Writing Successful Nomination and Support Letters
Recognising the achievements of researchers at various career stages by presenting awards and honours is one of the most important roles of any scientific society. In order to strive towards excellence we need to be able to recognise it. Furthermore, there needs to be some consensus as to how excellence is defined. One of the best ways to exercise our right to define excellence is to nominate a colleague who we think exemplifies it and to justify this by writing a persuasive nomination letter.
There is no prescribed structure as to how to write a nomination or support letter but committees look most favourably on letters which are detailed and specific about the contributions the nominee has made. Letters which just state that the candidate is a good scientist and has written some interesting papers are rarely successful.
An awards committee may, in ideal circumstances, have many nominations to examine. Each package will include a nomination and up to 3 letters so it is imperative to make the information as concise as possible. Many successful nomination and support letters are no longer than 2 pages (excluding headings).
The letter must explain why the candidate deserves this award, what contributions they have made and their impact. How have they changed the field and what new work or insights have been stimulated as a result? The awards committee may be confronted with many such impressive records, however, so it is essential to make the candidates achievements stand out by being quite specific as to why they are special.
Many successful letters are able to express to non-specialists the broad significance of one or two specific accomplishments. An effective way to do this is by detailing each of the achievements in a separate paragraph that explains the nature of the long-standing problem, grounds as to why the field may have been at an impasse, the way in which the candidate advanced that problem and how the field has responded to this work.
Supporting letters while similarly recognising a candidate’s major achievements should also try to focus on other aspects of their work not mentioned in the nomination.
Although most scientific awards focus on scientific excellence, some colleagues have made important impacts on the field by organising or facilitating large scale scientific objectives such as expeditions or infrastructure development. Many scientists have also dedicated time to advance meetings, societies, journals, outreach or teaching and this service can also tip the balance once a short list is assembled.
A final point. Even for some of the most prestigious awards there are sometimes only a handful of nominations. This means that, if you know of a colleague who merits an Award, it is well worth taking the time to make a nomination. It may be much easier than you think to make a successful nomination.