Clear a space on the mantelpiece

September 8, 2006

If you feel you need a prize to prove you've made it in academe, you must make sure your name is on everyone's lips - that means publishing in leading journals and networking like crazy, says Harriet Swain

Years of being an academic, and your parents still think that all you do is read books and have long holidays. Only a top prize will appease them. But how do you get one?

"The advice is very simple: do some excellent work and make sure you tell as many people about it as you can," says Richard Joyner, chair of the Campaign for Science and Engineering.

Liz Beech, science and practice directorate co-ordinator of the British Psychological Society, says that nomination by peers is necessary for most of the prizes the BPS offers. "Part of the initial process is getting nominated," she says. "It's about your profile."

Michelle Dodson, senior science manager at the Economic and Social Research Council, says that having work published in international journals will boost your reputation as a rising star, and the more contacts you make the more likely your articles are to be read. "People always remember someone who can talk about their research well," she says.

It also follows that the more people hear you speak at conferences and read your articles, the more likely you are to be invited onto boards and journal editorial committees. "As your name gets around, people are more likely to nominate you," she says. And don't despair if you've been working away for years without a sniff of a prize. It can take a long time for your efforts to bear fruit.

Dodson says that in the social sciences it helps if your research has not only a solid theoretical basis but useful application. She recommends being able to think about the wider context of your work, considering its impact beyond the boundaries of your own discipline. Experience of a number of universities and crossdisciplinary work is always useful, she says.

Beech agrees that it is important to be able to communicate your specialised expertise relatively broadly - "It's not a narrow focus on just being brilliant."

But Joyner says you have to make sure you have made friends within your discipline. Disciplinary groups tend to like to see a prize going to one of their own.

Having a good idea of what awards are out there - and whether you need to apply or to be nominated - is a good first step. Consult the websites, journals and newsletters of professional societies as well as keeping an eye out for advertisements in the national press. The European Commission lists awards available in particular disciplines on its Europa website.

Stanley Langer, manager of awards, lectureships and international affairs at the Royal Society of Chemistry, says being a member of a professional society will ensure you know in good time what awards are out there. Once you've picked the prize with your name on it, make sure you follow the application rules closely. "A poor application form won't win an award," he warns.

Dodson says you need to pay particular attention to your referees. "We expect people to have references from renowned people whose opinion can be trusted," she says. A referee no one has ever heard of won't be much use, but if you happen to be working with someone internationally recognised in the field you will have a head start.

If you want your brilliance to be recognised in your lifetime, you have to make sure you're working on a hot topic. "Particularly in maths, there are advances that don't become widely used until well after the person who made the advance has died," Joyner warns. On the other hand, someone who came up with a cure for Aids would be a shoe-in for the next Nobel Prize in Medicine.

This is not just about being fashionable. Topical areas of research tend to be the most competitive, says Joyner, so if your work stands out in one of these fields, chances are you really do deserve recognition.

Tim Hunt, winner of a Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2001, says that tackling a subject connected to one of life's key questions is more likely to lead to prizes - "the bigger the question, the bigger the prize" - but he says it is not always clear what these questions are. "Often people work away on these things head on and the key comes from a sideways glance, stumbled across when looking for something else."

He believes that luck comes into it - "the luck of being in the right place at the right time and thinking about the right kind of things". Although mulling things over is not enough. "I don't think you will ever discover anything if you are sitting in a chair and thinking - certainly not if you are a biologist," he says. "You have to be out there wondering about stuff. Your antennae have to be in tune with nature."

You are unlikely to make a major discovery by looking in the usual places, he warns. And it does not help to have an idea of the discovery you want to make beforehand. He says that the less expected a discovery, the more important it tends to be.

He says it is helpful to be a maverick. "I have always had a slightly anarchic streak," he says. "If someone tells me to do something, I'm more likely to find a way of doing the opposite. I don't like the conventional and I'm sure that helps a bit." On the other hand, he concedes that plenty of non-mavericks have won prizes and that what tends to be more important is having ambition - "the will to want to know" - and stamina. "For the people who win really big prizes, it's a matter of working hard and playing hard."

But hard-working mavericks who still haven't won prizes should not despair. "The vast majority of working scientists will never win prizes or never be considered for prizes," Joyner says. Try telling that to the parents.

Further information

www.europa.eu , European Union website including information about prizes available in the sciences across the EU.

TOP TIPS

Do sound research

Do it around a topical area

Talk about it a lot

Be dogged

Don't be too conventional

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