Improving Your Success in AGU Honors

The AGU has been recognizing excellence in the geosciences for over 70 years, with 23 Union-wide honors, annual recognition of new Fellows, and numerous section/focus group honors. As AGU has grown and diversified, however, the awards process has not kept pace. To reduce the barriers for engagement and success in this essential scientific enterprise, the AGU is working to build a more transparent culture around the awards and nomination process.

At the December 2014 Fall Meeting, AGU held its first Honors Program workshop entitled: Improving Your Success in AGU Honors: Tools, Tactics and Tips. The workshop was facilitated by the Honors and Recognition Committee, AGU staff and volunteers. It focused on discussing best practices for nominating or being nominated for AGU honors. The workshop was part of a larger AGU effort to support all nominators and nominees, and strengthen the long-term goal to diversify the demographics of both nominators and awardees in AGU’s entire honors and recognition program.

The three topics of the workshop were: (1) how to increase the demographic diversity of both nominators and nominees, (2) how to submit a successful nomination from the nominator’s perspective, and (3) what constitutes a good nomination package from a selection committee’s perspective.

How to Increase Demographic Diversity Amongst the Nominators and Nominees

“I feel that this award was not made to me…but to my work – a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before”. William Faulkner

As Faulkner made clear, receiving an award from a professional society such as AGU is prestigious and gratifying. A nominee appreciates the fact that colleagues have noticed and value his or her hard work. Beyond personal fulfillment, however, AGU awards play a major role in advancing careers, building the reputation of academic departments and universities, and elevating top scientists to increase their impact and visibility, thereby potentially even impacting leadership in our field.

The importance of awards to the deserving requires that we be scrupulously fair in how we select awardees. Without conscious effort, most professional societies find that women, persons of color, and members who are geographically distant from the center of power are underrepresented among awardees (Lincoln, et al., 2012; Ensuring fairness is not easy; however, staff at AGU worked hard to find, extract, and present the demographic data on AGU awardees and general membership that allows us to see how we are doing, and how to improve the process going forward.

Although the data displayed graphically in the two diagrams below is focused on gender diversity, AGU recognizes the need to improve overall diversity in the honors program and will work on gathering enough statistical data to determine the underrepresentation of other diverse groups.

The data gathered by the staff and presented here unfortunately reveal that, like most other professional societies, AGU honors and awards tend to go to majority members. Women and people from historically underrepresented groups receive fewer awards than their proportion of the membership would predict (Figure 1).

Honors-image-1 Among all awardees in the Biomedical, Mathematics, and Physical Sciences examined by the Association for Women in Science (, women are typically underrepresented for scholarly honors and awards but are overrepresented among service and educator awardees relative to their percentage on the faculty. For AGU, 22% of the members are women; however, women receive only 17% of the research awards (Figure 2). Analyzing the available data and referring to the body of literature on this topic permits us to decipher where the disconnects likely occur, and what positive steps AGU members can take to eliminate the imbalance.

honors-image-2One reason that women are under-awarded at AGU is that they are not being nominated for awards: they comprise only 13% of the nominee pool (Figure 2). Research indicates that both men and women overlook women colleagues for professional awards, nominations for promotions, and for leadership positions relative to their presence in the available pool (Lincoln et al., 2012). Our collective concepts of who is the “normal” person who does science well, that is, our implicit biases, cause both men and women to simply not notice women who are worthy of the awards (e.g., Steinpress, 1999, Trix and Psenka, 2003; Smith-Doerr, 2004; Schmader et al., 2007, Madera et al., 2009). Therefore, one way to move toward equity is to simply notice our underrepresented colleagues and proactively organize the community to submit nominations of worthy candidates. We could, for example, read through lists of the membership to ensure that everyone who is eligible is being considered. We also need to allow sufficient time for the canvassing period to gather the names of worthy colleagues together (of whatever demographic category). Waiting until the last minute promotes reliance on our close networks and our cognitive shortcuts to complete a task, predictably allowing the less-networked colleagues to remain invisible to the nomination process even when they are very productive scientists with distinguished scholarly records.

Women are also underrepresented among AGU Fellows, and have been for years (Table 1). The year 2013 was an exception to this trend when 22% of the individuals elected Fellow were women. That banner year was the result of a conscious effort that began in 2010 on the part of all the people involved in the AGU Fellows awarding process when AGU become a partner society in the Association for Women in Science’s AWARDS grant from the National Science Foundation. The purpose of the grant was to assist professional societies to collect data to reveal whether the awards process was fair, and to help the societies develop procedures to ensure equity.

Table 1. Proportion of AGU Fellows Who Are Women, 2009-2014
Women Fellows Men Fellows % Women Fellows % U.S. Women Ph.D. Recipients in EAO 20 years prior*
2009 5 51 9% 20%
2010 8 53 13% 19%
2011 9 56 14% 21%
2012 5 60 8% 23%
2013 13 49 21% 20%
2014 13 49 21% 20%

The problem described above stems from the fact that women are underrepresented among the nominees for Fellow. Once nominated, however, their proportion in the nominee pool stays consistent as they progress through the review and approval steps (Table 2). We believe this indicates that the selection process from the available pool is a fair one and that implicit biases shared by men and women are not overtly disadvantaging women at this stage.

Table 2. Gender and Geographic Diversity of Nominees at Each Stage of the 2013 Fellows Process
Initial Stage:Nominees Second Stage:Section/Focus Group Ranked Nominees Third Stage:Election of Fellows by the Union Fellows Selection Committee
Men Nominees 172 (80%) 86 (83%) 49 (79%)
Women Nominees 42 (20%) 17 (17%) 13 (21%)
U.S. NomineesNon-U.S. Nominees 166 (78%) 77 (75%) 49 (79%)
48 (22%) 26 (25%) 13 (21%)
Total 214 103 62

Women are less likely to nominate any colleague for an AGU award: only 14% of nominators for awards are women (Figure 2). Data not shown here indicate that women are not more likely to nominate women than men for AGU awards. The success rate of a nominee is not influenced by whether the nominator is a man or a woman. Letters of support for nominations are less likely to be written by women. For a variety of reasons, not the least of which are higher service burdens and disenfranchisement, women are simply less likely to participate in the AGU honors and recognition process.

In addition to having us all apply more attention and thought to who should be nominated for next year’s awards, we should consider putting ourselves forward – asking our colleagues to help put a nomination packet together. As Jack Benny said upon receiving an award, “I don’t deserve this award, but I have arthritis and I don’t deserve that, either.” We may be more deserving than we think we are.

How to Submit a Successful Nomination

One of AGU’s strong initiatives is to foster increased member engagement and participation. What better way to engage with one another than to nominate outstanding colleagues, men and women, from all continents, for an AGU award? The following are tips to nominators shared by active nominators/supporters of the Honors Program:

– Discuss why the candidate is well suited for the award goals and pay explicit attention to the selection criteria. Explain the importance of the science/accomplishments relevant to the award. A good package usually contains the following relevant elements, with the emphasis of each dependent on the award:

  • Science (specific papers that “changed” the field)
  • Service (unique impact, AGU service)
  • Teaching/mentoring or outreach

– Identify clear “science” achievements. Link to specific papers in bibliography or on the CV and discuss why they are important.

– Mention other accolades (NAE/NAS, Fellowships). Do not just rely on bibliometrics such as the h factor (they can support the arguments, but should not be the argument by themselves).

– Stick to the ‘rules’. Follow the AGU requirements; i.e., number of pages, format, CV, bibliography, etc.

– Distinguish and highlight the role of the nominee. Is the nominee a motivator/leader/implementer?

– Mention relation to co-workers (students, postdoc, mentor, etc. If the nominee has a large research group, highlight the intellectual contributions made by the individual to the work. Also mention the success of co-workers the nominee has influenced (students, postdocs and adjunct faculty).

– Summarize the qualifications of the letter writers.

Remember, YOUR package is what the evaluators use to judge the nominee. Do not expect medal committees to go beyond what is contained in the nomination packages. The supporting evidence must be presented in the letters, in a way to educate or inform the committee members (who may otherwise not be knowledgeable about the candidate)

AGU Fellows Program Review Task Force Recommendations

In October of 2013, AGU established a task force to review the Fellows program, examining operational data and results, and to make recommendations for the future. The Task Force presented its recommendations to the AGU Council in December 2014, urging that they be pursued and adopted as soon as practical.

Please see Fellows Review Task Force article published in the 2 March issue of Eos.

Myths and Realities

  1. Myth: The nomination itself doesn’t really matter. The candidate’s own accomplishments, like number of publications or h-index, determines who wins and loses.
  • Reality: the nomination packet is essential for a strong nomination. The best nominating packets link the accomplishments of the candidate with the expectations of the award, with a compelling, engaging narrative. The letter should lay out the candidate’s credentials, but also why you and other supporters view this person as outstanding and worthy of a major award.
  1. Myth: The reason why current awardees are mostly male is because this reflects the demographics of the most senior and accomplished scientists. It will naturally change as the diversity of the field increases.
  • Reality: Yes, the diversity of our field is weighted toward junior people, but this is not the only issue. A study of the Goldschmidt award for geochemistry found many senior women who had never been nominated had records equivalent or superior to the records of men who had won this prestigious award (Mukasa, 2009).
  1. Myth: You should not ask to be nominated. If you are qualified, someone will take the lead and submit a nomination on your behalf.
  • Reality: If you think you are qualified for an award, ask a colleague to nominate you. Do not assume that you will be nominated just because you are qualified. Many highly qualified candidates are not nominated, and thus never win awards. A friendly request, and an offer to help out, can increase your likelihood of being nominated. Your engagement also helps the AGU by increasing the scope, diversity and quality of the nominated pool of candidates.
  1. Myth: Only AGU Fellows can submit nominations for AGU Fellows.
  • Reality: The AGU encourages all members to submit fellow nominations. Both fellows and non-fellows regularly submit nominations, with similar levels of success rates. In fact, in 2013, the success rate of non-fellows submitting nominations was higher than that of AGU Fellows.
  1. Myth: Only senior scientists can nominate for major awards.
  • Reality: The AGU encourages all members to submit award nominations, including junior scientists. Women are especially encouraged to submit nominations.
  1. Myth: Only senior scientists should write support letters.
  • Reality: A strong nomination packet can include senior, junior, and peer-level support letters. It is true that engaging senior scientists may strengthen a nomination, because they are more likely to have read and written more nomination letters, and may have insights that would present the candidate in a competitive manner. However, review panels value multiple perspectives on the candidate, and junior scientists (e.g., former students or post-docs) offer high-value input into the review process.
  1. Myth: If a junior person wants to submit a nomination, he/she should have a senior person sign the nomination letter.
  • Reality: Junior scientists are encouraged to submit nominations, either solo, or with other co-signers. Any nominator should take time to understand the award criteria, and build a case for the candidate. Strong nominations usually include a mix of letters, so a junior nominator would be encouraged to engage senior letter-writers and/or co-signers, and senior nominators are encouraged to engage junior colleagues.
  1. Myth: The nomination process should be secret – the candidate should never know whether or not he/she was nominated.
  • Reality: The AGU does not require or expect nominations to be secret. It is well-established that secrecy in salaries adversely affects women (the motivation for a 2014 U.S. law protecting workers who discuss their salaries). In a similar vein, transparency in the awards nominations would very likely benefit underrepresented groups. Transparency can also lead to stronger nominations, by ensuring access to an up-to-date CV and the candidate’s own thoughts on their accomplishments. Most scientists also feel good to have been nominated by a colleague, even if they don’t win.

Still, some AGU nominators have personal preferences about submitting confidentially, and some non-AGU awards (MacArthur, Heinz, etc.) require that nominators keep a nomination secret from the candidate. Thus, scientists are encouraged to keep an up-to-date CV, research description and publications on a website to support peers in preparing secret nominations, even though such secrecy is not required by AGU.

– Jessica Ball, Eric Davidson, Tracey Holloway, Mary Anne Holmes, Judith Ann McKenzie, Sam Mukasa, Beth Paredes, Carle Pieters, Murugesu Sivapalan, Jasper Vrugt