The Sceptical Chymist | Notes from Kyle: The awards business

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Editor’s note: We have a new guest blogger who might chip in with the occasional post here at the Sceptical Chymist, some of you might have come across Kyle Finchsigmate in the past… here’s his first post for us

Maturation, in the academic sense, is not necessarily a process that runs in parallel with maturation in the social sense. Most academics stop the social maturation process a bit sooner than your average worker and thus many academic activities are intellectually borrowed from things largely found in middle school. Consider, if you will, the humble award process…

Academia is a bizarre place where people run around giving each other awards openly but then are occasionally found gossiping maliciously behind each other’s backs. IN FACT, we have become so accustomed to being awarded titles and medals that we have created a commercial enterprise out of the whole business. That commercial enterprise is called ‘the conference circuit’ and the material reason they exist is to hand out ‘conference awards’.

Believe it or not, I was the lucky recipient of one of these awards. Just shy of entering the academic track, I was invited to give a talk and be presented with, not just my handsome honorarium, but also an unusually unnamed (i.e., it does not have a name, which is going to be hard to put on the CV) award… and $500. Believe me when I say I was honored, because in real life I’m as obnoxious as I am in the blogosphere. But with great (unnamed) reward also comes great responsibility. As the person to kick off the session, I delivered something of an overview of the field followed by a long discussion on how I’ve made it much, much better. Afterwards, there was much back patting and handshakes and I went on my way to do what other invited award winning speakers do at conferences — go back to my hotel room to sleep.

Before I could get out of the conference area, however, I was accosted (ACCOSTED I SAY) by a disgruntled academic who grabbed me by the arm and tried to tell me about how I totally failed to give him credit in my broad overview. He was an elderly chap, so I’m guessing he was used to getting lots of awards and recognition. In fact, I’d bet, in his home country, they’ve named some kind of mineral after him. Sadly, in America, I didn’t have the foggiest who he was and he was quite put off that I assigned credit, you know, to famous people in my talk for work he felt that he did first, better and more originally. He then quipped “You should get a better grasp of the literature, young man!” and started to walk off. (OH NO HE DIDN’T).

That’s not how you talk to an award-winning conference attendee. I thus gently took him by the arm and pulled him over to a private corner and told him that I was deeply sorry (I wasn’t) that I failed to mention his work and hoped that he could understand that I only had 45 minutes to give a talk and a lot of stuff had to be cut (it didn’t) and it wasn’t my intention to slight him (it actually wasn’t, because I didn’t know he even existed before my talk, but after the fact I wasn’t particularly upset that he felt slighted). We left on good terms. Hopefully one day we can nominate each other for an award.

Anyway, I sort of wanted to make this post about the difference between being an invited speaker at a conference and a registered speaker, but I found there to be almost no difference, aside from the honorarium, which was sweet. I did get a pretty nice hotel room, but I think that was actually an accident. Pretty much the biggest deal was that I got an award and how special it made me feel. I now have the unnamed award on my desk and I like to look at it as it reminds me that I’m awesome. It also reminds the other people that see it that they’re less awesome. That’s also important in academia.

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