Step up and say “I want to become a professor!”

Interview with Isabel Dziobek

Isabel Dziobek, Professor at the Berlin School of Mind and Brain at Humboldt University and Fellow of the Max Plank School of Cognition talks about her passion for science, how important it is to develop self-confidence as a scientist and how this can be supported by targeted leadership programs.

Professor Dziobek, what is your research about?

My research is about social interaction: I am trying to understand what social interaction is, what factors make it smooth, successful, and also enjoyable for individuals. Processes that I look at in this context are for instance the reading of other peoples‘ mental states, the understanding and deciphering of social signals such as facial expressions, voice intonation, but also social emotion regulation or stereotype formation. My main focus basically lies on cognitive and emotional processes that occur in the context of social interaction.

I am also interested in what happens if these processes break down, as in the context for instance of psychiatric disorders that involve impairments in social interaction, such as autism spectrum disorder or personality disorders, or social anxiety disorders.

Apart from being a researcher, I am also a psychotherapist and head of an outpatient clinic for individuals with social interaction disorders. So overall, my work is concerned both with basic research on social interaction as well as more applied research.

What motivated you to join the Max Planck School of Cognition?

I love to work with junior scientists – even more so, if they are very talented. When I had the chance to become a Fellow of the Max Planck School of Cognition, I was very excited right away. It is an excellent program with really outstanding teaching. I am convinced that it attracts some of the finest and most talented junior researchers internationally. Being able to recruit them into my group, was what attracted me immediately: Having talented, curious, engaged and committed young people in the team does not only inspire me, but positively affects and forms the whole research group.

What motivates you personally to do your job every day?

I feel blessed that I have a profession that I really love. There are many things that motivate me, but in particular the creative parts of my job do. Such creative activities can be thinking about new paradigms to tackle certain cognitive mechanisms or identifying new interventions that would help our patients. I very much enjoy doing such creative endeavours together with my PhD students or postdocs.

Another aspect that inspires me every day is that some of our clinical applications really help individuals who have problems in social interaction. It is very rewarding to see how our work translates from identifying basic mechanisms into a more applied arena, where we can develop effective tools to tackle disorders. Currently, we are for instance engaged in studies on robotics, where we design interventions that help children and adults with autism to deal with some of the social problems they are facing.

Can you recall a certain moment in your life when you realized that this is what you want to do for the rest of your career?

Looking back, I would say that it started with my PhD at New York University, where I worked in the field of autism and designed a test to measure social cognition. I very much enjoyed interacting with individuals with autism in the context of my study and in self-help-groups, where I recruited my study participants. The center that I worked at was actually concerned with dementia and not with autism research. That’s why I had to find my own ways of recruiting subjects. Developing this topic for my PhD at the side by myself needed my full attention, which kept me going and also motivated.

However, it took me a few years more to take the professional decision to stay in research and become a professor. This was in part also due to the fact that I did not dare to think that I was going to be an actual scientist. My self-confidence had to grow over the years. Only when I was an advanced postdoc with a junior research group, starting to apply for professorships, I had grown into daring to say “I want to become a professor”.

At that time, I had also been part of a female leadership program, PROFIL, which accompanied postdocs from a postdoctoral level to a professor position. The program tought us important skills you do not learn at university, such as writing professorship applications, developing lectures and presenting oneselves successfully throughout the appointment procedure. My self-confidence grew as a result of these very targeted teachings to further develop my career.

After all, I am convinced that becoming a professor is also a matter of self-confidence and self-image that you need to develop as a scientist. People are not going to run after you and throw a professorship at you. On the contrary, you need to be able to stand up and to communicate that you want to have a certain position. This is also something that we as professors need to keep in mind as mentors for our PhD students and postdocs.

Did you have any role models in your career as a young scientist?

My PhD supervisor, Professor Oliver Wolf, who is a professor in Bochum, was a very good mentor. He did not only encourage me to do my research and gave me extremely helpful scientific feedback, but he was also interested in me as a person. He motivated me to keep up a career and supported me in many ways. Looking back however, I would have wished to have more female role models, too.

Now I have a few women that I really look up to, that I admire for the way they work as scientist and they way they are as persons, such as Rebecca Saxe (MIT) and Soyoung Park (Charité Universitätsmedizin Berlin / German Institute of Human Nutrition).

Do you think that programs such as the female leadership program you referred to, are necessary in particular for females in science and if yes, why?

I think those programs are extremely helpful for anybody, but especifically for women. We know that there is a gender gap in science: Only about a third of all scientists are female and in Europe only about 10 percent of the senior leadership positions in science are held by females. We do need better efforts to narrow this gap because we know that females are just as talented as males, and that gender diverse science is of higher quality. So I am convinced that we need to harvest more the female potential out there.

These leadership programs that are specifically geared towards career development for women, help not only with supporting females in terms of self-image, giving them the soft skills for the application process, but also in terms of providing networks. In other words: Females team up to help each other in their career endeavours, similar to how we see it working for men.

From my experience, females operate differently in the workspace than males. Women won‘t get these positions as quickly and frequently because they are often too hesitant to claim “I want to become a professor” as early and as loud as their male counterparts. So I think providing targeted support here is very useful.

I try to provide this support to both female and male PhD students in my group. Once a year, I offer career talks. Here I provide feedback and career development advice; we talk about options, next steps, what I can do to support certain moves. Usually, this is perceived as very helpful.

What helped you as a PhD student and what advice could you give to the students of the Max Planck Schools?

I think it is important to always keep in mind what really interests you. And then obviously take advantage of the great knowledge and skills that you are tought at the Max Planck School of Cognition: I can only encourage everybody to take as much in as possible during that time, also because later management and bureaucracy become a large part of the job. So it is good to have a solid base of knowledge early on.

But also don’t forget to keep a healthy work-life-balance. Work and studies should not take over your lives. Stay healthy, take care of yourself and maintain a social life during that time – which is certainly now especially important during the COVID pandemic.

Thank you very much for the interview, Mrs. Dziobek.


Helena Schwarzenbeck asked questions on behalf of the Max Planck Schools.

Isabel Dziobek

Isabel Dziobek

Research interests: • social cognition/interaction, empathy, Theory of Mind, emotion and face processing • development and validation of tests and interventions for socio-emotional competencies and empathy • kinesthetic empathy and socio-emotional effects of synchronization • neuronal correlates of social cognition using functional and structural MRI • social interaction disorders (e.g. autism spectrum conditions, personality disorders, schizophrenia) • biological basis as well as diagnosis, intervention and integration of individuals with autism spectrum disorder • social robotics

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