It ain't about "deserve"

December 13, 2010

GMP has a, well, spirited post up lamenting the seeming fact that awards in science breed their own success. Creating an “Accolade Magnet”. Meaning that once some investigator is blessed with “Promising Young Investigator Eleventy!!!11!!!!” of Society for the Hopping of Bunnies, she then goes on to win accolades from her University, another three or four societies, segue into the Mid-Career Investigator (Eleventy!!11!!) awards, etc.

What aggravates me is that I know this person well and I have never been dazzled by their techical brilliance or originality. However, AM is the nicest and most pleasant person you are ever likely to meet (on the outside of course). Always upbeat, with a megawatt smile as though you just made their day just by showing up, perpetually supportive of students even when they act as procrastinating asshats, just being an annoyingly calm, collected, friendly person. I, personally, want nothing more than to punch that fake smile off AM’s face.

Yes, well, my response was two-fold. First, the important take away message from this blog post is that awards do not happen spontaneously. You have to take some steps to manage your changes for being in the running for awards. Most specifically, you need to identify possible awards of interest to you and start talking to your friendliest senior folks in the field about when and if you should be nominated. By them or by some other likely suspect.

Second, accolades in science aren’t about “deserve”. They just aren’t. Too many great folks, too little space for identifying a single unified “best” person, too few awards. The post-Nobel weeks are *always* filled with complaining about how the Laureate(s) weren’t really all that and how Professor X deserved it more for SomeOtherImportantFinding. Smaller awards are no different at all.

I’ve been thinking a bit about this notion about “deserve” over the past couple of days and can’t seem to bring a decent blog post and analysis into focus. However, there was this one thought…

Remember this iconic image of Alexi Grewal winning the 1984 Olympic Men’s Cycling Road Race over Canadian Steve Bauer?

Physioprof tipped me to this account of the win apparently penned by Grewal. It makes for highly interesting reading, even for those of us who remember the whole post-win discussion and kvetching. This is, of course, only the view of a single participant in the race but he was, after all, the winner. So it is worth a read.

Before I stomp all around polluting the water, I’m curious as to your reaction, DearReader. If you venture an opinion in the comments, let us know if you have ever done road cycling racing or have ever been a semi-to-knowledgeable fan of the sport. Or if you participate in other distance / aerobic sports other than cycling.

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No Responses Yet to “It ain't about "deserve"”

  1. Bashir Says:

    I haven’t done any cycling but some friends have and I have some knowledge of the sport from watching. I know that cycling has some conventions that riders are usually hesitant to break. Things such as obligations to teammates. I’m not totally sure exactly what this Alexi guy did that lead to kvetching.

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  2. drugmonkey Says:

    Bashir, professional cycling is a team sport and not every rider on that team is supposed to try to win a given race. There is usually a plan, and riders are supposed to fulfill expected roles given a number of anticipated scenarios. To ride themselves into the ground in a way that does not give them a chance to win themselves.

    Non-professional racing (even when pros are participating, like in the World Championships) is a bit of a mix up. Formally, it works like the pro version because that is the best way to make sure your *team* walks off with the win. However, the personal accolades that come with being World Champ or Olympic Champ make things a leeetle bit complicated. Flexi’s account makes it clear that Davis Phinney (Neuroscience angle here) was the guy who was supposed to be protected and was anticipated to have the best chance of winning. It is pretty clear that Grewal wasn’t down with that plan, no matter what he had to say to the coaches to get selected for the team.

    Things get even uglier, of course, if you have multiple members of a given team who are the strongest contenders for the overall race from the get-go.

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  3. Cycling teams like any teams are predicating upon knowing your role and fulfilling it. And Grewal’s site is down, not enough bandwidth.

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  4. My reaction is that Grewal deserved to win- he couldn’t have done it if he wasn’t as good as the others, esp. since no one else was “helping” him win. Douchey? To someone outside the sport- maybe. C’est la vie.

    I’m a little unclear on what particular parallel you are drawing to academic prizes. That there are plenty of “deserving” people? That there is backstabbing involved? Jealousy? Intensity?

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  5. Malone Says:

    I don’t so much hate AM-type fellas now (I have become one).

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  6. msphd Says:

    @Candid, I think the parallel that stands out most for me is this description of Davis at the end:

    “As a rider Davis never hesitated, never was selfish and would always do more than his share of the work.”

    I would describe myself that way. And look where it got me.

    Fascinating read for a non-cycling, non-competitive relatively “unmentored” person such as myself. There is so much observation, strategy, analysis and just plain desire that goes into this kind of mindset about beating everyone else and coming out on top. So much of it is about positioning yourself to take advantage of each situation.

    And you have to have worthy adversaries, otherwise winning is meaningless. I guess you have to be the sort of person who thrives on figuring out everyone else’s weaknesses and exploiting them.

    I never had that in me, even in my most driven moments. I’m more the kind of person who just wants to be the best rider I could be. For me, worrying about what everyone else is doing takes all the fun out of it.

    Having said that, there may be no “deserve”, but no matter what happens, even if you’re in the right position, you still have to have the training & conditioning to be able to pull it off without getting too tired to execute.

    Just think where you end up in science, if your mentor tells you to wear a skinsuit and you don’t know any better than to trust their experience, or if you don’t have a team to hand you a snack when you need it, or just some sharky guy agrees to collaborate but then reneges at the last minute… you’d run out of steam before you got to the finish line.

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  7. “I guess you have to be the sort of person who thrives on figuring out everyone else’s weaknesses and exploiting them.”

    @Ms.PhD- This is interesting, and true for this cycling example but not sure that it is necessarily true for academics. I think what makes a real winner- someone who really deserves something- is someone who figures out everyone else’s weaknesses and, instead of exploiting, works on making that weakness his/her strength. I have found academic success by identifying what others can’t do, and then doing it beyond expectation.

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  8. Awards are so much of a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” enterprise. In my institute all of the senior researchers have multiple fellowships in multiple societies. They’re all extensively networked and will write fellowship and award nomination letters for each other continuously (so much so that in many instances they write up their own nomination letters for the nominator to sign and send off). You can’t sit on your ass and wait for these things to come to you because if you do, 99 times out of 100 it won’t happen. The adage “Good things come to those who wait” is utter crap in this instance. Instead “Good things come to those who go out and grab it” is the norm. GMP needs to get her head out of the sand and take a look at what works and what doesn’t.

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  9. msphd Says:

    @Candid, good on you.

    Just don’t take it too far. I worked so hard for so long to get good at doing certain things that others couldn’t, that they didn’t believe my data were really that good. Someone actually slipped up and told me, or I wouldn’t have known that was why I had trouble publishing my papers. The reviewers couldn’t ask for more controls, because I had already done them all. Instead they asked for impossible things that don’t exist in this universe. Like asking me to do in vivo experiments in unicorns. That sort of thing.

    Of course, the people who didn’t believe my results also refused to follow my protocols, because they didn’t consider the underlying principles of why the differences would matter. I’ve tried explaining the scientific concepts to these people, but they won’t listen.

    I also got criticized for being too ambitious and/or people assumed I wouldn’t be happy at a “lower tier” university. I was surprised to learn that in academia, many people feel it is their right to make assumptions about what others really want or what would make them happy, rather than just asking.

    Suffice it to say, having a reputation for being really good at something no one else can do is neither necessary nor sufficient to ensure success.

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  10. drugmonkey Says:

    many people feel it is their right to make assumptions about what others really want or what would make them happy, rather than just asking.

    or reading your blog?

    /eyeroll

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