Parenting While at Penn and Graduate Student Life

By Esther H. Ra, Ed.D.

Last semester, a graduate student who I had advised asked as she was leaving, if I knew any information about parenting resources for graduate students on Penn campus. As I spoke to the student, it occurred to me that in order for the student to progress in their career search or development, they had a great need for other important resources to help them along in their journey to function as a successful student at Penn. As a former Penn graduate student, who also had a family by the time I defended my dissertation, I empathized greatly with this student. I knew very well the struggle of balancing parenthood and graduate student life, particularly on Penn campus, and remembered the feeling of wanting to be connected to a network of Penn parents. For graduate students who may also be juggling parenthood, this post is dedicated to you! Since I was a graduate student, many new resources have come to existence and there are excellent opportunities and communities you can become a part of so that you don’t feel that you’re journeying alone. Not only did you embark on learning and “mastering” subject matters, but you have the privilege and adventure of parenting another life. It IS possible to do both with some help. I commend you for seeking resources that can improve your graduate student life as a parent. Here are some resources that may be of help:

The Family Resource Center at Penn: https://familycenter.upenn.edu/about-us

Join their email list learn about resources that Penn has to offer. The site can connect you to Penn parent networks, neighborhood networks, as well as national sites that can direct you to parenting resources. It’s also a hub for knowing what benefits you have as a parent while studying at Penn. There are also amenities such as a lactation room, a family lounge, a reading room, as well as nap space for kids, and books and toys. It is a wealth of information and resources and this should be your first stop at Penn for parenting resources!

Emergency Backup Childcare: https://familycenter.upenn.edu/resources-support/child-care

Every parent wants to know what childcare help they can get when an emergency occurs. Who can take care of your children should they have a snow day and you have an important meeting to attend? Penn has a resource that can cover you for backup care should you need it.

Care.com Free Resource through Penn https://pennfamilycenter.care.com/

Penn also has a wonderful Care.com resource where families can sign up to find childcare for their home. This resource can be customized for local care and Penn helps with a free membership to Care.com while you are a student.

Lactation and Baby Changing Stations

https://familycenter.upenn.edu/resources-support/lactation-resources

Are you always searching for a place to nurse or feed your baby? What about a place to change their diaper? It’s always a struggle for parents of babies and toddlers to find a safe, clean place to do what is already a tough job: nursing and changing a wiggling baby. Not only does the Family Resource Center at Penn have a lactation room, but Penn is a very lactation friendly campus with rooms located all around campus. Many of bathrooms in several of the buildings on campus also have baby friendly changing spaces.

Grants for Ph.D. Students with Dependents: https://familycenter.upenn.edu/grants

Penn also has a couple l funded family grants, specifically for PhD students. One is a Family Grant and the other Is a Dependent Health Insurance Grant. Read about the guidelines and see if you might be able to qualify. The grant cycle opens on August 27th to submit applications. If you think that these might be of interest, you will need to get in gear with all submission materials ready very soon!

PennCard & Campus Services:

https://familycenter.upenn.edu/resources-support/penncard-and-campus-services

Did you know the PennCard enables your spouse and children to access several amenities on campus? However, they each need to obtain their OWN Penn Card, which can easily be done through the PennCard Center: http://cms.business-services.upenn.edu/penncard/. The PennCard will give your spouse and children access to museums, Penn transit services, and recreational facilities.

I hope that helps with navigating family life as a graduate student! It’s not an easy road, but it’s a fun one when you have the right resources at your fingertips. Happy parenting!

The power of positive reinforcement

Dr. Joseph Barber

I was sorting through some old boxes at home the other night when I stumbled across a copy of a book I was given when I worked as a Research Fellow at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The book is called “Don’t Shoot the Dog”, and it focuses on how you can use positive reinforcement as a tool to train animals. Zoos and aquariums engage in lots of animal training, and much of this is done to help improve the welfare of the animals, and so there were plenty of opportunities for keepers to train animals at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Here are some examples of training in a zoo setting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z2a3UIu3lJc.

At home, if you have ever given your dog a treat when it sits down on command then you are using positive reinforcement. In fact, if you have ever enthusiastically and immediately thanked a faculty member for writing a reference letter for a job application at short notice, then you have also used positive reinforcement. When it comes to animal training, humans are just as animaly as all the other animals out there. Positively reinforcing a behaviour increases the likelihood that the behaviour will occur more frequently in the future. Effective positive reinforcement increases the energy in the room when you are working with other people or animals, and creates a more positive environment for whatever project you are working on. If you can find the right reinforcer, and can provide it immediately after the behaviour you want to promote has been performed, then you on your way to being able to improve your relationships with peers, advisors, students in your classrooms, bosses, family, and your various companion animals.

When thinking about career exploration and the job search, there are many situations where positive reinforcement can be helpful. There are also many times where people miss opportunities to use this approach. Here are some common issues:

  • You speak with an alum at a networking event, but don’t send a brief thank email within 24 hours.
  • Your advisor rushes to write a reference letter for you, but you don’t acknowledge the extra work they did, thank them, or let them know when you got the job.
  • A recruiter emails you with an update on a position you are applying to, but you don’t respond to their email promptly.

A positive reinforcer tells the recipient that the behaviour they just performed is good. The more you reinforce the behaviour, the more often it will occur. However, not providing any reinforcement, or providing it too long after the behaviour is performed, gives the recipient no information, provides no positive energy, and so there is no impetus for them to do more of the behaviour in the future. When you are looking for jobs or internships, this means thanking people often and quickly, and being prompt with your upbeat responses when you see people working on your behalf at any point in the job search process.

If you are looking for an easy summer read, then take a look at this book, and see how you might be able to take proactive steps towards maximizing the many benefits that positive reinforcement can have as you engage with your network.

Why Do We Talk Badly About Ourselves?

Dr. Joseph Barber

When I give a mock interview to a student, I occasionally ask the classic question that still pops up in interviews in various forms: “What is your greatest strength?” The answer that students give usually starts off sounding something like this:

“Um … well …I think my greatest strength is …”

This hesitant, uncertain beginning doesn’t really fill the listener with much confidence, especially when the pauses are long. If I ask the related “What is your greatest weakness?” question (still common in interviews in a range of different career fields), the answer I get is noticeably differently. It’s usually without any of the pauses heard in the previous answer and goes something like this:

“Well, one of my weaknesses is [weakness that sometimes is the strength they just talked about in the other answer], and I also have a hard time [second weakness], and also [third weakness] …”

Students and postdocs are far more comfortable talking about their weaknesses than their strengths. We can debate the usefulness of these particular interview questions, but they do illustrate a general lack of confidence that some students and postdocs have in their own abilities — or at least the lack of practice they have in communicating their abilities to others.

Perhaps this is common at all levels of education. But I will discuss below certain aspects of higher education that increase the likelihood that people are not comfortable highlighting what they are good at doing. This hesitation and reluctance to talk positively about one’s strengths can be a significant issue when applying and interviewing for jobs.

Knowledge and Expertise

I teach an online master’s degree course about animal behavior and welfare at Hunter College. This year as part of my online course, I combined one of my career-focused workshops on networking that I normally give at Penn with the animal welfare topics we are discussing. The outcome was an exciting, chimeric lecture that covered networking strategies my students can use to connect with welfare experts in the field from whom they can learn more about the course’s topics.

It was fun to do, because it combined the two aspects of my professional identify into one cohesive whole, albeit for one lecture. As part of the online discussion forum for this lecture, I asked the students to think about how they might describe themselves as part of their introduction and elevator pitch. And I gave them a series of questions to answer as a way to explore the positive aspects of their professional identity:

  • Thinking about the knowledge you have, what are you an expert in?
  • Thinking about your skills, what are you an expert in doing?
  • What makes you stand out from others like you in a positive way?
  • What positive words do others use to describe you?
  • Why do people seek you out when they need help?
  • How can people benefit from working with you?

Of all the questions, the first one seemed to cause the most trouble. Here are five examples of the responses I received:

  1. I don’t think I’m an expert in anything yet.
  2. I wouldn’t say I’m an expert in anything, but …
  3. I don’t believe I am an expert in anything, although …
  4. I don’t think I am an expert at anything, however …
  5. Many of the people in my life would consider me an expert in animals and their behavior. This is nowhere near the case.

It is true that it is impossible to be all knowing in any research field. New discoveries are always happening. New, fascinating papers are always being published — many remain unread because there’s simply not enough time in the day. Given all that, no one can ever be an expert in anything. Let’s take a closer look at one definition of the word expert: “a person who has a comprehensive and authoritative knowledge of or skill in a particular area.” Since no one can have all knowledge, even students can have sufficient knowledge in a field to be experts in it if they can also share that knowledge confidently enough. (It’s how I might define authoritative.)

In fact, no matter what your research is on, if you have been focusing on it for a few years, you will be an expert in not only the topic but also the methodologies used to study it. You will also have expertise in understanding the broader field of your topic: what other research people are conducting about it and who those people are, what questions remain unanswered, where the best source of information for your topic area can be found, which ideas are controversial, and so forth. The fact that some people may have more knowledge or experience doesn’t actually make you less of an expert.

After the “but,” “although” and “however” in responses No. 2, No. 3, and No. 4 above, my Hunter students did actually share their expertise — but only after saying that they didn’t have any! The phrasing of response No. 2 is interesting, because if you don’t highlight your own abilities, then who will? Your reference writers will, but in between the long periods of time applying for a job when someone might read a formal reference letter, you should take responsibility for advocating for yourself.

And when other people do talk up your expertise (see response No. 5 above), then definitely build this into a professional narrative, because it can become part of your professional brand. What people say about you can give others a positive impression of you — that is, as long as you don’t deny it and can illustrate these skills in action as you are telling stories about your experiences.

Critical Feedback and Positive Reinforcement

Another common attribute of doing research in a higher education setting is that most of the feedback you get will be critical. Now, critical doesn’t mean negative, but it certainly doesn’t mean positive, either. Professors, mentors, book and journal editors, and random scholars at conferences are always more than happy to tell you where your research falls short, what you have failed to looked at, and why your argument is wrong. What is generally missing is a plentiful supply of positive reinforcement for all the things you got right about your research approach.

In animal training terms, a reinforcer is something that increases the likelihood that a behavior is performed more frequently. A positive reinforcer is something that animals are motivated to work for. If you want your dog to shake your hand with its paw, then giving it a yummy treat as soon as it lifts its paw will help it make an association between paw lifting and treats. Your dog will lift its paw more frequently if it knows treats may be coming, and you can use this to shape its behavior by reinforcing only the movements you are seeking.

In terms of academic research, few students receive a plentiful supply of positive reinforcement during the course of their daily research, and rarely are specific skills highlighted. Advisers and principal investigators should always be encouraged to do that more often. But students and postdocs can also seek to put their skills into practice in situations outside their academic research where positive reinforcement is more likely.

For example, if you set up a departmental panel of alumni to talk about their post-Ph.D. experiences, the panelists will probably express their gratitude to you for having the opportunity to share their advice. Attendees who found it helpful will thank you for organizing the event. You are demonstrating relationship-building, event-organizing and project-management skills that the positive feedback you are receiving will reinforce. The more these types of skills are strengthened and applauded through your involvement with a student or postdoc group, volunteering projects or other side gigs you may be working on, the more you will actually believe that you have them — and the more natural it will seem to you when you talk about them.

People worry that by highlighting what they are good at they will come off as bragging, self-important individuals. The way to avoid that becoming a reality is to practice telling stories about your skills rather than just saying that you have them. If you wanted someone to know you have good leadership skills, then simply announcing that you are a great leader is really not going to sound very convincing. But if you tell a story about a time when you used your leadership skills, the challenge you faced and what you did to overcome it, then you help people to experience your skills in a more meaningful way. If you also reflect on what you found enjoyable about the experience you had and what you learned from it, then you will find that people will begin to form an image of you in their own minds where your skills are prominently defined — not because you told them you have these skills, but because you depicted them in action.

Don’t let the sometimes cold, harsh academic environment make you doubt you have marketable skills for a wide range of career paths. You really do have them. You can certainly develop them further, but you must take every opportunity to practice talking about them to others. The more you do, the more they will become a natural part of your professional identity.

To Adjunct or not to Adjunct, That Is the Question

By Dr. Esther Ra, Advisor in the School of Nursing, Graduate School of Education, and School of Social Policy and Practice

Recently, I have had several students inquire about teaching as an adjunct in community colleges and in neighboring universities in Philadelphia. Have you ever wondered about teaching as an adjunct faculty member? What exactly is this and what does it entail? As someone who has been teaching since my doctoral student days, I do get frequently asked about how one can break into this arena.

What exactly is an adjunct faculty member and what do you do?

An adjunct faculty member or professor is someone who teaches university level courses on a contractual basis, sometimes renewing a contract from semester to semester. The word “adjunct” means supplementary or auxiliary, and as an adjunct professor, you are exactly that, an additional faculty member who has been hired to help teach courses for a department. While adjunct professors are not hired at the level of a tenure-track professor, nor are they one of the main professors in the department, adjuncts are relied upon to do a part (and sometimes it is a large part) of the load of teaching in the department. Typically, adjunct faculty are not expected to participate in research, partake in department committee work, or delve into university service. While it’s not expected for an adjunct to do such activities, many do dabble in some of the same work as tenure-track professors, depending on their interests and time. Above all, an adjunct faculty member will be expected to have an experienced skill set in teaching at the college level, (and in some cases, the graduate level), which will most likely be the sole focus and expectation of the adjunct.

Why Do You Want to Adjunct?

In some respect, it’s important to think about why one would like to take on an adjunct faculty position. Do you want to improve your teaching skill set? Do you want to become more familiar with a topic in your field? Do you want to have a better understanding of working with undergraduate students or graduate students? There’s a myriad of reasons why many people would like to have an adjunct job, but it’s important to pinpoint a direct reason. Adjuncting is not always a glamorous position, nor does the pay and recognition correlate to the level of education a typical adjunct achieves, often a PhD or a master’s in a given field. Knowing why you want to pursue this path, as well as, what you’d like to gain from it, is important to know before jumping two feet into this world. The frustrations of adjunct life are notorious (and I won’t delve into them here), and one may grow jaded early on in the process. Without a clear understanding of goals, the teaching load may sideswipe a newbie, if not tempered in thought and expectation.

How Does Adjunct Hiring Work?

Without getting into the controversy of adjunct hiring, if you would like to enhance your teaching in higher education in a part-time capacity, adjunct teaching is a great way to develop this skill set. Even with lesser duties than a tenure-track professor, an adjunct position is often difficult to negotiate. I am often told by students who come to see me during appointments, that they have a difficult time breaking into this world. I would have to agree with them, that it IS a difficult arena to crack, however, it is also important to note, that even though an adjunct is auxiliary in a department, your CV cannot be “auxiliary.” Your CV still needs to be impressive and polished. With many students in the wings eager to become an adjunct – whether it be a doctoral student, a newly minted PhD, or a seasoned higher education administrator, positions do not avail themselves equal to the number of highly qualified individuals who graduate from master’s and doctoral programs. Keep this in mind as you apply to jobs! It can very much be a waiting game, but if you’re patient, the right opportunity may come knocking on your door.

With that being said, depending on where you are interested in teaching, typically most adjuncts have their doctoral degrees and are well versed in the courses they teach. They are often familiar with the content and courses books for the courses taught, by way of their own research or interests. In some cases, particularly in smaller colleges and community colleges, an accomplished individual with their master’s can also fill an adjunct role. Knowledge and extensive practical experience in the content area is a huge plus in this case, and highly valued.

Networking to Find an Adjunct Position

As with many jobs, networking to find an adjunct position is likely one of the best strategies for finding a job in the field you hope to teach. Start by talking to your advisor. Perhaps you could serve as a Teaching Assistant in one of the courses you’ve taken before that you enjoyed. Perhaps, you could offer to grade and take care of administrative duties of a course before attempting to teach one on your own. Likely without direct teaching experience or course management experience, either in a teaching or graduate assistantship, it will be difficult to be competitive for an adjunct position.

If you’ve already talked to your advisor, consider approaching other professors, either in the same department or in other departments. To do this successfully, you must look to see what content you are familiar with and what you would feel comfortable teaching. There is a lot of overlap in departments and you could be eligible to teach in several departments, depending on the need. For example, an individual who studied educational policy, may be useful in a higher education department, but could also be relevant in a social policy department. Often the interdisciplinary nature of one’s own interests lends itself to opportunities, not just in one field, but in several fields. Take a good, hard look at your training and comfort level, and I am willing to bet, ideas to pursue several different departments will emerge. Brainstorm with your advisors and get their input.

Contacting Departments/Schools to Apply/ Strategic Informational Interviewing

It may seem archaic, but sometimes, cold contacting or networking is a strategy one may need to employ. Why? As a student or a newly minted PhD, these positions may already be filled by senior adjuncts, who have been teaching the same courses year after year. In this case, it may be beneficial to look outside your department. In addition, your interest area may be quite specific and only a handful of universities will have the fields you are interested in teaching. This is often the case, particularly in certain fields with those who have obtained a PhD. An example of this may be a newly minted PhD graduate, a historian of a specific era of US history; some departments can only have allowances for one or maybe two adjuncts in this area, depending on the size of their school. If it’s a specific niche, the opportunities may be even tougher to find. This is when contacting department heads and or hiring professors, or even human resources of colleges and universities who host your field, would be a strategic move. Call the appropriate professors or email them. Introduce yourself and your interest areas and ask to set up an informational interview. Send your CV. It may be that your CV is held “on file” with a “pool of adjuncts.” You may need to play the waiting game, at which time, you may be called when a position becomes available. It takes strategic networking and follow up. This all takes much time and patience. Obtaining an adjunct position isn’t impossible, but it can be challenging without taking strategic steps. As a teacher educator myself, I will tell you that it can be an immensely rewarding position. There is a joy in sharing your expertise and experience with students, and/or new trainees in your field.  While I am fully aware there is a whole host of politics that accompany adjunct hiring, almost all faculty members I know, don’t stay teaching as an adjunct for the compensation (because the pay can be dismal) or for the recognition. They enjoy developing and keeping abreast of their skills, furthering themselves in a field of interest, and sharing their trained knowledge with university students.

Centre for Multilingualism and Diversities Research

This is the next in a series of posts by recipients of the 2018 Career Services Summer Funding Grant. We’ve asked funding recipients to reflect on their summer experiences and talk about the industries in which they’ve been spending their summer. You can read the entire series here.

This entry is by Esther Yoshiko Liu, GSE ’19

With my goal of becoming a university-based Language Policy & Planning expert, I arranged my unpaid mid-Master’s program internship at the Centre for Multilingualism and Diversities Research at University of Western Cape this past summer. Through my Research Fellows position there, enabled by generous Penn Career Services funding, I built an experiential base from which to discern whether and where to pursue doctoral studies.

In South Africa, I tried on the linguistic anthropologist’s hat for fit – an awkward, floppy hat by design. Channeling Hortense Powdermaker, diving into the process of inscribing community contexts and the full humanity of others, discovering how culture shock and difference are the heart and soul of my field; these tasks of suspending my own norms to subject myself to others’ constraints, and immersing myself as deeply, widely, and openly as possible in human interactions and communicative events were rehumanizing and restorative. They strengthened my intercultural agility and built confidence that I am well wired for this line of work. Through engaging with Southern theory I grew in understanding of my own University’s place of power and privilege, which granted perspective and conviction on how to steward these well through my own academic pursuits.

I collaborated with global leaders in the field of Language Policy & Planning, notably, through working at the 20th International Congress of Linguists. There at my first major academic conference, I was surprised by the approachability of the top scholars (whom I’d previously encountered only by way of footnotes), how invested they were in encouraging graduate students and young/beginning researchers, how they embodied the professional values to which I aspire. I was entrusted with mentoring undergrads and Master’s students in ethnographic field methods, and appreciated “interning” in the fullest sense: My supervisors treated me like a colleague, and gave me concrete opportunities to be (as if) one of them.

I evaluated pious ambitions of South Africa’s multilingual language policy, which grants 11 previously stratified languages equal constitutional footing against the actual implementation of these policies on the ground in creches, colleges, and communities. Outside of 9-to-5 office hours, I got enveloped into the wide web of Western Cape families, and welcomed into their life events, including weddings, funerals, baby showers, 50th birthday bashes, and more — an anthropologist’s dream! All this occurred in a climate of resource scarcity, as Cape Town is limping out of its recent water crisis, and as the historically disadvantaged university where I was based continues to establish itself as a top research institution in Africa. This context accentuated how language differences are implicated in negotiating access to vital resources, and whose concerns get voiced and heard.

The role of language in political conflict and social inequity is often ignored. But within Educational Linguistics, my division at Penn GSE, we examine how language practices and policies (especially through institutionalized education) can either disrupt or reproduce these economic and educational inequalities. My summer research experience put these processes of interactional sociolinguistics under the microscope, and confirmed my abiding interest in linguistic justice as it relates to diversity and human flourishing. It extended my commitment to work through linguists’ lenses, stewarding the great resources and training at Penn to contribute to illuminating the correlative and causal relationships between social fragmentation and language grievances.