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If you’re hesitant to apply for professional awards, remember: It’s worth putting yourself forward

At the start of my career, I—like many others—was hesitant about applying for awards. Back when I was a student, for example, I talked myself out of applying for an intriguing fellowship to study abroad because I figured there was absolutely no way I would get it. I would be competing against applicants attending better schools, in better programs, with better grades, and on and on. So why waste my time and risk disappointment? It was better to just let it pass me by, I thought.   

But my philosophy soon changed when my school chum—whose academic credentials were no more impressive than mine—received the fellowship. I was so angry with myself that I wanted to punch the wall. It lit a fire in my heart. The next year, I applied—and won. The result was a transformational, career-defining experience: 5 months studying mathematics, Egyptology, and Arabic in Cairo.

So, what about you? When you learn of an award or an interesting opportunity, do you apply for it—or do you stop yourself?

Yes, the idea of seeking professional awards can feel uncomfortable or inappropriate. Especially if you’re early in your career, you may feel that it is premature to apply for awards recognizing your professional achievements.

But I hope I can convince you that it’s worth putting yourself out there. Put simply, if you don’t pursue awards, you can’t win them. And the application process itself offers a bevy of benefits, even if you don’t win. So, here’s my advice for tackling some of those pesky psychological blocks that could be getting in your way.

Fear

Fear is the most common stumbling block. We may be afraid that we will embarrass ourselves and waste our valuable time by applying because there’s no chance we can win. And we may worry that if we apply and don’t win, it will reflect poorly on our entire professional record and value.

These are falsehoods.

To fight these fears, first consider the many positives associated with just the application process. Every time you apply for an award, you hone your communication skills, which makes you a stronger candidate for the next job or award. Plus, you get the chance to market yourself to future collaborators. After all, the judges—likely professionals in relevant careers, fields, and industries—are learning about your contributions through your application.

Then, winning awards can certainly help you advance your career, too—enough so that it’s worth the time to apply. Winning awards opens access for new opportunities, jobs, collaborations, and other awards and fellowships. It validates your excellence and leadership in the minds of members of your community, highlights your success and accomplishments, builds your reputation to key decision-makers and potential collaborators, fosters networking, and more.

So ask yourself: “What is the worst that could happen if I don’t get the award?” There won’t be any public embarrassment; CEOs and established principal investigators apply for and don’t get plenty of awards, grants, and jobs. Yes, you may experience some personal disappointment—but you’ll pick yourself up and move on to the next opportunity.

To ease your way in, consider applying for relatively low-stakes honors—for example, ones that are associated with your institution, such as a student leadership or postdoc mentorship award. Applying for opportunities like these can ease trepidation that you aren’t advanced enough or haven’t accomplished enough—and build confidence to go for the next opportunity.

Feeling uncomfortable

For many of us, applying for awards may feel, well, icky. Pursuing awards, particularly when they require self-nomination, can seem inappropriate or braggy.

But the truth is, we have to get used to championing ourselves and asking for things that will help us advance our careers—and applying for awards is one opportunity to do this. I’m not embarrassed to share that almost every honor I have received in my career has come as a result of either nominating myself—a common practice that you’ll see is encouraged on some award announcements—or asking one of my mentors to nominate me. It can feel a little weird at first, but with some practice, it becomes second nature.

Feeling “icky” could also be driven by cultural attitudes. But there are always ways to pursue honors that align with cultural norms. Turn to trusted mentors and peers and take stock of what they have done to promote themselves in their careers that are appropriate for the regional and disciplinary culture in which you are operating.

Uncompetitiveness syndrome

“Uncompetitiveness syndrome” is the term I now use to explain why I didn’t apply for that study abroad fellowship the first time around. This is very similar to impostor syndrome, and just like the latter, it convinces us of false information about ourselves and thus takes our choices and opportunities away.

Of course, some awards may truly be out of reach. For example, it would be a fantasy for me to think I would ever win a Nobel Prize. It would also not be appropriate for my professional contributions.

But the reality is that there are many awards that are suitable and attainable for my personal career, as there are for yours. If you feel like you are not competitive enough to apply for awards you see your colleagues winning, interrogate this!

An essential tactic to fight uncompetitiveness syndrome is to compare your CV to the award criteria and look for commonalities. Chances are you will see more than you expected. Moreover, I strive to remind myself that the pool of applicants and those being considered for awards is usually much smaller than I perceive, which gives those who apply a competitive advantage. I also lean on my advisers and mentors and ask them whether they think I am eligible for a certain honor and if I have a chance.

Lack of awareness

Do you find yourself saying, “I’m early in my career; there are no awards for people this junior”? This is a misperception. There are always awards that are relevant to your career level. Many of these awards are offered by professional societies and universities. Student poster awards are one example. And almost every professional association gives awards for contributions to research, teaching, outreach, leadership, communication, and scholarship, with many clearly encouraging students and those who are “early career” to apply.

Not sure how to find relevant awards? Take a look at the “awards and honors” sections of the CVs and LinkedIn profiles of your advisers, professors, colleagues, collaborators, and anyone you admire. Look for awards they won in the dawn of their careers.


We have to be passionate advocates for our own careers. When we apply for awards, we are appropriately speaking up for ourselves. We are strengthening our professional skills and creating bridges to new opportunities. We are taking essential steps to launch our unicorn careers.

Concepts in this column come from and build on the author’s previous published works, including articles, speeches, and her book titled Networking for Nerds.

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