The first recommendation letter I ever wrote for someone was under extremely ironic circumstances. An international colleague I had briefly worked with wanted a letter of support for their green card/permanent residency application in the US. I was a postdoc in Germany then, trying very hard to find a faculty position in the US. I applied for innumerable positions, almost a few every week, got Skype-interviewed by some, but never heard back. I never got invited for campus interviews. It was one of the darker times in my career when I was constantly engulfed in worry, self-doubt, and fear that the situation would never change and I might be a postdoc all my life. To write a letter vouching for someone about why they should be able to stay and work in the US long-term was ironic.
I did write that letter eventually, and a stellar one too. My situation was independent of their situation, and as colleagues, we support each other to get established. But this was not before I emailed them back asking why they were considering me as a potential referee. What I did not ask directly was, "Why should people reviewing your application believe me when I myself have been unable to find a faculty position in the US?" I asked if a letter of support coming from someone outside the US would be effective at all. What they said was eye-opening.
“Are you kidding me? You are an international scholar who has worked in both the US and Germany. A letter from you would be incredible.”
The revelation was eye-opening. As intuitive as it is, I was not viewing myself as an international researcher. I was viewing myself as a researcher who was struggling to find a position in the US, and was hence working in Germany. Rather than approaching my situation from a position of abundance, I was approaching it from a position of deficit.
In life, reality is subjective, not single, and there are often multiple perspectives to it. The fact that I was struggling to gain my foothold in the US was a reality (more real for me). And the fact that I had work experience in multiple countries as a result was also a reality (more real for my colleague).
It made me wonder how often had I undermined myself similarly. How often I had focused on the “don’t haves” and not on the “haves.” No one knows why. There could be interesting age and gender trends to it too. I grew up in a culture where highlighting one’s accomplishments was considered bragging or showing off. And I now work in a culture where it is not just necessary, but imperative to highlight one’s accomplishments. We do that in conferences and meetings. We create websites to show the vast expanse of the work that we have done. It’s a cultural shift that takes some time and experience in getting used to.
I often tend to think, “Shit! I have no experience running structural equation models.”
However, I usually don’t think, “I have some good grant writing and collaborative experience now.”
This email exchange taught me to position myself from a perspective of abundance and NOT from a perspective of deficit. I started enlisting every achievement I should have highlighted earlier. The list wasn’t spectacular, but not bad either. Along with being my own critic, I also became my own champion.
My colleague eventually got their permanent residency. And I got my faculty position. The department told me how excited they are to have a colleague with international experience. People started viewing me in a certain way only after I started viewing myself in that way.