In one group they have certificates, another has wall plaques, another has gold awards to put on a chain and wear around your neck.when you go to their meetings. It's sort of like boy scouts and cub scouts.
I've learned very little from the egos of the judges.
I have learned a lot from mentors and teachers who offered classes during the summer at conference centers where the prices were affordable... and the ego's were right sized.. Kanuga Episcopal Conference Center is one such place, where for $1000 you get a week of comfortable, clean, private rooms, great food, next to a lake to get up before dawn and walk 5 minutes to watch the sunrise, and 5-6 different photographer-mentors who were available all week long to everyone. They liked working with other photograpers who were not ruled by enormous egos.
I met and worked with three mentors from such conference centers. Two of whom I met with after the conference was over, at another time of the year, and I bought several days of time from them. One cost $150 a day. Another charged $75 to take a day hike with me to a waterfall I wanted to see and photograph with him, so I could use that experience as a teaching experience.
None of these mentors pulled out a scorecard to check off points, or award me certificates or gold coins. We were both in an adult mode and learned from each other.
This is how I would suggest learning photography. Learn from another photographer who is more advanced than you are; someone who does not have a huge ego to put up with. Find a few friends; go on adventures together, where you enjoy each other, and easily compare what you have tried and what didn't work.
If it's art, then we photograph with great care and attention to detail, and we don't give a hoot about entering a contest, paying money, to get someone else to approve of what I have created.
Someone asked me if I entered a particular contest years ago, and I said I had decided against it... because for the price of entering three photographs, I could buy a complete system of Pocket Wizard radio Transmitters for 4 flashes and my camera. That seems a lot more worthwhile than the contest.
Good photography, like a good life, involves solitude, being alone with yourself, watching what is unfolding inside that surprises, following the ends of the threads of our lives to see where they lead us.