This post is again inspired by science Twitter. A full professor and HHMI investigator at the Rockefeller University, tweeted, “Why does every PhD applicant start their essay with “since I was young, I have been curious.”
Some students (and professors) saw this as mocking young people at a fragile early stage in their careers who are trying their best to answer a vague essay question. Even worse, they saw this as using her platform as a famous professor to punch down at those from underprivileged backgrounds who may not be savvy as to what academic admissions committees are looking for. She received tweets and commentary attacking her personally as well as saying she must be a terrible mentor. Dr. Vosshall has since apologized, and the apology seems to have been well received by the science Twitter community.
I certainly would accept her apology, but there’s a really important lesson to be learned from this for all professors.
DO NOT publicly disparage anything you are reviewing/judging. Even if it’s vague and anonymized, as Dr. Vosshall’s tweet was, you still can’t do it. The students who started their essays this way are clearly going to feel like idiots if they see the tweet. Same goes for things you’re grading for classes. Same goes for grants you’re reviewing for the NIH. Do not talk about them at all, especially not in a public forum. In the case of your classes and the NIH, it’s not only unethical, but you will get yourself into potentially serious trouble.
If you can’t help yourself and feel that you must say something, then say how great the applications are. I’m currently up for a grant from a foundation, and I saw that one of the reviewers of these grants tweeted about how inspiring the applications were this year. That made me feel great even though I don’t know if he was actually talking about me.
If you must criticize, think of a better way to do it. Post a list of tips for improving essays/applications/grants/etc . Make a list of advice for making your essay stand out. Do something that is actually helpful!