06 December 2013

Apply for prizes

I am indebted to The Science Show for this piece of advice from the late Fred Sanger, who was asked about how to be a successful scientist (my emphasis):

I tell them the first thing is to get a prize, and it’s much more difficult to get the first prize than to get the second one because if you’ve already got a prize then you can get facilities for work and you can get collaborators and everything is much easier. And I think I was lucky in that respect, that I got my first prize when I was rather young, about 40.

The prize that Sanger got at 40 was the prize the makes me cross, so it’s not exactly practical career advice to try to get that particular prize. But Sanger is right in pointing out the Matthew effect operates in science: people who have a lot often get more (classic analyses of this in science are here and here). One prize makes it easier to get another.

This is a danger of this advice. Follow the advice too literally, and you get to an absurd infinite regression. To get into the right tenure-track position, you have to get into the right post-doc, which means you have to get into the right doctoral program, which means you have to get into the right undergraduate program... and so on back to preschool.

If you decide on embarking on a professional career, however, you can put Sanger’s advice into action: make it your business to apply for any prize, scholarship, or award, that is awarded on a competitive basis. Try and win some awards early in your career; it might grease a few wheels.

I see a lot of students who don’t apply for prizes. This is despite that programs are desperate to reach them, judging by how much I am inundated with requests to pass information along to students. Often, I think students don’t put in the effort to look for prizes and scholarship because they don’t think they are going to be competitive; another example of how imposter syndrome can hurt careers.

Students, don’t take yourselves out of the pool by not applying. Make the selection committee take you out of the pool. That’s their job.

External links

Science Show for 23 November 2013

Picture from here.

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