Advice: how to win the Buell and Braun awards at the ESA Annual Meeting

The Buell and Braun awards respectively to the best student talk and poster at the Ecological Society of America Annual Meeting. They’re nice awards: besides the prestige, you get $500 plus travel reimbursement to the following year’s meeting.

To win the awards, the first thing you have to do is register. Unfortunately, there should probably be an award to students who can figure out how to do this. Buried in the “About ESA” section of the ESA website (not in the section about the upcoming Annual Meeting) is a page describing all the ESA awards. Click on “Buell & Braun Awards” to see the application rules and download the application form. The deadline for submitting the application form is Mar. 1.

Note that registering for the awards is a separate process from submitting your abstract (the deadline for which is Feb. 23, 5 pm US ET), and registering to attend the meeting. You have to do all of these things to be considered for the Buell or Braun award.

Note as well that the application form asks for a statement of up to 250 words describing how your research will advance the field of ecology. That statement is in addition to your abstract. Note however that 250 words is only an upper limit. You could just write a couple of sentences, even ones just pulled from your abstract. Without getting into specifics, if the judging works the way it did last year, this approach would not affect your chances of winning.

If all this seems like an unnecessarily complicated process to you, I don’t disagree. Indeed, every year many very good students decide it’s not worth all the bother. In a typical year, less than 20 students register to be considered for the Braun award, and only a few dozen register to be considered for the Buell. Both are small fractions of the total number of students giving posters and talks, respectively. And I know from personal experience last year, as a judge for the Buell and Braun as well as for other student awards handed out by the ESA sections, the many of the very best students only choose to register for the section awards, for which the registration process typically is much easier. That’s even though the section awards are less lucrative.

Probably the silliest part is asking students to write an extra statement about how their research will advance the field of ecology. As a student commenter on last year’s post about the Braun award notes, that’s what your abstract is supposed to do. Students are quite rightly annoyed by application procedures that take up some of their scarce time while serving no obvious purpose. Frankly, I’m surprised that extra statement is still required. Last year I sat on the committee that chose the Buell and Braun winners, and we discussed the application procedure and agreed that the requirement for the extra statement should be dropped. I don’t know why there’s no change in the application procedure this year, but I’ll be asking and will update with any information I find out.*

Despite all that, I strongly urge all interested students to register for consideration for the Buell and Braun awards. The potential payoff is worth the effort, even though much of that effort probably shouldn’t be necessary. Particularly because many of your fellow students aren’t going to bother registering, thereby increasing your odds of winning!

*There is a sense in which these hurdles serve a “purpose”: by holding down the number of applicants, they make it easier to find enough judges. In my view, there are much better ways to ensure that the judges aren’t swamped by too many applicants. Just discouraging people from applying by making the application process unnecessarily complicated has the unfortunate side effect of reducing the quality of the applicant pool, since as far as I can tell there’s no positive correlation between “willingness to apply” and “competitiveness for the award”. Obviously, the powers that be could try to recruit more judges, but they already work pretty hard at that, so it is necessary to find some way to either hold down the number of applicants, or judge them more efficiently. They could reduce the number of judges per presentation. Currently, it’s 4-6, which seems like twice as many as necessary–we only get 2-3 referees on our peer-reviewed papers! They could get a few people to pre-screen the posters in the morning each day and then only send judges to meet with the top candidates during the evening poster session. They could even pre-screen the posters in advance by asking students to submit an image of their poster a couple of weeks before the meeting. As for talks, I suggest only allowing students to apply for the Buell award twice. That way students will only apply for consideration when they feel they have their best stuff to present (in most cases, a nearly-complete MSc or PhD project), and you’ll have a manageably-sized applicant pool that likely includes most of the strongest presentations. I don’t claim any of these solutions is perfect, merely that they’d be better than the status quo. Bringing in some combination of these changes, so that the application process can just be reduced to a checkbox during the abstract submission process, seems like the way to go to me.

In the comments, please provide your own suggestions for how to arrange the application process for the Buell and Braun awards.

6 thoughts on “Advice: how to win the Buell and Braun awards at the ESA Annual Meeting

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  2. Just to let you know… because of your bloggish cajoling, I have actually applied for the Buell/Braun awards this year. (It helped to have a deadline after the abstract deadline, so thanks for that, if you had a hand in changing that deadline.)

    Now the question is: on what are the presentations judged? For a talk, I could imagine a great engaging delivery on mediocre science and a so-so presentation on really cool science. Which gets higher marks? I imagine the winners do a great presentation on cool science, but it would be helpful to know what the judges are asked to look for. (Or are they not given any guidance? I can’t imagine…)

    • First, good for you for applying. You have nothing to lose and potentially a lot to gain.

      The judges are indeed given guidance–there’s a form they fill out. They have to provide numerical scores on various specified aspects of the talk, and also provide written comments. For each aspect of the talk, the form gives a brief blurb elaborating what would merit a high score.

      The total score (averaged across all judges for a given presentation) is then used as a first cut, and an award panel meets on Friday afternoon at the end of the meeting to look at the comments on the high-scoring presentations to pick the winners. The comments are often quite lengthy and detailed, which they need to be because, since no judge sees more than a small fraction of the presentations, it’s often the case that no one on the award committee actually saw all (or even any) of the top presentations themselves. Having participated in all aspects of the process, I’m very comfortable that the judging process works well. I have problems with the application process and its effects on whether students apply for the awards. But the students who do apply are judged very reasonably, thoroughly, and fairly.

      I don’t recall off the top of my head the various aspects on which the presentations are scored, but they’re the sorts of aspects you’d expect. It’s all very standard. Frankly, I don’t think knowing exactly what was on the judging forms would be helpful to students in preparing their presentations. I mean, what are you going to do–not bother practicing your delivery because that’s less than 50% of the total score? It’s a competition–if you want to win it, the rational thing for you to do is to prepare a poster or talk that’s as good as it can be in every respect. And yes, you can and should optimize every aspect of your presentation. There is no inherent trade-off between quality of your science vs. quality of your presentation, and no student is so constrained (by anything) that they should have to do triage and decide whether to polish their science or polish their presentation of that science. Anyway, in practice there’s sufficiently strong competition for both awards (especially for the Buell) that the winner is always someone who gets good to very good scores from all judges on all aspects of their presentation. Plus, if lots of students are, like you, prompted to apply for these awards by reading my post, the competition will be especially keen this year! 😉 So just do the best presentation you can (which may well mean, among other things, forgetting about the fact that you’re being judged!), and let the judges worry about the judging forms.

      If you want advice on how to prepare a good presentation, don’t worry about what’s on the judging forms. Because just knowing what you’d be judged on doesn’t tell you how to give the judges what they’re looking for. Instead, look at the advice compiled by folks like Spencer Hall (Indiana).

      • Wow, thanks for the lengthy reply.

        Just knowing that what’s on the forms is “what you’d expect” is helpful. That is, I’ll assume there isn’t a checkbox for “presenter made eye contact with the left half of the room” and another for “presenter made eye contact with the right half of the room.” Judging forms can be weirdly skewed, but I’ll take your word for it that this one isn’t.

        I’m not intending to do anything different because I’m being formally “judged.” I figure that even if I don’t win, I’m guaranteed to at least have a handful of people in the audience paying strict attention to my talk or a handful of people stopping by to talk about my poster.

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