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.