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.

Career Certainty – and the Uncertainty of It All

Dr. Joseph Barber

I have always enjoyed working in fields that include a lot of gray areas — those nebulous, intangible zones between something being absolutely correct and being incorrect. After all, if there is a singular right and wrong answer, it means you have much less room for creativity or flexibility — and I like thinking creatively. Career advising is one of these gray-area fields because one’s future career path is not predetermined.

That means that whenever someone meets with me looking for absolute clarity on their next career move, they are probably not going to leave my office with a singular answer. Instead, I’ll suggest a series of action steps that they can take to build confidence in the answers that they’ll discover on their own through a variety of different networking and exploration processes. I recognize, however, that when you want easy answers, receiving a “series of action steps that you can take to build confidence in the answers that you will discover on your own through a variety of different networking and exploration processes” doesn’t always feel so satisfying.

All that said, even within the field of career advising, you can, in fact, take certain actions that have very predictable outcomes. And it is worth thinking about some of these as illustrations of what career certainties can look like.

Writing generic applications. You unquestionably won’t get 50 job interviews if you send 50 versions of the same résumé with a cover letter that only differs because you remembered to change the name of the employer in the text (but not always in the file name of the attached document — oops!). You can find out why here, but you can probably guess that 50 different hiring managers at 50 different companies are each looking for something specific to their needs and interests. Generic applications certainly won’t interest people — and even more certainly, they won’t impress companies’ tracking software that scans applications to see if they match keywords in the job description. The robots like relevant keywords, and they are not so good at reading between the lines.

Downplaying your expertise. If you don’t apply for a job because you personally think you might not have enough experience for it — if they are asking for, say, three to four years of using a set of skills and perhaps you only have one — then you definitely won’t get an interview. If you write in a cover letter, “Although I don’t have the three to four years of experience you are seeking, I do have …” they will certainly agree with your lack of experience and probably won’t see what you do have.

But if you describe your actual experience, and tell them in words they are familiar with based on your research into the field and the many informational interviews you’ve had, you will make a much better impression. You can never be absolutely sure what a hiring manager is actually looking for in a new hire, so let them be the judge of your experience. They may see potential in your background that you can’t see from your perspective.

Raising no interview questions. If you don’t have questions at the end of a job interview, you are most assuredly increasing the chances you won’t be asked back for another one, much less given an offer. If you are uncertain why, then read this.

Predicting when job offers will come in. When you receive multiple job offers, you will probably never be able to get them all to line up at the same time so that you can choose between them — no matter how well you negotiate or stall for more time. And just as it seems that buttered bread always lands butter side down when dropped, it can certainly feel like offers from less preferred employers always come first. They also have more immediate turnaround times than offers from the employers you really want. I have met with many students and postdocs who have an offer on the table from a less preferred employer that will probably expire before they can even complete the interviewing process for a more preferred one. No one can know for sure what will happen in the future if that first offer is turned down or accepted.

Not negotiating. You will certainly regret not negotiating. You may not feel it all at once in the glow of receiving and immediately accepting a job offer, but over time, you will increasingly wish you had asked for something. You don’t have to negotiate for much to feel satisfied that you have advocated for yourself. A small salary increase, a reduction in your teaching load for a couple of years or priority access to your new employer’s day-care facilities can all make a meaningful contribution to how you feel. But you should always negotiate positively — and do so as confidently as possible.

Questioning your decisions. You will always look for career certainty as you make your decisions. But in most situations, once you make a choice, you will remain a little in doubt about your future career prospects. Will your decision get you closer to your dream job or employer, or will it take you down a path that will lead you away from it? You can never tell for sure.

The thing about career uncertainty is that it actually exists no matter what choice you make. And while that may sound a little scary, if we flip the narrative around, it means that there aren’t really any wrong choices. You will have to make many different choices. Some will be strategic ones that move you toward some future career goal, some will be more immediate to address a crucial need (e.g., financial) and some will be less about the work and more about your family or personal well-being.

Each is valid in its own way. As long as you have given thought to why you have made the choice and are committed to making the most of the situation, you can continue to leverage the experience you gain in any role for whatever future career move you choose to make.

Here are five steps that I would certainly recommend once you have made a career choice in order to feel satisfied that you can make the most out of it:

  1. Thank everyone who has helped in your job search, especially your references.
  2. Take advantage of any training or mentoring available in your new role.
  3. Make a concerted effort to grow your network within your new employer, as well as within the employers’ broader professional industry.
  4. Identify new skills or knowledge you can gain in your new role that you didn’t have before.
  5. After you have settled into the new role, begin to think about the different career steps you can take next, and what you will need to do for each of them.

You can always learn from the past decisions you have made. But rather than second-guessing a previous career choice, invest your energy in developing a forward-looking strategy that will help you be as informed and confident as possible when taking the next step.

CS Radio – Episode 70: “The CS Internet of Things”

Celebrating 70 episodes!  Special guest Helen Pho, Associate Director at Penn Career Services, joins us to talk about the major overhaul coming to the PhD and Postdoc section of our website.  While on the topic, Michael and Mylène highlight other new additions and classic hidden gems of the sometimes overwhelming CS website.  Enjoy!

Show Notes
Graduate Student landing page (Will update to new site when live)
New Digital Career Resources page

CS Radio – Episode 66: “Resume Pitfalls”

Welcome to Season Four!

Your hosts A. Mylène Kerschner and J. Michael DeAngelis are back, along with producer Karen Yang for another season of career information, advice and insight for the University of Pennsylvania community and other career seekers!

This week, Mylène takes a deep dive into some of the hidden resume pitfalls she’s seen students falling into this semester, and then Michael takes us on a quick tour of CareerShift, the newest digital platform in the Career Services portfolio.

Enjoy!