I have studied in an Australian university and throughout my university studies, I declined all prizes awarded to me. It is not that I have had something against my university but it is due to my own ethical values. I believe that a true scholar should have no interest in fame and prizes and that is exactly the reason I declined all the prizes given to me so far (I want to remain a true scholar).

It's not that I see myself superior to others in any way; indeed, I always claimed to be the dumbest student in my university. If it takes someone 10 minutes to understand a math theorem, it would take me at least 3 hours to understand it properly. Some people unfortunately misinterpret my statement:

I believe that a true scholar should have no interest in fame and prizes and that is exactly the reason I declined all the prizes given to me so far (I want to remain a true scholar).

I did not mean in any way, that someone who accepts prizes is not a true scholar and if that is the message conveyed by my statement, then I apologize from the bottom of my heart. This statement only applies to me; if I accept prizes, then I think that I am better than others and because of this I decline prizes because I want to remain a true scholar. I do not want to feel superior to others. This will make me not work hard. Some people said that I am following Perelman's footsteps. I honestly do not even consider myself a successful student; how could I dare to compare myself to Perelman. I am only an ordinary dumb student.

I just received an email from the university that this July (my graduation ceremony), they will award the university medal to me. I am going to decline the university medal but I am not sure what is the best way to do this politely so that the academics at my university will not be offended.

Update: After discussing this with the dean of my faculty, I agreed to accept the university medal. It will be annotated in my academic transcript, record, and testamur. This helps my Phd admission chances in the top 10 universities (something I was told by academics at my university).

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    "Thank you for the honour, however I politely decline the medal for personal reasons." – Daniel Alexiuc Jun 8 '16 at 6:35
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    Upcoming question on meta: How to politely decline a stack exchange gold badge? joking :) – fgysin Jun 8 '16 at 12:47
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    Something I'm having to learn myself lately is the following: "my statement could be interpreted in such-and-such a way, but it's ok because I do not in any way intend the statement in that way, so I make the statement anyway". This is actually somewhat wrong. How your statement is interpreted is nearly as or even more important than how you intended it, and the fact that you had detected it ahead of time indicates that you were aware of the issue and could have corrected it. This approach can lead to a lot of problems. – Dave Cousineau Jun 10 '16 at 19:30
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    By rejecting awards constantly, you start to appear like a big-headed egotistical jerk who thinks they are way above everyone else. Quite the opposite affect to your intention. Take the award, say your appreciation that others think highly of you, and move on. – SnakeDoc Jun 10 '16 at 21:16
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    "I did not mean in any way, that someone who accepts prizes is not a true scholar" but thats exactly the madsage that you send. When you say that someone needs to fulfill X to be a try Y then this means that Y cannot be true without X. Get your logic together – BlueWizard Jun 13 '16 at 7:20

10 Answers 10


The discussion here about your question provides an interesting microcosm of the sort of responses you are likely to get to your decision to decline the medal from people at your university who learn about it. Already here we are seeing a lot of people who don't even know you telling you to reconsider your decision, implying that you have a moral duty to accept the medal as a service to the university and to the other students who ostensibly are meant to be inspired by your excellent academic performance (which seems like a very weak argument to me personally), and offering other kinds of unsolicited advice that doesn't answer the specific question you asked. I sense in these responses a fair amount of indignation and possibly offense, and I think it's interesting to try to understand what is causing it.

My feeling is that what's going on is that for most people it's hard and even offensive to see someone turning down a great honor or privilege that they themselves would be happy to have and maybe can only dream of achieving. It feels to people like a waste, like seeing something very valuable being casually thrown away, or like seeing a rich person lighting a cigar with a $100 bill. As much as people may be able to understand your reasoning at an intellectual level, at the emotional level it feels that not accepting the medal is an act of condescension on your part, as if you are saying that you are so much better than everyone else that you don't even need earthly benefits like awards or medals to feel superior.

With this analysis in mind, let me answer your question. If you have indeed decided not to accept the medal, there is nothing you can do other than to explain your decision and the reasoning for it to the people at your university as clearly as you can, just as you explained it here. You should fully expect that some of them will be offended, and some of them will try to convince you to change your mind and offer the same kind of advice and moralistic arguments that are being offered to you here. I don't think that can be avoided, but I don't necessarily think that it needs to be avoided either. I have great respect for people who follow their beliefs at the risk of being unpopular or angering others and would like to encourage you to ultimately do what you think is right, after carefully weighing all the relevant information. Good luck!

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    Dan Romik, if you will read my answer below you will see it is not a moralistic argument but rather a logical one for rethinking the personal policy of the OP. Your advice however is quite correct on what the OP should expect if he continues on his current course. – O.M.Y. Jun 6 '16 at 16:19
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    @O.M.Y. yes, your answer is quite good, I voted it up and agree that the advice you offer is not moralistic. – Dan Romik Jun 6 '16 at 20:09
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    Thank you for expressing things in a neutral/analytical manner rather than in the rude/angry manner I feel some other answers have used. This is much more respectful and focuses on answering the actual question, which was about how to decline, not whether or not the OP should decline as some people appear to have misinterpreted it. – Pharap Jun 7 '16 at 21:59
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    @Pharap glad you appreciate it. To be fair to the other answers, some of the most interesting questions on academia.se involve someone who asks a question based on certain flawed premises, and a good answer will try to add insight that answers the "real" question that is not quite what the OP asked about, and maybe even give constructive criticism that points out the ways in which OP is misguided. I've done this myself and think that when done respectfully it is appropriate and can result in the best and most correct answer. So "judgmental" answers are not always unhelpful. – Dan Romik Jun 7 '16 at 22:08
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    @DanRomik In this case I think it is unhelpful. The OP has made their mind up that they want to decline the reward and is asking the best way to be respectful about it. It's clear from their history of declining that no amount of criticising their decision will change their mind, so it doesn't make sense to try to do so. SE is here to answer questions, not to be the moral judge of people's decisions. In a clear cut X-Y problem situation it makes sense to point out someone is asking the wrong question, but this is not one of those situations. – Pharap Jun 7 '16 at 22:26

The problem is as @WetlabWalter says: the medal is not just for you - it is for everybody that supported you and, in fact, indirectly for your class, and lecturers.

You have a good reason (for yourself) to decline it, which is commendable.

But you might offend those who recommended you, those who taught you (who would be indirectly honoured) and possibly your classmates.

If on weighing your principles against this you still stand by your decision to decline the prize, send a letter as long beforehand as you can, explaining your position and emphasise your history of declining prizes (to indicate that they are not the only one on the receiving end of the rejection).

Don't decline on the event itself, this will be a major embarrassment.

Finally, if you develop a reputation for declining prizes, grant managers may decide that they'd rather not put glamourous, funded programs your way, so be prepared for limitations of funding in the future. For anybody as brilliant as a Grothendieck or Perelman, that should not be a problem, but if that's not the case, take that into account.

PostScriptum: The balance of prize distribution is very fine. A prize is supposed to honour the recipient. But if the recipient is absolutely outstanding, the recipient would add as much glamour to the prize as the other way around. Therefore, a rejection penalises also the prize-giver.

Why are prizes at all relevant? You have a point in that a true scholar should not be motivated by prizes and honours. However, in today's very crowded fields, a prize is like a flag that demonstrates "this is how things should be done". It sets a signal of example for others. By rejecting the prize you send the message that you do not care to be an example; which is entirely your right - but you must be aware of that.

Interestingly, Sartre was one of the few people declining the Nobel prize (literature). It was claimed that, some years later, he decided that he'd rather be in need of the prize money and asked whether he could get it retrospectively (after this story, he couldn't). Whether this anecdote is true or false, it makes clear you have to think hard whether there could be a constellation whether you could regret your decision - it doesn't have to be for the money, of course.

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    Tracing a parallel between the military salute (you salute the rank, not the person) and academic awards, it is not the scholar that is being awarded, it is the scholar's work. +1 on pointing out both that you miss enriching the field and hurting the award's perceived value. – Mindwin Jun 6 '16 at 13:21
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    You are right that a true scholar should eschew prizes and honours. Can you elaborate? – user9646 Jun 6 '16 at 14:08
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    @CaptainEmacs Isn't there a difference between "not doing the work for honours/..." and "eschewing honours/..."? – user9646 Jun 6 '16 at 15:27
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    They just want to do research and be left alone. — I would also like a pony. – JeffE Jun 6 '16 at 17:19
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    @JeffE For a pop singer participating in a competition, then voted for as Eurovision candidate and then deciding to reject his nomination, as happened in Germany, you would be right. He joined the competition, so people have a reasonable expectation that he is willing to go for the prize and the responsibility it entails if he wins. As a scientist, all you agree to is to join a scholarly activity, and publish, and, if your head of department squeezes you, gain grants. Some introverted people or people from "introversion"-primed societies really do not want the extra attention from a prize. – Captain Emacs Jun 6 '16 at 20:42

Get over yourself.

This isn't about you. And this isn't really even about your work. This is about a community celebrating its own values, by recognizing the individuals that best represent those values.

"True scholars" don't exist in a vacuum. We are part of a community of scholars. We use resources created by that community, most obviously in the form of the work of our predecessors ("shoulders of giants"), but more indirectly through the efforts of colleagues, teachers, students, advisors, committee members, letter-writers, department chairs, librarians, referees, editors, conference organizers, and funding agencies that make our work possible. We owe that community an incredible debt. Accepting recognition gives you an opportunity, which most people never have, to display the gratitude that you owe that community.

It's noble and selfless not to pursue recognition, but by actively declining recognition, you are making a clear and public statement that the offered recognition—and by extension, the community that offers it—is either inappropriate or beneath your notice.

If you actually believe that the university has selected you inappropriately, either through incompetence or malice, or that the ethical and intellectual standards of the university are so compromised that you don't want to support them, then of course you should refuse the prize. Otherwise, refusal is simply selfish; the appropriate response is to accept the recognition with humility and gratitude, and then get back to work.

Let me add a response to a specific comment by @CaptainEmacs:

As a scientist, all you agree to is to join a scholarly activity, and publish, and, if your head of department squeezes you, gain grants. Some introverted people or people from "introversion"-primed societies really do not want the extra attention from a prize.

I respectfully disagree with the first sentence. Becoming a scientist entails more than just doing research and publishing the results of that research. We also have an ethical obligation to evaluate our colleagues' work (because they evaluate ours), to write recommendation letters for our students and junior colleagues (because our advisors and senior colleagues have written them for us), and to make our work visible (because we work for the benefit of the community, not just for ourselves). And yes, I believe we have an ethical obligation to help promote our communities/organizations/subfields, because we have materially benefited from others' promotion of our communities/organizations/subfields.

Yes, I understand agree that some people really do not want the extra attention from prizes. For similar reasons, some people really do not want to submit their results for peer review, or really do not want to present their work to a live audience, or really do not want to write grant proposals to obtain the necessary resources for their work. But sometimes we all have to do things we really don't want to do.

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    I probably wouldn't judge the OP so harshly. There may be a cultural background to the question. Please check my response comment to Pete Clark for details. – Captain Emacs Jun 6 '16 at 17:58
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    Sorry Jeff, I disagree, and particularly -1 for Get over yourself and for refusal is simply selfish. How is it selfish to stand up to the principles you believe in, even sacrificing material benefits in the process? You may legitimately disagree with OP's philosophy, but to describe it as selfish to decline a medal is bizarre and illogical. OP has absolutely no responsibility to agree to be a symbol of something he doesn't believe in, or to help the community express values, even ones he does agree with, in a way that he objects to (or, for that matter, to feel any humility or gratitude). – Dan Romik Jun 6 '16 at 20:04
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    @JeffE "We also have an ethical obligation to evaluate our colleagues' work (because they evaluate ours)" - well, this kind of emphasises my point that you take a US-centric approach. This peer-review concept, while not originating in the US, has been strongly promoted as "the 'right' evaluation" model by US-style research. I do my duty in peer-review because I am realistic, but the amount of review work that I have to do to in fixing third parties' unsatisfactory papers (instead of offering that time to students of the department that pays me) makes me doubt that this is a good investment. – Captain Emacs Jun 7 '16 at 19:03
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    @JeffE To conclude my long series of comments: your response is taking a "you are hurting the community - this is the one right way to see this action" approach. Perhaps I even agree with the first part. But arguing from a communities' perspective can get into a groupthink-like moral high ground argument ("you owe the community ...") without even considering that the odd-man-out may just have a point. "...sometimes we all have to do things we really don't want to do." - indeed. But accepting an award one does not believe in is not in that strong category. – Captain Emacs Jun 7 '16 at 19:24
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    I consider this answer to be very rude and disrepsectful to the OP. They have made the decision that they are declining the award for their own personal reasons - end of. The question is how to do so politely, not whether or not they should be doing so. Also I disagree that all scientists work for the benefit of the community, there are many who pursue science for the sake of pursuing it and the enjoyment they get from doing so. Similarly as a programmer, I program because I enjoy doing so, not because I want to write useful programs that help people. – Pharap Jun 8 '16 at 5:55

My answer to your question is that I think that you should seriously rethink your opinion about "True Scholars" (I will expound on the reasons below) but if you are unable or unwilling to do so then rather than refuse to accept awards in your own name, accept them on behalf of all students at the university and use whatever prize money may be attached to create a scholarship program for the benefit of future "true scholars". Who knows, you might be able to set up the scholarship for "true scholars" only and require recipients to pledge to refuse all awards in order to be awarded the scholarship.

As for the idea that a "True Scholar" accepts no awards/rewards, respectfully that is poppycock! It is correct that a true scholar seeks no award but that is not the same thing.

When a colleague says "Thank you" or "Good job" do you decline that? If not then you are a hypocrite because those too are awards of an informal nature. Tell those pesky colleagues to knock it off.

What about merit scholarships? Those are also a form of award based on accomplishments, should those be refused by students needing funds to complete their studies? or should they only be for merit in fields unrelated to the student's studies?

A true scholar seeks no awards and does what he or she does for the love of the work, but accepting kudos is part of the human experience and unless you plan to be a hermit you need to be part of the human experience.

Furthermore, awards signify reputation and reputation is part of the work because it allows your work to be considered more seriously by others. It is part of the work because without peer review and collaboration the work cannot progress. A paper is published on the merit of the work, but it is considered (moved to the top of the review stack) on the reputation of the author(s). Without reputation a paper can be delayed and possibly ignored for a great deal of time. Getting published is part of the work of a modern scholar because that is how the work is shared and expanded on.

In a bygone era when scholars were few, a scholar's reputation could be established by word of mouth or letters of introduction. But in a world with millions of scholars spread globally in multiple languages, the reputation of a scholar is crucial to being able to separate the wheat from the chaff. People's time is valuable so why would they bother reading a research paper or proposal from an "unknown" with no reputation. A person who does not have a reputation may very well have a wonderful insight into an important matter but if his or her insight is never considered by others so what?!

Finally, I propose to you that saying no true scholar accepts awards is part of the NTS fallacy. Saying this means that any scholar who dares to accept an award for the work they have done is not a "real" scholar, thus by that logic Albert Einstein was a fake. Poppycock I say again!

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    By declining the award, the OP implies that he, a student, knows what a true scholar is more than the faculty who decided on the award. Well, there is no contradiction there: he could be right. But the act of declining is a significant piece of politics, which will probably draw some attention. IMO it is more in keeping with a true scholar to just say "Thank you" and get back to work. – Pete L. Clark Jun 6 '16 at 17:32
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    @Captain: Yes, the point made in your latter comment in very well taken. I think it is likely that the OP is informed by deep cultural sensibilities here. I think that's actually part of a good answer: if the OP turns down the award saying that in his cultural upbringing such awards are embarrassing / inappropriate, that goes a long way to mollifying any offense he may cause. – Pete L. Clark Jun 6 '16 at 18:19
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    @CaptainEmacs -- the poster said "I believe that a true scholar should have no interest in fame and prizes" which is by basic semantics equivalent to saying "It is my opinion that those who are interested in fame and prizes are not true scholars", ergo "No true scholar would be interested in fame and prizes." Maybe the OP did not realize his statement resolves this way but it does. – O.M.Y. Jun 6 '16 at 18:32
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    The interpretation is pretty clear. Try this exact quote by the OP: "I believe that a true scholar should have no interest in fame and prizes and that is exactly the reason I declined all the prizes given to me so far (I want to remain a true scholar)." [emphasis added] ... summation: I declined all prizes because I want to remain a TS ergo to accept any prize makes me not a TS because *no TS can accept prizes" --- it's pretty hard to interpret it any other way. Again, maybe the OP did not realize his statement resolves this way but it does. – O.M.Y. Jun 7 '16 at 4:48
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    @reinierpost -- the OP said I do A because I want to remain B, implying that if he does the opposite he will lose the status of being B. – O.M.Y. Jun 7 '16 at 8:10

I don't know precisely which university you are at, but at least at the University of Sydney the University Medal is not merely a medal or an award. Its also a grade and is printed on your degree as such. So for instance, possible grades for an Honours degree are "2nd class honours", then "1st class honours", then "1st class honours with university medal" (source: the latter is what is printed on my degree). So to reject the university medal is about as absurd as trying to reject "first class honours" on your Honours degree.

EDIT: I am elaborating in response to a comment below. From Wikipedia

In some universities, the University Medal is treated as a distinct division or class of the Honours degree ("First class Honours and University Medal").

This includes the biggest university in Australia. So, at a minimum, make sure you are not at such a university, or else your question does not make much sense. For Americans, it is like asking how to turn down a grade of Magna Cum Laude on a Bachelor's degree. And even if the OP is not at such a university he should hesitate to turn down something which is, at least on a de-facto level, simply considered as a division of an Honours degree. Employers will simply assume he was in a lower division.

EDIT 2: I am updating this again to provide more context on the university medal. The university of Sydney explicitly lists this as a grade: honours grades at University of Sydney. Depending on the institute, in Australia the university medal often goes to several students. For example, here are the university medal guidelines from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). The Science faculty at UTS hands out from 3 to 6 of these in a year. Moreover, they are usually given to the students with the highest average grades, and the latter is typically the main (or sole) criteria for them. An average of 85% (High Distinction level) across the subject is a typical prerequisite.

Grade inflation is a pretty serious problem in Australia, and my feeling is that more university medals are handed out now than in the past. At least in academia, some employers or potential PhD advisors really do look for, or even expect, potential students to have a university medal. Either explicitly or by default, in the Australian university system the university medal plays mostly the same role that the top Latin Honours plays in other countries. Especially if the OP wants a career in academia, I encourage him to think again before insisting on receiving a lower grade on his Honours Degree.

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    How so? If the OP is at an institute where the medal is considered a class of the Honours degree then declining it is both impossible and something that makes no sense. Imho it makes no sense to refuse a "summa cum laude" or an A and a question asking how to do so is kind of silly. And even if he is not at such an institute (which the OP should check!), then I think it provides useful context to know that a medal is commonly considered as a grade at other major universities, and so many people defacto consider it as such and just assume the OP did not achieve it if its not on the CV. – faisceaux Jun 6 '16 at 16:35
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    Yes thats correct, the university medal (at least at many departments in Australia) is usually awarded to several graduating students. – faisceaux Jun 6 '16 at 16:48
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    In that case, the OP is also offending the other recipients of the medal as well. – GalacticCowboy Jun 6 '16 at 16:49
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    Yes, but worse the OP is offending his thesis advisor, who likely had to fight for him to be one of the recipients of the medal in a committee. – faisceaux Jun 6 '16 at 17:01
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    I dont think you understand what the "university medal" is. Please see the wikipedia link I provided. At many institutes in Australia it is not really an award (despite the name!), but an entire division/class of Honours degree. I.e. it basically is the same as "magna cum laude" at these institutes, and multiple people receive it. Its not "analogous" to a grade it literally is a grade (although it also comes with a medal). This is a uniquely Australian phenomenon I believe. – faisceaux Jun 6 '16 at 17:51

hmm, I went to a high school which had no academic prizes because the head thought they were wrong. I received a prize for being top of my year as an undergrad at a well-known English university.

I am now a professor at an Australian university and regularly participate in deciding the award of the honours medal for my subject.

If you wrote me a letter thanking me for awarding the honours medal and saying that you did not want to accept a prize or medal since prizes conflict with your values, I would think you were a bit odd but I would not be offended.

For what it's worth, I think that honours medals tend to be awarded very objectively, but prizes, in general, in academe are very political and taken far too seriously. Academic careers are unfortunately about building prestige in various ways to land a prestigious job. If you get a non-prestigious job you will probably have a heavy teaching load and little research money and so not much time for scholarship.

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    +1 for a constructive and alternative perspective on the issue. – Captain Emacs Jun 7 '16 at 11:12

I think the short answer is GautierC's comment: Send them a letter politely explaining why you reject the prize. Make clear that you are not rejecting it because you have some problem with the people awarding it, i.e. it's not "I don't want to be associated with people like you who do X", but a general principle you follow. Do it far enough in advance so that they can give the prize to someone else.

But on a larger scale, I question the premise of your question. "I believe that a true scholar should have no interest in fame and prizes." Personally, I haven't sought any sort of awards or prizes since I was in high school. But when on occassion someone offers me some award or honor, I think it's simply polite to accept it and sound grateful. Telling people, "I don't care about your awards" sounds arrogant and rude. You're telling them that their opinions don't matter. Imagine if you paid a compliment to someone -- whether it's "that was an excellent paper you published in that prestigious journal" or "that dress is very pretty" or whatever -- and the person replied, "I don't care about your opinion." You would surely feel insulted.

You don't have to be scrambling after fame and posing for the cameras to accept an award that is offered you. Just say "thank you", accept the award, and put the plaque or certificate or whatever in the closet and don't worry about it. Then the people who gave the award are happy, and you are not hurt in any way.

I think this position of yours could ultimately lead to others not wanting to work with you. They will feel slighted and insulted at your rejection of their offers.

When you apply for a job, being able to list awards and honors on your resume will surely help. Similarly when applying for a research grant. I guess you could say, "I rejected numerous awards because accepting awards violates my eithical standards", but if I was evaluating the application, I'd suspect that was an excuse for not earning any.

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    The last paragraph here is key for me. – CGCampbell Jun 6 '16 at 19:32
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    I agree with your answer about sending a polite letter and the comment that being able to list awards looks good on a CV, but I don't agree that respectfully declining a reward is insulting or implies that the OP would be saying "I don't care about your awards", nor do I think that people would refuse to work with the OP simply because he refused an award. – Pharap Jun 7 '16 at 22:49
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    @Pharap RE Refuse to work with him because: If he refused one time, and handled it politely, probably not. if it's part of a pattern of behavior that others perceive as arrogant or rude, maybe. That's what I meant by "ultimately": I don't see how rejecting an award could be interpreted as anything other than "I don't care about your awards" -- unless it's "I don't want to be associated with your organization". How else could one interpret a rejection other than "I don't think this is important" or something harsher? – Jay Jun 8 '16 at 3:35
  • @Jay It could be interpreted as the person being humble and thinking they don't deserve the award, the precise opposite of arrogance. That's not the case here but it's a perfectly legitimate reason to want to refuse an award. – Pharap Jun 8 '16 at 5:39
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    @parap I don't see how, "I don't believe that True Scholars such as myself should accept such awards because they are beneath our noble calling" could be interpreted as humility. But whatever. Wasn't my main point. We obviously disagree. – Jay Jun 8 '16 at 13:16

To show that the other opinions are not shared unilaterally, not even in the US, here a statement by Feynman, the Nobel Prize winner, himself:

"I don't like honors. I'm appreciated for the work that I did, and for people who appreciate it, and I notice that other physicists use my work. I don't need anything else. I don't think there's any sense to anything else. I don't see that it makes any point that someone in the Swedish Academy decides that this work is noble enough to receive a prize. I've already got the prize. The prize is the pleasure of finding the thing out, the kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use it. Those are the real things. The honors are unreal to me. I don't believe in honors. It bothers me, honors. Honors is epilets, honors is uniforms. My poppa brought me up this way. I can't stand it, it hurts me. When I was in High School, one of the first honors I got was to be a member of the Arista, which is a group of kids who got good grades. Everybody wanted to be a member of the Arista. I discovered that what they did in their meetings was to sit around to discuss who else was worthy to join this wonderful group that we are. OK So we sat around trying to decide who would get to be allowed into this Arista. This kind of thing bothers me psychologically for one or another reason. I don't understand myself. Honors, and from that day to this, always bothered me. I had trouble when I became a member of the National Academy of Science, and I had ultimately to resign. Because there was another organization, most of whose time was spent in choosing who was illustrious enough to be allowed to join us in our organization. Including such questions as: 'we physicists have to stick together because there's a very good chemist that they're trying to get in and we haven't got enough room...'. What's the matter with chemists? The whole thing was rotten . Because the purpose was mostly to decide who could have this honor. OK? I don't like honors."

He actually played with the idea of not receiving the prize ("Surely you are joking, Mr.Feynman"), but he grudgingly acceded that there was no way to get out without having more hassle. So you are not alone in your way of thinking, Perelman who declined the Fields Medal is another example.

So what is the problem ? If you are declining something, you are sending always the message "It has for me not such a value that it something to strive for". If someone offers you then a prize or honor, people are forced to reason for themselves if a prize or honor is really something to be proud of, you are subconsciously attacking their judgement.

Back to the counterarguments:

" the medal is not just for you - it is for everybody that supported you and, in fact, indirectly for your class, and lecturers."
"This is about a community celebrating its own values, by recognizing the individuals that best represent those values.[...] Accepting recognition gives you an opportunity, which most people never have[bold by me], to display the gratitude that you owe that community."

I think the reason is simple: The western world, especially the US, has two conflicting values: Everyone should be treated equal and people should strive for the best and leaving the competition behind. This is per definition impossible.
One acceptable solution may be: People are striving and fighting, but the collective must approve the final result. This "most people never have" is particularly telling: Why should people base their decision on what many other people which they have nothing to do with get? By declining you are essentially denying them their power to influence you which gives them the illusion to have some control over the situation. That may be the reason people are arguing "that he thinks better of himself" and acting hurt and angry.

I find it particularly strange that here in Academia people are unaware of invisible filter bubbles. We have a huge number of different and known cultures (Deaf, LBGT, religious rights) who have a decidedly other viewpoint than the consensus. Why have people here so much trouble to understand that denying honors may have reasons which do not imply negative judgement of other people and that there people and cultures out there which even value such decisions?

However, in today's very crowded fields, a prize is like a flag that demonstrates "this is how things should be done". It sets a signal of example for others.

Counterargument: Why not simply celebrating the content of the research itself? Time will tell always if a discovery has any worth. And how embarassing for the prize giver if the prize and acknowledgment reward bad or offensive research. It may send "We were so blinded that we did not see the true nature of the research" and it gives an incentive for the prize giver to sweep bad decisions under a rug.

People's time is valuable so why would they bother reading a research paper or proposal from an "unknown" with no reputation.

Because it is good science.
Sure, we have now the situation that there are so many people in the academic environment that you need to filter and choose, so your position has strong merit. On the other hand: If everyone never read anything apart from a specific group assigned with merit and good research is never capable to enter the academic mainstream: Is such an academic system not broken by definition?

We also have an ethical obligation to evaluate our colleagues' work (because they evaluate ours), to write recommendation letters for our students and junior colleagues (because our advisors and senior colleagues have written them for us), and to make our work visible (because we work for the benefit of the community, not just for ourselves). And yes, I believe we have an ethical obligation to help promote our communities/organizations /subfields, because we have materially benefited from others' promotion of our communities/organizations/subfields.

If you view the history, some countries give or gave away university education essentially for free (which is still practised in some countries), provide research opportunities without grants and with less competition there was no pressure to write recommendation letters. So many arguments you mention are much more culture-specific than you may have thought.

I accept that not receiving honors will make live a lot more difficult and the decision to do this should be carefully considered, but I do not accept that declining honors is a bad thing.

  • To clarify: in my response I mentioned the counterarguments, as well as arguments, because the OP deserves to understand where the other side comes from; this was not to belittle the OP's point. I really like your exposition: it makes crystal clear how culture-dependent the view on prize-accepting actually is, and the Feynman quote is just right to the point. I furthermore see some deep insight in your observation that "By declining you are essentially denying them their power to influence you...". Indeed, the most judgemental comments are where posters see themselves judged by the OP. – Captain Emacs Jun 10 '16 at 23:53
  • And, although you contradict my responses, I still like your comments: "Why not celebrate research" - I agree with this, almost totally; there is no greater reward than discover new phenomena, principles, etc. Again, I saw my job as responder to give the OP an idea why prizes exist, and why it may make sense for him to accept them, and what it means to others. And it's part of the context to clarify that not accepting has a cost. And, I studiously avoided Feynman since he could afford to turn down any honour he liked or offend anyone as he thought fit - few others would ever have this luxury. – Captain Emacs Jun 11 '16 at 0:03
  • @CaptainEmacs First thanks for your nice response. I already did understand that you do not straightly oppose the original poster as your comments with JeffE pointed out. Your sentence itself was right to the point so I could not resist to use it. Yes, Feynman was famous, but on the other hand he showed his behavior from his youth on and was able to get famous with it. I think that many people can still distinguish real nastiness from cheeky behavior with a good heart behind it. – Thorsten S. Jun 11 '16 at 21:43
  • This is an extremely good and insightful answer, and not just because of the Feynman quote (which itself should be mandatory reading for everyone, to remind them that OP is in very good company in his beliefs about awards). I wish it gets a lot more attention. Thank you! – Dan Romik Jun 12 '16 at 17:09
  • I adore Feynman, he is an inspiration to me and I am not even a scientist. However it seems to me that a CAREFUL reading of his explanation of his view on "honors" shows he is not actually talking about awards (plaques, trophies, medals), he is actually talking about elitist organizations which give out awards. Those kinds of organizations bother me too. It is a lot like the difference between faith (the internal viewpoint) and religion (the external organization). Many people have deep profound views on faith but detest all organized religions seeing them as exploitations of faith. – O.M.Y. Jun 18 '16 at 1:15

As you can see from the other answers, a lot of people will get offended by your refusal to accept the award. Most academics greatly value the endless list of awards and honors that they give to each other, and no matter how you say it, they will interpret a refusal to accept an award as saying you're better than them in some way. Trying to explain that it's nothing personal and is part of a belief system of yours will likely be like talking to a wall. My suggestion would be to just accept the award, not because it's the right thing to do, but because of the damage it would do to your career and reputation by refusing it. Sometimes you have to do unpleasant things to further your career, and this is a relatively minor one.


Just a few minor points in light of the useful answers already given:

  • If a True Scholar should not have interest in fame and prizes, that does not necessarily mean s/he would decline them, it means s/he would not mind them when studying/researching. So your conclusion does not seem to follow from your ethical stance (which I am not judging). At least, it does not necessarily follow. Going to a lot of trouble to refuse an award seems to indicate some level of interest.
  • If you had not already decided how to act, I would have encouraged you to give a moment's thought to the following question: Do you believe another person should get the award, or no person should get the award? Assuming it's the latter, I think that a refusal to accept the award phrased not as personal humility but as a principled objection to the system of awards would be less offensive. However, as @faisceaux suggests, in Australia things are more complicated.
  • When I was a Teaching Assistant I would often argue against grading students. I mean, obviously you want to mark errors in homework and make comments about the content, and a pass/fail is reasonable (usually) - but I didn't approve of putting people on a scale of who's best, for multiple reasons which I won't go into. Of course I was never made the TA-in-charge of any course I was in.

protected by ff524 Jun 6 '16 at 18:18

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