The godless résumé gamble

If you’re a first or second year grad student, you’re probably working on your application for the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (…Or you should be, but instead you’re blogging about it). It’s a prestigious fellowship to acquire that comes with a number of perks, including access to special databases and networks – and a nice stipend increase, which makes us grad students drool.

The application consists of three two-page sections: your Research Proposal, your Past Research Experience, and your Personal Statement.” The Personal Statement generally causes the most headache and stress. It’s your main chance to set yourself apart from other students, since you can assume that most people who are in graduate school have the research part down, or at least have people in their lab who can help. But editors can’t magically send you back in time to teach classes, work with diversity programs, be an officer in clubs, volunteer in an elementary school science fair, or fly to Africa to help AIDs ridden children. That’s what the Personal Statement is about – showing your leadership, organizational skills, strength of character, and motivation for being a scientist.

As unfair as it is, if you just like sitting in a lab all day, you’re kind of screwed. You have to do it all.

But every time I have to write one of these things, I start getting worried. Many of my achievements are directly related to atheism. I founded and was president of an atheist student group. I’m on the board for a secular non-profit. I write a popular blog that, while talking about science, also often talks about atheism. When I go speaking across the country, I’m usually hosted by atheist groups. And hell, my very motivation for being a scientist is highly interrelated with my atheism. Learning about evolution led me to a naturalistic, godless worldview, and said worldview makes science and the search for truth even more important to me.

I still wonder if I was ultimately rejected from graduate schools – after very successful interviews – because someone in the chain of command was wary of my atheist activism. But I feel like to omit these things would mean not being true to myself. Not to mention, it hides the achievements that set me apart from other graduate students.

But mentioning godlessness is still a gamble. The NSF fellowship reviews are already a bit of a crapshoot – reviewers only have a couple of minutes to read your application and make a decision. You’re already hoping you’re lucky enough to get someone who had a good breakfast and isn’t in a cranky mood. But now you have to hope you don’t get the rare super devout biologist, or even a fellow atheist who doesn’t like her vocal sisters.

And the gamble is there no matter how diplomatically you put it. There’s always a chance someone will read what you wrote profoundly negatively. Four of my peers read my statement and had no problem with it – but another said I sounded like a “belligerent atheist” despite the fact that they personally agreed with me. And despite the fact that what I actually talk about was skepticism, naturalism, and scientific inquiry, with passing references to secularism and humanism when mentioning specifics. And despite the fact that the only time I actually say the word “atheist” is in the sentence:  “Also during my time at Purdue, I co-founded the Society of Non-Theists, a student organization that provided a safe place for atheists and agnostics, a minority on campus.”

Gasp! So belligerent!

This is a shining example of the privilege religion has in our country. I know for a fact that three other students in my department mention their involvement with religious organizations. But would anyone ever think of telling them to cut those examples of leadership out because they’re associated with religion? No, nor should they. So why is it okay to tell the atheist to tone down the atheism?

At least I have it easy, being in a field that’s already fairly godless. We had club officers who had to leave off their main leadership experience because they felt there was no way they’d get a teaching or financial job with “atheist” branded on their résumé. And that’s simply unfair.


  1. says

    this isn’t just an atheist problem, by any means. when i was religious, i edited my resume rigorously to ensure that any mention of church activities explicitly highlighted my marketable skills, rather than my religious commitment. i’m even more rigorous about this now :) i imagine that those who have been involved in less mainstream political causes go through the same process.

    beyond listing industry-specific experiences, personal statements and resumes should demonstrate that you’ve acquired and put into practice leadership, organizational, and other useful skills. drive and passion about your beliefs is nice, too. and naming those convictions is fine, but i don’t think it should ever be central, irrespective of what sorts of convictions we’re talking about.

  2. kyzyl says

    I actually doubt that atheism was the reason you weren’t admitted to grad school. I’ve never met a professor who cared about it yet, and there are often lots of factors for someone not getting into a grad school.

    For instance, one year we had two people interview, they were fantastic, I told the one who was staying with me, “Look, if you don’t get in and really want to be here, just apply again next year.” She didn’t get in (the other guy did), applied again next year, and got in. The reason she didn’t in was mostly because the other guy already had 3 years of grad school under his belt, several publications, and two masters, and my adviser was only allowed to take one person that year.

    If you wonder why you didn’t get into a particular place, a lot of times you can just ask the professor who would have been your adviser. Many times they will let you know what went on with admissions that year or what wasn’t strong about your application. Since you got into UW, its probably not as useful, but if you were worried about the atheism, you could just ask!

  3. kyzyl says

    Besides, I doubt atheism will be the reason you don’t get an NSFGRF. Even excellent applications don’t get it for no reason other than one of the reviewers was having an off day. A complete crap-shoot. :)

  4. says

    OK so this may be a silly idea, but as a well known atheist, in the subject of scholarships/whatever (sorry, in the UK where I am its not something we really worry about too much), could you not try and generate a fund for atheist scholarships. I dunno, between you and all the other high profile atheists, surely you could get 1,000 atheist people to donate $1 a week, which could fund 1-3 people entirely or more partial fundings.

    I just see all of these religious groups awarding money and wonder, why not. You could get people applying and being proud of their atheist viewpoint instead of, it sounds like you worry about it, and thats just not right.

    Or maybe its a crackbrained idea from an overseas person who doesn’t know all the more subtle aspects of scholarships over there…

  5. Chris Busby says

    I always ask myself whether or not to include atheist-related activities on my resume and/or job applications. I think I lucked out with my NASA internship. When I arrived down at Dryden I met most of my fellow interns’ mentors, the vast majority of whom were *very* Christian (as in, hosting Bible studies in their homes); however my mentor seemed to be very apathetic about religion. I was told on day one by a fellow classmate who had worked at Dryden before that it would be best not to mention that I was an atheist. I eventually did, during my last few weeks down there only because I brought up the fact that I had hung out with the Antelope Valley Freethinkers during my time there.

  6. Nina says

    For myself it was the same when I send out resumes for jobs. Much of my xollege involvement and post college involvement involved glbt groups, some which are well known enough that even if I wanted to I couldnt hode behind an acronym.

    On a funny side note: your google ads on the side there is currently an add for a website for christian writers, lol.

  7. says

    One of our graduate students acknowledged Jesus at the end of his dissertation defense on statistical genetics. And nobody snickered, though boy, did I want to. He’s now on the faculty. I did my Ph.D. work at the University of Utah; looking back, I should have acknowledged my parents at my defense for encouraging me to think rationally and not rely on an imaginary deity to drag my ass through graduate school. Somehow I think that wouldn’t have been taken as well as what was embarrassing even to hear after the 2007 Masters (golf) tournament: “IwanttothankmypersonalLordandSaviorJesusChrist….”

    Oh, and your father is amazingly cool.

  8. dave cortesi says

    Sounds to me like you could put a positive spin on these accomplishments without mentioning anything about atheism, humanism, etc. “I founded and was president of A STUDENT GROUP that had XXX members and a budget in my final year of $YYY; it is still running N years later… I have served N years on the board of a non-profit organization that serves XXX people and has an annual budget of $YYY. I write a popular blog (typically ZZZ,ZZZ unique pageviews per week) and as a result of that, am often asked to speak at different conventions around the country.”

    This is all impressive stuff that should set you apart from the merely brilliant and deserving.

  9. geocatherder says

    I think Dave Cortesi has the right idea here. Whether you’re an atheist or not is hopefully not of interest to future employers; but if you have a talent for bringing money into a group, even if it’s the Polka-Dotted Purple Felines From Mars, that’s interesting. If you can organize those Polka-Dotted Purple Felines into a group with collective goals, that’s interesting. If you are a prolific writer and you have readers, that’s interesting. Somebody will ask you for details if they really care, and you can answer calmly and objectively without calling too much attention to the atheist issue. It’s just a part of who you are, like appreciating good chocolate or dark beer or whatever. (Yes, I know it’s MUCH more than that, but in an interview situation it shouldn’t be. Context is everything.)

  10. RosieCotton says

    Many of my friends are religious, and the other day one of them posted this joke:
    “An atheist was seated next to a little girl on an airplane and he turned to her and said, “Do you want to talk? Flights go quicker if you strike up a conversation with your fellow passenger..” The little girl, who had just started to read her book, replied to the total stranger, “What would you want to talk about?” ” Oh, I don’t know,” said the atheist. “How about why there is no God, or no Heaven or Hell, or no life after death?” as he smiled smugly. “OK,” she said. “Those could be interesting topics but let me ask you a question first. A horse, a cow, and a deer all eat the same stuff – grass. Yet a deer excretes little pellets, while a cow turns out a flat patty, but a horse produces clumps. Why do you suppose that is?” The atheist, visibly surprised by the little girl’s intelligence, thinks about it and says, “Hmmm, I have no idea.” To which the little girl replies, “Do you really feel qualified to discuss why there is no God, or no Heaven or Hell, or no life after death, when you don’t know shit.”
    It set me the fuck off. I’m an atheist, and I know lots of atheists who have never said ANYTHING about religion to a stranger. Yet I’m sure you can tell me that within the past month when meeting someone new they blatantly ask if you go to church or if you’re catholic or pentecostal or whatever. Hell, it’s happened to me THREE times in this last month- twice AT WORK and once at a party.
    Perhaps it has more to do with the fact that there are just simply MORE christians than atheists, and thus they will have a larger amount of tactless assholes in their group than we do in ours. If the tides were to change and we were to be a larger group there probably really would be assholes all over the place AGHAST at people believing in God. I think I would better prefer if people stopped giving a fuck about religion altogether and maybe start paying attention to qualities that actually MATTER like kindness, respect, punctuality, etc.

  11. JohnV says

    A friend of mine just gave me a resume. She has decent quals and normally she’d expect to get a review if a she was a reasonable match to an opening.
    She prominently lists her involvement with a lesbian organization.
    Now I’m with a fairly liberal company; Very few McCain/Palin bumper stickers in the parking lot. The trouble when you list anything controversial so prominently, the reader has to ask how important that is to you versus, oh, being an asset to the company you’re hoping to work for.
    You get multiple resumes for most openings or fellowships. What you look for are reasons to put people into the “doesn’t require further attention” pile.

    Why give them an excuse to put your application in that pile?

  12. LTFT says

    I’ve been reading Blaghag since you visited (and posted extensively on) the creation museum. Lately I’ve been disappointed with your posts.

    How do I put this… you’ve started posting some guesses about large masses of people as though those guesses were fact. This has happened when discussing both sex/gender and religious issues. The example in this post is your idea that no one (and I’m paraphrasing) would look down on religious aspects of a resume.

    This latest example is pretty benign (though it’s also false). Maybe ‘no one’ is just a kind of hyperbole. Maybe you’re having trouble defining the parameters and targets of your arguments. Maybe you are only considering the world through a very narrow lens. I don’t know. Regardless of why it is happening I think it is something that you can and should work to improve.

    I don’t mean for this to be an attack on your writing in general and certainly not on you personally. I like your blog and agree with a lot of what you say. But you’ve lost a bit of credibility with me. It pains me to say it but when I read your blog now I feel like there are enough shoddy generalizations and sloppy thinking that I have to take everything with a grain of salt.

    I’ve gone on over long, but to compare you to PZ (which is an unfair comparison, I know)… His arguments are often narrow and focused enough that, even when I disagree with his conclusions, I can’t really disagree with how he reaches those conclusions. If he’s arguing for X he always puts some weight on the scale for X even when his arguments aren’t enough to tip the scales.

    On the flip side, sometimes I read your posts and agree with your conclusions. However, I’ll disagree with the steps you took to reach those conclusions and that will make me question whether the conclusions you (and I) reached are actually valid. In other words, you sometimes actually take weight off of X’s side of the scales. That’s a problem.

  13. says

    Ha, wow. I saw this joke on facebook too, except the person who wanted to talk was a priest who wanted to tell the little girl about how Jesus can save her, and the girl responded with the poop thing. Different types of friends, I suppose.

  14. says

    “my very motivation for being a scientist is highly interrelated with my atheism. Learning about evolution led me to a naturalistic, godless worldview, and said worldview makes science and the search for truth even more important to me.”

    …that is a perfectly legitimate (beautiful) explanation and I don’t see why your being atheist detracts from you ability to be an awesome scientist.

    Good luck!

  15. Jurjen S. says

    It strikes me as a fair response to ask anyone who tells that joke, “okay, so how come deer, cows and horses produce different stools?” Call me cynical, but I doubt they know shit either. And since they’re the ones making the positive claims…

  16. anon atheist says

    I guess if not the majority than at least a large portion of the NSF reviewers are atheists. And the other ones are on average probably not very religious. What this means for putting your atheism on your resume I don’t know. Unless if you have any inside information that is mere speculation.

    On the other hand you don’t really know how much other people dial back on their engagement in church activities on their resumes. And you don’t know how these activities go down with the reviewers, as well. Sure atheists are discriminated against but assuming that applying for a NSF fellowship is too far fetched.

  17. ARB says

    I wrote about my atheism when I applied for that same NSF fellowship two years ago. I got excellent marks for both the Intellectual Merit and the Broader Impacts sections, despite discussing my atheism as a contributor to my interest in science in the Personal Statement. However, I didn’t get the fellowship. From what the faculty at my university have said, those fellowships tend to go to people who are doing their graduate work either in really famous labs or in labs that are struggling with funding issues; not to those in labs that are well-off but where the PI isn’t a kind of science rockstar.

  18. says

    I just put together a resumé two nights ago, and when I got to my “personal achievements” section I thought to myself, “They want leadership experience? I’m in my second year as president of a student org, was an officer before that, and was one of the leaders of a related club in high school. I’m all about the leadership!”

    ‘Course, my group is called Queers and Allies, and before that I helped run a Gay-Straight Alliance. And it’s painfully ironic that the president of such a club would do what I did, but I decided that in the Midwest, the best policy is not to put such a group name front-and-center on my resumé.

    If the HR department Googles my name (which I’m sure they will), they’ll run into my blog and all my atheist/queer essays, which I’m taking no pains to hide. (Come to think of it, those would have been a good demonstration of written communication skills, too….) Yet I still feel like being up-front about my group might keep me from passing the basic resumé-skimming test.

    I’m chasing smaller fish, but I think I’m in about the same boat as you, Jen.

  19. mess says

    I totally understand this. In my professional life I have had to censor my atheist beliefs for several years. Finally I just gave up and did not go out of my way to hide it. I have noticed that since leaving the US (I now live in Singapore) I do not have to censor the beliefs at all. Everyone here is so much more tolerant.

  20. brianburg says

    I would have to agree with JohnV here; most reviewers will not take offense to your particular hobbies and associations, but they definitely will rank those commitments/passions as something separate from (and competing with) your research. That’s not to say that things outside of grad school are inherently less important than your research work, just that you are competing against others who do explicitly place research ahead of having a life in their statements. (It’s certainly annoying to grad students like you and me that have other interests!)

    Maybe it’s different in Biology, but in Computer Science, I’ve found the research proposal to be the most difficult part of the application. The reviewers have written and read dozens or hundreds of grants, and you, the proposer, haven’t. Proposals are fraught with subtext, precedent, and a lot of strategic choices that are not obvious. Accessible writing is important too–even reviewers from the same department as you can have really varied backgrounds.

  21. Bruce Gorton says

    The fair response: Actually deer are usually browsers. They prefer leaves.
    And to answer the question: 1: their colons are different 2: so are their rectums 3: as is their diet/how its digested.

  22. Sarah says

    “But mentioning godlessness is still a gamble.”

    How do you know?

    “And the gamble is there no matter how diplomatically you put it. There’s always a chance someone will read what you wrote profoundly negatively.”

    But is this chance greater than if you write about your religious activism? Aren’t there more atheists than theists at high levels of science?

    “This is a shining example of the privilege religion has in our country.”

    Is it?

    “But would anyone ever think of telling them to cut those examples of leadership out because they’re associated with religion? No”

    [Citation needed]

    All you’ve said here is:

    “I am not sure if I may be getting rejected for my atheist activities, I have no idea whether religious people are getting rejected for their atheist activities, or whether anyone ever tells them to tone it down, but someone told me to tone it down therefore this is a shining example of the privilege religion has in this country”

    You’ve got no evidence that this is influencing their decisions, you’ve got no evidence that it is influencing their decisions to the detriment of atheists.

    If someone showed me an application that featured their involvement in Christian Union heavily, emphasised their starting of numerous religious interest groups and evangelical religious protest groups I might well tell them to tone it down, it’s not relevant and it makes them sound fanatical.

  23. says

    Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wanted to say that I’ve really enjoyed surfing around your blog posts. In any case I will be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!

Leave a Reply