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Advice to Members Seeking ACM Distinction

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By Marc Snir and Telle Whitney, Co-chairs of the ACM Distinguished Members Committee

ACM's Distinguished Member Recognition Program was initiated in 2006 to recognize those members with at least 15 years of professional experience who have made noteworthy contributions to the computing field. Since this program is relatively new, and has been undergoing changes, there may be many ACM members unfamiliar with the requirements for this grade. As co-chairs for the Distinguished Members committee, we have seen many submissions fail, not because of the quality of the candidates, but due to the lack of adequate information regarding the submission. We hope this column will help produce more effective nominations.

The ACM Distinguished grade consists of three categories: Educator, Engineer, and Scientist. Each category comes with a unique set of criteria, therefore alleviating any confusion or competition between grade levels. The committee ensures that candidates are assessed by experts knowledgeable of the contributions in their category. To the extent possible, candidates are judged by their peers: scientists by scientists, engineers by engineers, and educators by educators. There is no reason for an engineer or an educator to feel ineligible if their CV does not include an extensive list of publications, nor a scientist if he or she has never managed a large project. Indeed, we estimate approximately 10% of ACM's membership qualifies as Distinguished Members.

It is important to create a nomination package suitable for the category. Of course, many people will have contributed to more than one category; it is perfectly acceptable to list all major professional contributions and activities. However, the submission should focus on making the case for one particular category. The clincher should be contributions as a practitioner, or contributions that advance practice in the relevant category. A scientist practices science by doing research and publishing the results; an engineer by developing products; an educator by teaching. Thus, a member teaching engineering, but not practicing it, might better qualify as an educator than an engineer -- unless this person has significantly contributed to the advancement of engineering as a discipline. A member doing research on teaching computer science, but not distinguished as a teacher, might better qualify as a scientist, unless that member has contributed significantly to the advancement of CS education.

The committee cannot independently assess the quality of each submission; candidates come from many different countries and professional backgrounds of which the committee members may have a limited knowledge. Therefore, the committee puts much weight on the endorsements that support the submission. Strong endorsements are essential for a successful submission.

To Nominate or to Self-Nominate

It has been our experience that nominating a colleague for this distinction succeeds more often than self-nominations. A major reason for this track record is that nominations composed by someone other than the candidate are likely to have stronger endorsements. The nominator should first check that endorsers are supportive of the nomination. Answers are likely to be more sincere if the nominator is not the candidate.

The choice of endorsers is crucial. The committee tends to trust the judgment of endorsers who are recognized authorities in their field, such as ACM Fellows. In fact, the Distinguished Member guidelines recommend that two of the endorsers be ACM Fellows. The nomination package should also include endorsers who are intimately familiar with the work of the candidate and can provide firsthand testimony of its importance. Endorsers in the first category can focus on qualitative assessment of the candidate's merit; endorsers in the second category should focus on providing factual information on the candidate's professional activities and their impact.

A nomination invites scrutiny if all endorsements come from the same institution. As a rule we expect that candidates will have had an impact beyond the boundaries of their own organization. Such candidates should be able to find endorsers outside their organization.

A strong endorsement will provide a personal angle -- facts known to the endorser that will enable the committee to better judge the material in the nomination package. Such insights often help explain the significance of the nominee's contributions.

Only the Strong Survive

It is critical to note that content-free endorsements will not prevail. On occasion, the endorsements are reminiscent of the model recommendation letter composed by Benjamin Franklin:

"Sir: The bearer of this, who is going to America, presses me to give him a letter of recommendation, though I know nothing of him, not even his name ... As to this gentleman, I must refer you to himself for his character and merits, with which he is certainly better acquainted than I can possibly be. I recommend him, however, to those civilities which every stranger, of whom one knows no harm, has a right to"

Endorsements that carry little weight include:

  • Endorsements with no text attached.
  • Perfunctory endorsements that say only something like "I know John Smith and he satisfies, in my opinion, the criteria for Distinguished Engineer."
  • Endorsements that merely repeat text from the nomination.

What comprises a great nomination package? Depending on the contributions (packages will vary), successful nominations tend to have the following qualities:

Educator. The committee looks for someone whose work as an educator has had an impact on other educators as well as students. The package should outline the nominee's impact both within and outside their institution. Letters of support should include at least one person in a significant leadership role at the nominee's institution, and one person who can speak to their contributions in the broader community.

Engineer. The ideal nominee is someone who has led an engineering and/or product effort, and who ultimately delivered a result (typically a product and/or patents) that has demonstrated impact in their area of expertise. The package should outline the nominee's technical contribution. Letters of support should include at least one person who is well known in their technical area, and at least one letter from someone outside the nominee's institution or company.

Scientist. The committee seeks a candidate who is a recognized leader in the research field. The nomination should include a brief description of the field, leadership examples, and why the nominee's contribution is important. Letters of support should include at least one person well known in the nominee's research area. A letter, from a person at a different institution, could address the broader impact of the research.

As ACM is an international organization, the committee receives nominations from around the world. Unfortunately, we do not have representatives from every country, and at times it is difficult to assess the impact of the contributions. Successful nominations for scientists, for example, often include endorsements that illustrate participation and leadership in international research communities. For engineers, we look for products with broad recognition beyond country boundaries. An endorsement from an ACM Fellow or Distinguished Member also helps to calibrate contributions across borders.

It is said that "success has many fathers, while failure is an orphan." Nominations to advanced ACM membership grades reverse this adage: A success reflects on the unique contributions of the nominee; failures can be due to a weak case, a weak nomination, weak endorsements, or faulty judgment by committee members. Nominators can improve their odds by following the advice noted here, and by carefully following the instructions on the ACM Web site.