Back in the day, when students read books, things were different. A typical college student in the fifties or sixties would walk around carrying a book, or having one in their back pocket. Often the book had nothing to do with what was assigned in class, and would have arrived in the purview of the students’ focus through any number of oblique avenues - but never from “the Professor”.
One of these touchstone books was Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” This small book was a set of eight exquisite letters written from the 28-year-old poet Rilke to a 19-year-old would be poet, a fellow named Franz Kappus. This set of letters gave “advice” and “reflection” to the younger aspiring poet about love, life, resignation, solitude and a host of other feelings and experiences. The book is still in print but seldom read by college students - who have other things on their mind these days.
Please consider the following from the perspective of Rilke’s Letters. These two letters, part of an ongoing series, are written as “guidance” to a contemporary and hypothetical young researcher. They are the contribution of one of my alter-egos.
Let's start with reading a published paper describing scientific research. Unless it is directly in a field vital to your continued existence, you can pretty well ignore the title. It will be inscrutable at best, with many omissions and obscurities. Reading the abstract may possibly tell you what the title was intended to mean, but this only takes you to another level of obscurity.
The important information comes from the names of authors and their current affiliations. Do you recognize any 'invisible colleges' worth joining? Has the balance of power shifted?
Real meat is hidden in acknowledgments of grants. Which funding did they use, and how much? What does this tell you about alliances between organizations? It is vital to discover what went into this research. The output is far less important, you hold it in your hands.
Next, scan the paper for useful information. Hard data which can't be reinterpreted can generally be ignored. Nobody needs your support for facts. Opinions are another matter entirely. Does this tell you how to slant your next grant proposal? If the authors were nobodies, you wouldn't even bother. If they are 800-lb. gorillas, the dominant silverbacks of the field, you have to pay careful attention to their slightest quirks.
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of recognizing the final arbiter of scientific truth early in your career -- the ability to obtain funding.
Dear “Hypothetical future important person”,
Your idealism is commendable in the abstract, but an absolute disaster in concrete career terms. You have this notion that scientists move ahead by solving problems of great importance to society. The truth is that they move forward by working on such problems, not solving them.
Let us consider the clear example of the Apollo program, in which scientists were curious about the composition of the Moon, and engineers were employed with the mission of landing a man on the Moon, and returning him safely to Earth, before the decade was out. Here was a mission stated clearly at the highest levels of government. Thousands worked on this, and solved the problem ahead of the stated deadline.
What happened? Thousands of them were laid off, starting even before the first Moon landing. Many lost their homes, some lost the automobiles they planned to use in search of their next job; the federal credit union which had loaned them the money to buy these even kept their last paycheck on the reasonable assumption that such jobs were going to be few and far between once the program ended, leading to defaults on loans.
A better paradigm is exhibited by the War on Cancer, launched during this same period. Has cancer been vanquished? Do patients still tremble when given these diagnoses? Has the cost of treating cancer fallen or risen? Do scientists working on cancer research still have jobs?
I should think the important career lessons are blindingly obvious.