Open Letter to the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program Committee

4 minute read


When I applied to the NSF GRFP last year in 2018, one of my reviews referred to me as ‘he/him’ throughout the entire review. In frustration, I quickly penned this tweet. I didn’t think that this was actually too big of deal, but then after hearing about how widespread this mistake is made, I decided to then pen a letter to the NSF GRFP committee about the incident and the message it sends. The letter is included below and up to this date, there has been no response after emailing the letter.

Dear NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program Committee,

I am writing today in response to my reviews for my Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) application. In one of the reviewer’s feedback, they referred to me as ‘he/him throughout the entirety of the review despite my application describing myself as a woman in engineering and my goals of increasing the percentage of women in computer science. Furthermore, this particular reviewer’s summary and comments do not mention any content relating to my personal statement. This leads me to believe that this reviewer did not take the time to fully read my application, rather than this error being due to a lapse in word choice.

Whichever case is true, I then ask to why the usage of ‘he/him’ is the default pronoun to address an applicant? I acknowledge that the majority of scientists in many disciplines are male, but the reality is that there is no ‘default’, as this is the antithesis of change and progress, something I believe many scientists can attest to. I also understand that reviewers devote numerous hours to write comments for these applications and that it is possible to miss or misinterpret parts of an application. But I implore the reviewers to imagine the time it took to actually live the experiences that we write about and the time to develop the expertise about the research we propose.

This was all caused by a mistake in wording on a review, but the message it conveys is that maybe the mistake is me. This instance sends the message that I intrinsically do not belong. If this portion of my application was not actually read, then the default is that I am a man. If I offer my experiences as a woman, it is cast into those experiences of a man. Maybe it is I who do not fit the mold of a scientist since I do not fit the ‘he/him’.

This situation in isolation is not egregious, and I hope my letter does not convey this. However, when these small situations go unaddressed, they eventually add up to too much weight to bear, causing both current and potential scientists to depart. A quote from the recent NYT article about the women at the Salt Institute expresses this very poignantly, “’A ton of feathers still weighs a ton’”. I take this review as another feather. However, I am not alone as many other students have mentioned that this too has happened in their applications. With over 12,000 applications submitted every year, I guarantee that already a ton of feathers have been left in reviews.

I do not ask for a re-evaluation of my application. I ask that the NSF GRFP committee and reviewers become aware of this problem and the downstream consequences that these seemingly minor details have on the applicants and the message it sends. Furthermore, this is more than gender pronouns, it is about any applicant or scientist who feels that they do not belong in a research area due to reasons that are mutually exclusive from their work and wholly attributable to features about themselves that they cannot change and should not want to change. I think there has already been tremendous progress in developing scientists that fully represent the global community that we seek to serve, and I hope this letter aids in that progress.


Ruth Dolly Johnson