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“Time for Priorities”

Dr. Anna Kuhlen, Postdoctoral Researcher in Psychology at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, talks about the Career Development Award and her Research Semester

Feb 02, 2022

Dr. Anna Kuhlen, award winner from the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (department of Neurocognitive Psychology)

Dr. Anna Kuhlen, award winner from the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (department of Neurocognitive Psychology)
Image Credit: privat

A semester of writing, research, and reflection. While leaving teaching and everyday university life out of the equation. The Career Development Awards of the Berlin University Alliance (BUA) make this possible. In a research semester, postdocs of the partner institutions can work on a project of their choice while continuing to receive their salary, hone their own research profile, and thus advance their scientific career.

One of the first eleven postdocs to receive funding is Anna Kuhlen. She has been a research associate at the department of Neurocognitive Psychology at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin since 2015. After receiving a degree in psychology at Humboldt-Universität she earned her doctorate at Stony Brook University in New York and was a fellow at the Berlin School of Mind and Brain. In her research, Anna Kuhlen is concerned with the cognitive and neural processes that take place while speaking and listening. She combines theories of psycholinguistics and social psychology with methods of cognitive neuroscience.

Ms. Kuhlen, you are now in the middle of your research semester. What is your experience so far?

For me, this is a super opportunity that came at just the right time. In the last six years as a postdoc, I have intensively researched how our brain manages to process interpersonal communication – language, facial expressions, and gestures. I have worked in two research groups, performed numerous experiments and published research papers. Now I am at a point where I can reflect on the last years and set new priorities for the future – both for research and for my scientific career. And the Career Development Award allows me the time and mental freedom I need to do this.

What did that look like in concrete terms?

My focus in the fall was initially on lectures and conferences. The plan was to travel to the U.S., hold lectures there and exchange ideas with colleagues. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, the trip did not materialize, but I was able to do online lectures, from Berlin, and attend the Psychonomic Society's conference. In the process, it became clearer to me once again what contribution my research has made to the topic of neurocognitive mechanisms of communication and where there are still exciting questions for me to explore. For example, how to use my findings to develop socially intelligent robots.

And what else are you planning for the semester?

With these impulses and new ideas, I will now finish my habilitation thesis. I would like to stay in research, and the appointment to a professorship is now the next step for my scientific career. Since I have not been involved in teaching during this semester – due to the pandemic – I can fully concentrate on this project.

What does a semester normally look like for you?

During the winter semester, I usually have a lecture scheduled for students from the bachelor’s degree programs. In addition, I usually offer a master's degree seminar and supervise theses. As a result, the semester weeks have a certain rhythm. I prepare and follow up lectures and seminars, offer consultation hours, correct and grade papers, and I am in constant communication with students. Teaching is great fun, and I do not want to do without it. But precisely because I like it so much, it is also time-consuming. Especially in the last two semesters, which were affected by the pandemic and were particularly difficult for students and teachers. In addition, of course, I am involved in numerous administrative tasks at the institute, in the faculty, and department, attending meetings, conducting recruitment interviews, and keeping the team running smoothly. Sometimes I must consciously free up time for research.

Where do you see the challenges for postdocs in general?

The biggest challenge I see as a postdoc is setting the right priorities. There are diverse requirements – but also diverse possibilities. I never run out of things or projects to do. However, to build a profile as a researcher and teacher and to achieve certain goals, I must pay close attention to the activities on which I spend my working days and weeks. Sure, I could spend more time teaching, for example, and I would enjoy that a lot, too. However, if I want to achieve certain career goals, my research will be the benchmark along the way. That is why I always try to reflect in my daily work routine which activities are important, and which are not.

Besides these day-to-day things, of course, the precarious situation of being a postdoc is a challenge. You are not yet firmly established professionally for a lengthy period of your life and are constantly confronted with having to plan your next steps. You never know in which position you will work and in which city, in which country you will live for the next four or five years. I must structure my life in such a way that I manage to live with this uncertainty. Here, I would like to see academic careers become more predictable.

And in fact, applying for the Award already helped me to re-define my own priorities and I now have time to focus on these priorities.

What advice do you have for postdocs who want to apply for a Career Development Award?

I would also advise applicants to seize the opportunity to honestly reflect on their own priorities. Ask yourselves: What profile do I want to have as a researcher? What would be most important for my professional development now? What goal can I realistically achieve in six months? This can be very individual for everyone. And during the research semester itself, you will find – even after Covid-19 – that not everything goes according to plan. Allowing yourself some flexibility and having a plan B ready definitely helps too!

The second call for the Career Development Awards and funding is currently underway for the 2022/23 winter semester. Application deadline is March 9, 2022. All information and the call for proposals documents can be found at the page for the call for proposals.