Prize-winning performances

If academic recognition in the form of prizes is important to you, you should aim to publishing in leading journals and networking as much as possible.

January 17, 2008

For those bent on winning academic prizes, says Richard Joyner, chair of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, “The advice is very simple: do some excellent work and make sure you tell as many people about it as you can.”

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.”

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

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.

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 consider its impact beyond the boundaries of your discipline. Experience at a number of universities and cross-disciplinary work are both useful.

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 is a first step. Consult professional societies’ websites, journals and newsletters as well as 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 what awards are out there. And make sure you follow application rules closely. “A poor application form won't win an award,” he notes.

Dodson says you need to pay attention to your referees. “We expect people to have references from renowned people whose opinion can be trusted,” she says.

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.

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 but 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… but 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. “Your antennae have to be in tune with nature.”

He says it is helpful to be a maverick. “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 stamina and “the will to want to know”.

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 concedes.

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