Student awards: the importance of early-career recognition

Graduate student Zara Wright’s “why not” mentality

Many societies, associations, and journals offer a range of awards and prizes which recognize both researchers and research of outstanding quality, whilst offering substantial awards for these achievements. For early career researchers, winning student awards can boost confidence, broaden connections, and increase visibility and impact in the early stages of their academic career. We caught up with University of Minnesota graduate student, Zara Wright, who was recently awarded the Society for Personality Assessment’s (SPA) Mary S. Cerney Award to hear about her experiences.

“A little over a year ago, my advisor forwarded a call for submissions to the Society for Personality Assessment’s (SPA) Mary S. Cerney Award; an accolade which recognizes an outstanding student paper in the field. I had just completed the first draft of a manuscript intended to be a master’s thesis and my (eventual) first publication. I hadn’t written this paper with the award in mind. In fact, I hadn’t even known that the award existed.

I figured there was nothing to lose by submitting my paper, however I was pessimistic about my chances of winning. As a student in a highly competitive clinical psychology program, I’m accustomed to conceding fellowships, awards, and positions to my colleagues. So, after submitting, I put the award in the back of my mind and continued to address the typical trials and tribulations of graduate school without giving it a second thought.

A pleasant surprise

About six months later, when I got the email that I had won the award, I was shocked. I remember refreshing the email several times to ensure I was reading it correctly. I was thrilled to have good news to share with my advisor, to be able to expand the list of “Awards and Honors” on my CV, but mostly to have the corroboration that my first addition to the psychological literature was one of quality. In addition to the recognition, the award entitled me to attend SPA’s convention in San Francisco, CA. I had the opportunity to go to a conference I had never been to before, meet professors whose names I recognized from articles I’ve read, and see symposia about varied research I don’t typically have access to (e.g. treatment studies in forensic settings, Rorschach Inkblot research, etc.). By attending this conference, made possible by the Society for Personality Assessment’s award, I expanded my professional network and was exposed first-hand to front-line research in my field.

The return on investment

As many of us in academia know, there are very few objective markers of our success, or even our effort. The weight of this lack of recognition feels particularly heavy in graduate school; before we have gained momentum in publishing peer-reviewed articles, accumulating degrees and licensures, and establishing a reliable record of accolades.

Not only did receiving this award feel gratifying by validating my effort and the resulting product, but also I believe it has facilitated my career in a nontrivial way. Between adding to my increasingly appraised CV, broadening my professional experiences and connections, and even increasing my confidence, receiving this award from SPA was an important step to keep on track with a successful career trajectory.”

Read more about the SPA’s awards for researchers, and explore the Journal of Personality Assessment.


Zara Wright is a 4th year graduate student under the mentorship of Dr. Robert Krueger in the Clinical Science and Psychopathology Research program at the University of Minnesota. Her research interests include delineating models of psychopathology through psychometric and biometric analyses, and the cross-section between personality and psychopathology, particularly as it relates to externalizing traits. Furthermore, she is interested in using multivariate analysis and measurement techniques to inform dimensional considerations of psychopathology.