Apparently I 'came close' to getting a significant award in the not-so-distant past, and the person who nominated me talked to me recently about why I didn't get the award. He had acquired inside information about the selection process, and wanted to share this with me so that I didn't feel too bad about not getting the award.
In fact, I don't feel bad at all about not getting the award. Awards are nice, but I don't have my happiness or self-esteem tied to the acquisition of honors. I suppose it's comforting to know that I was at least close, and therefore deemed almost-excellent, but at the same time, I find the reason for the close-but-no-award decision a bit puzzling, albeit somewhat understandable.
The main problem with my nomination file was that the letter writers did not seem to be 'objective enough'. The evidence for this was that, based on what they wrote in their letters, they seemed to like me. I didn't see the letters of course, but apparently at least one was quite 'warm', as if written by a friend.
I said to the nominating person, who says he wants to nominate me again next year, "So next time you're going to ask for letters from people who dislike me?".
There's no point in reading too deeply into this incomplete information that may or may not reflect the real reason why I wasn't selected, but that isn't going to stop me from wondering about the perils of being likable.
I should hasten to note that I am not universally liked, nor is global affection a personal goal of mine. Some people like me, some don't. The people who agreed to write letters for me were likely to be in the former category. For whatever reason, the words they chose must have gone beyond a dry summary of my awesome research and betrayed some affection for me as a person. There are certainly worse problems to have than to be liked by colleagues.
Perhaps the 'warmth' exhibited by some letters made me seem like a less serious scientist. It seems to have created doubt in minds of those on the awards committee about the objectivity of the letter writers. So maybe my nominator needs to find people who don't know me but who respect my work. It is surely possible to admire someone's research but have no particular opinion about their personality. It's surely easier to get people to write nice, long, detailed letters if they are writing for someone they know and like, but then apparently there is the danger that the letters will seem to lack objectivity.
Here's where I put on the gender lenses, but I will do so today only for the sake of discussion, as I don't have a strong opinion in this case as to whether my gender was a factor. But consider this:
If letters of reference referred in a warm and friendly way to a male scientist as being a really nice person, would the scientific accomplishments of that scientist be diminished or would he be seen as a great guy who somehow managed to do science and be a nice person? And is your answer the same if the scientist is a woman? Discuss (20 points).
1 year ago