I'm the Urban Spaceman
I’m going to be leaving in a few days so I went in this morning to speak to the Chairman of the department and ask if he could give me a certificate of experience.
“Sure, just write one and I’ll sign it,” he said.
I hate it when professors say that. Write your own recommendation letter. I cannot write my own recommendation letter. I don’t know what to say. Do I act all reserved and modest, offering only slight concessions of approval to suggest my competence (“his performance was found to be satisfactory”) or do I go all out and emblazon the certificate with undeniable proof of my staggering genius (“I wish he was my son”)? It’s a tricky balance that I’ve never been able to master.
I went upstairs to the library and sat down in front of a computer. It’s best to start off by describing the institute you’re working in, I thought. Gives the reader an idea of the sort of professional work environment you were part of and the levels of commitment involved.
I wrote a paragraph introducing the institute and all its various facilities. The different departments, the patient turnover, the structured academic environment. Set down on paper it sounded very impressive. There is a sort of mental filter that operates during these self-congratulatory exercises. You’re careful to omit prickly little details, like a thermometer left overnight in an armpit. Or a broken-down blood gas machine and attendants running around in the middle of the night, clutching blood samples and asking for directions to local laboratories. None of this is written.
“Dr KK worked on the busy nephrology service at our hospital.” At least this was true.
“He demonstrated a wide knowledge base.” I thought of the day on rounds when the consultant asked something simple and I was the only one who knew the answer. Though unfair, the consultant had appreciated me and scolded the others for being lazy. I toyed with the idea of inserting a commendable in there somewhere.
“His data-gathering and clinical skills were good.” A few days ago, Dr Faraz and I were practicing our physical exam skills on one of the patients on the ward. We both have exams coming up and we wanted to brush up on technique and time ourselves to the requirement. Our patient was an old gentleman with chronic hepatitis and metastatic cancer who had very graciously allowed us to examine him. We spend a good twenty minutes on him, digging into his abdomen to locate the liver, beating out percussion notes on his back to demarcate the fluid collection in his lungs. It must have been an uncomfortable experience. When I thanked him before leaving, he looked at me gratefully and said, “No, thank you, doctor. You examined me so thoroughly, I feel half my illness is already gone.”
“He shared a good relationship with his colleagues.” They spoilt me. They taught me, they took care of me, they paid for my food. They were an indefatigable source of friendship and humor.
“And worked well with paramedical staff.” Especially that one nurse who woke me up on call one night, sobbing helplessly into the phone, “Why won’t his seizures stop?!” She was referring to a young boy with hypocalcemia and refractory seizures. He died a few days later.
“What are you doing?” I heard a voice behind me.
It was Dr Anwar, one of the senior residents.
“I’m writing a recommendation letter for myself.”
“Oh, let me read it.” I let him have a look.
“What does didactic mean?”
“Academic, related to lectures and book learning.”
“Oh, ok,” he said. “This is good.”
“It doesn’t sound too fake, does it? You think he’ll sign it?”
“Sure,” he said smiling. “You’re a hard worker, Dr KK. You will be successful.”
“Thanks, Dr Anwar. Nice of you to say that.”
I printed the letter out and took it back to the chairman’s office. What would he say to my embellishments? Maybe I should take out the part where it says I make his heart weep with joy. It would be very embarrassing if he started crossing out stuff or asked me to re-write it.
The professor took the draft from me and, without even looking at it, signed over his designation.