E.O. Wilson’s Letters to a Young Scientist, but I’m hoping it might be a less sexist version of this book.

    • Ah, Letters to a Young Scientist is on my to-read list too! It was also difficult to get through this book because I’ve been reading The Thesis Whisperer blog for a while, as well as several other academia-oriented blogs, so I kept thinking that the advice given by the blogs was better than that given by the book. :/ If I ever become a PI, I’m definitely going to give my mentees more modern reading material!

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