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I recently received an offer for a research award for early-stage scholars producing outstanding research in my field. I have verified the award and the association are genuine and I have colleagues who have won the prize previously.

The problem is two-fold.

The first problem is that I don't think I deserve the award. Not wishing to blow things out of proportion, the award is good to have but won't make you famous. Yet, having looked at past winners, some of them are professors and all of them had a higher h-index than me when they were awarded. Comparing our research, I simply think there is no comparison, my research is not as good as past winner's - although I have an upcoming paper that may have some impact (colleagues seem to think so). Some of the past winners are my colleagues and co-authors.

The second problem is that the award seems to be won by nomination, typically by colleagues, who would have forwarded the nominee's website and CV. I don't want my colleagues to look stupid by declining the award, which would, of course, be a strange thing for most people to do.

I feel that I have been misjudged (too positively) and it just would not sit right to accept the award. On the other hand, I do not want to ask colleagues what to do since they have already been quite kind in accommodating my anxiety (I think), in general, and recently they have been quite generous in other regards.

Although the award is not a big deal my question is: will rejecting it harm my colleagues or me in some way?

Minor point: I would also have the option of giving a talk, I'd rather not, but I do have some work to talk about. Wondering if declining the offer to give a talk is a problem too.

Update: Thank you for those replies that answered the question. Kimball's ("awards are not about deserving"), xleitix's, and Dan Romik's (right to decline) answers were the most illuminating. It seems like I should accept. I think perhaps I was unclear since some are replying as if I come from a position of arrogance, my main motivation is to not embarrass myself or others.

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Will declining a research award be problematic for myself or other people?

It's problematic in the sense that it would very likely be a mistake, and undermine the goal that the award is trying to achieve, to the detriment of yourself (mainly) and to a lesser extent of the scientific community you belong to. In a system that is supposed to function as a meritocracy, each time a talented person or their work does not get recognition that they deserve, everybody is hurt a little bit.

As for why it is likely to be a mistake, the main point to keep in mind is that it is a very rare individual who has the capacity to assess him/herself as objectively and accurately as he/she is assessed by others -- almost everyone suffers a bias in one direction or another in how accurately they perceive their level of talent and achievements. In many people this manifests itself in the direction of thinking they are smarter than they really are and that their achievements are more significant than they really are - this is the Dunning-Kruger effect, tied to narcissism and egotism. In other people one sees the opposite effect where the person thinks they and their achievements are less worthy of praise than they really are, a phenomenon known (at least in certain contexts) as impostor syndrome, and sometimes associated with issues of depression and low self-esteem. Both of these effects are well-known examples of cognitive biases.

Now, we don't know whether you suffer from any of these biases. But the general principle is that people are untrustworthy judges of their own worth. For this reason, when we finish papers and grant proposals we send it off for other people to critique, and accept their judgment of how good the work is. The same principle goes for awards; people who are more senior and established than you have considered possible candidates for the award and decided that you are the most worthy among them. You don't have either the information that they had of who they were comparing you to, or the ability of the committee members to look at you and the other candidates objectively (or at least more objectively) without being influenced by the very common biases I described above. The logical conclusion is that their judgment that you should receive the award is much more likely to be accurate than yours.

Anyway, good luck no matter what you end up deciding. Although I have an opinion on what would be the better choice, I do think you have a full right to decline the award, and disapprove of the "get over yourself" sentiment expressed in this answer (which I downvoted) linked to from Stella Biderman's answer (which was excellent and I upvoted, along with xLeitix's also excellent answer).

  • @Mindwin If you’re asking why it has fewer votes than my answer or xLeitix’s answer, I suspect that’s a timing thing. Generally when an answer gets above 10 or 15 votes it’s because it was a featured answer, which tends to attract a lot of people who read the top answer and then leave. This question got hot right after I posted my answer (at that point there were three answers and xLeitix’s had something like 4 upvotes and me and Hendrik has 1). SE reputation can snowball in weird ways sometimes. – Stella Biderman Feb 2 '18 at 13:52
  • @Mindwin as someone who upvoted some of the other answers, this one was not here yesterday and did not get a vote. I'll fix that now... – Ukko Feb 2 '18 at 14:36
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    Thanks guys. Honestly I feel like my answer isn’t as good as some of the other ones, so maybe that’s another reason why it doesn’t have as many votes. And thanks to OP for the green check mark / accepted answer award. Even if I may not deserve it, I accept it with humility ;-). – Dan Romik Feb 2 '18 at 16:21
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    Dunning–Kruger really encapsulates both directions, or rather make the claim that people with little knowledge go in one direction and people with more knowledge go in the opposite, such that they can actually cross and the person who knows more estimates himself as knowing less than someone who knows less estimates himself. It’s not really an appropriate label for just overestimating your skills and/or capabilities (and narcissism and/or egotism could certainly lead to that, but I wouldn’t label everyone who makes that mistake a narcissist or egotist!). – KRyan Feb 3 '18 at 20:14
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    This may be the most balanced answer and I like it most. It kind of leaves the decision to the asker. – Trilarion Feb 4 '18 at 12:38
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Don't give in to Imposter Syndrome!

Both your reasons are fundamentally not sound. Somebody nominated you for an award. The awards committee thinks you are deserving. You should not refuse the award simply because you think others may be more deserving. It's the task of the award committee to establish this, and their decision was you.

Rejecting the award will probably not "hurt" your colleagues, but it will probably hurt you. First, you won't have the award, and when you finally realize that your work was maybe in fact good enough to warrant decoration it will be too late to change your mind. Second, you will presumably not get nominated by the same colleagues again for something because they will assume you are not interested in awards. Third, people will look at this as strange behavior, and it is certainly possible that you get flak from your administration or senior professors for refusing what essentially amounts to free marketing for your department. Maybe you are tenured and senior enough that you don't care, but, truth be told, very few people are actually distinguished enough that they really don't need to care at all about what their university thinks about them.

Minor point: I would also have the option of giving a talk, I'd rather not, but I do have some work to talk about. Wondering if declining the offer to give a talk is a problem too.

I think it's less of a problem to decline a talk than the award itself, but even that is prone to raise some eyebrows, mainly because giving talks is such an inherent part of being an academic that people will wonder why you do not wish to partake in it.

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    +1 for It's the task of the award committee to establish this, and their decision was you. They know what good research is. They usually are experts too. Let them do their job and be happy about it. – Mayou36 Feb 1 '18 at 18:20
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    Excellent answer. I would add that there is high benefit in giving the talk and in taking the award for your CV: future funding, job opportunities, etc. – Emilie Feb 1 '18 at 18:38
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    Taking the award can benefit your future students, in that your letters of recommendation will carry a bit more weight. – Andreas Blass Feb 1 '18 at 20:18
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In a comment, you say

The problem is I worry that accepting might shine a light on my research not being quite there just yet and people would look at my bibliometrics and think poorly of me, if I hadn't accepted then I'd just be yet another researcher, if that makes sense. I'm not using the bibliometrics as a yard stick for research quality, but rather perceived research quality. The actual research quality comparison I am basing on papers published.

With all due respect, this is a terrible reason to decline the award. I strongly agree with all the reasons that xLeitix list for why it is a bad idea for your career. I further think it's rude to decline the award.

You don't get to decide who gets the award. I mean that quite seriously; you don't sit on the committee that hands out the award. Your opinion on who is or is not deserving of the award is entirely irrelevant to everything. Turing down the award is rude because it says, both to your colleagues and to the committee, "I know better than you do who deserves this award." You wouldn't dream of writing them a letter telling them that they chose the wrong person if it was anyone else who was honored, right? So don't do it here. In this example it's all the worse because you're doing so in a blatantly biased capacity as you have a close relationship with the awardee.

Also, awards exist so that communities and organizations can praise their members, hold up examples to junior members, and give the community a chance to highlight important work. See the comments to the effect here. When people turn down awards the community very frequently feels hurt or slighted.

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The negative consequences of declining is that you (more or less) publicly question the decision making skills and procedures of the committee. Thus, whereas your desire is to appear humble you actually give out the impression to know it better. That does not project good on you. Also, creating a fuss where it is absolutely not necessary (i.e., in such a situation) will be perceived negatively. You will look like a trouble maker.

My advice: Just take the award and be happy they consider you worthy of it, even though you might not yet. Only the future will tell whether the committee or you were right in judging your quality as a researcher.

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It seems to me that most of other answers to this question are basically saying something like: other experts are better at determining whether you deserve the award then you. While these answers make some good points (I upvoted at least 1), to me this seems somewhat off the mark because: awards (like gifts) are not about being deserving.

Think about the following points:

  • Given two researchers/research profiles/papers, there are no good objective measures of who is better. Yes, in many situations there will be a clear consensus that one is more impressive/useful/fundamental/beautiful than the other (and note these are all different metrics), but in many situations there won't.

  • Consequently, award/grant/job selection processes tend to function more like random selection (though with a non-uniform distribution, or maybe an initial weeding-out process).

  • Unless you were on the committee, you probably don't know what their actual criteria were for selecting someone for the award. Maybe they found your work more impressive overall than other nominees'. Maybe they wanted to highlight your work for some reason. (E.g., it's no fun, and rather pointless, if 1 person wins all the awards in a field.)

  • In the end, the committee selects whoever they want for whatever reasons they want.

Thus, my suggestion is: accept the award for what it is, a gift, which you neither solicited nor expected.

As to your specific question (which has been addressed by others, but for completeness): Yes, declining the award can hurt you in material ways (make it harder for you to get future awards/grants/recognition/jobs---most obviously by not having that line on your CV, but also people thinking you are strange). Getting the award may also help your colleagues/department some, so turning it down would be harmful in preventing that. Also, some people get offended when someone does something out of the ordinary.

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To be blunt, I see two valid reasons to decline such an award:

  1. Your publications are based on willingly faulty, faked or illegal research. If this was the case, you would have more problems than a non-deserved award.

  2. The award nomination is based on nepotism, bribery or otherwise severely influenced voting. It would help if you had an established standing in the community and a tenure position to make a point by refusing that award.

In other cases just let the jury decide who deserves that award, like it was detailed in other answers.

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Rejecting an award is usually considered an insult toward the organization handing out the award and anyone who accepted that award in the past.

It means you do not respect the organization which hands out the reward, that you question their agenda and the process by which they select award receivers. You also give the message that you do not want to be associated with the people who received that award in the past. When people reject awards, it's usually not because they think they are unworthy of the award, they do it because they think the award is unworthy of them.

When you believe that you don't deserve the award, this is pretty much the opposite of the statement you want to make.

My advise would be to accept the award, but be humble about it and use the talk as an opportunity to thank everyone who supported you and to give praise to your idols.

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Yes it can be problematic.

Role models and inspiring figures are important to motivate the young. How good you as a person actually are does not matter much in this context, the important effect for any society to achieve is to have some inspirations and role models get the young to want to work hard to become great in the future. Not everyone is inspired to work by awards and glory, but many kids are very motivated by such stories, especially at a time in their development when catching their curiosity for the sciences and/or arts makes a great difference as to if they put their effort into developing their skills (or not).


So try and not focus on you as a person, but try and see it as you are doing society a favor by trying to help kids to want to work hard to become great.

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I would add to other very good answers allready posted.

You are not the only one awarded. Your research group, your students, if you have them, your advisor, if you have one, your faculty and your university. Declining the award will affect not only your name but all I have mentioned above.

The comitee agreed on you deserving the reward and only they are qualified and entitled to make the decision.

You argumented by having lower h-index than past awardees. I think it may be simillar to world records in an athletics. You have to beat the actual world record to claim being a recordman. To publish you have to bring something new, which is going constantly more difficult.

protected by Alexandros Feb 5 '18 at 19:55

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