Awards and honors don’t matter, but, still, they really matter.
By that, I mean: An award is merely a popularity contest, in which there’s a group of people decide whether you get to join an exclusive club. So what? Nonetheless, being the recipient of professional honors and awards matters because it’s central to the perception that you’re a leader in your field. Receiving awards and being selected as a fellow in a professional society is a signal that you’re one of the important ones, a leader of some sort. The positive effects of these honors are mostly intangible or hard to quantify (aside from being elected to the NAS, which I hear can result in a profitable move or a big retention package), but it does have an effect on how you and your work is perceived, on your career trajectory, and your capacity to make a difference.
If you haven’t noticed, most professional societies have a huge representation problem when it comes to who gets awards, and who they decide to elevate as fellows. In almost all cases, the selection process for these honors starts with a nomination. Societies can do a lot better to make access to these honors more equitable, but nonetheless it’s also on us to nominate people for these honors as well. If your society isn’t appropriately honoring the minoritized folks in your academic community, then, well, how about making the point to do a little something about it?
I’ve decided that, about once a year, I’ll make a point to do the leg work in nominating someone for an award. Putting together an award nomination often isn’t more work than writing an appropriately solid external tenure letter, and that’s a thing that happens all the time. So why not put award nominations into the mix? You can just contact the worthy person and say, “Hey, I want to nominate you for this honor. Could you give me the names of folks you think will write you solid recommendations and I’ll handle the process. How’s that sound?” A lot of folks who are deeply worthy of awards don’t even think of asking their friends to nominate them, and oftentimes, their friends don’t bother to do the nominating. I think a lot our societies have a list of fellows that doesn’t represent the population of people who are truly eminent and impactful in their fields. And oftentimes the top awards could go to highly worthy people who happen to be more humble about their achievements (and it will come as no surprise that this is a gendered.)
Yes, it takes some legwork to corral people together to put together a nomination packet — and for some organizations, it’s more work than others. But if you’re familiar with someone’s work — if they’ve been influential on the progress of your own science — and you see that this person deserved to be elevated, then it’s hopefully worthwhile to put in the effort to put some equity and justice in who we honor?
Anyhow, why not stroll by the website of your favorite academic society and look at when nominations are accepted, and make a note on your calendar to put in a nomination? This doesn’t have to be for a senior-level position, there are plenty of awards for more junior-level academics. Representation matters, and we’ve got to take it up ourselves to fix homophilous award processes.