Interview with Doctor Ursula Hess


You obtained your Master’s degree in Germany, and your PhD at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire; you’ve held appointments in Switzerland and Canada, and you now just started a new appointment at the Berlin Humboldt University in Germany. What should a young researcher know about the North American and European university systems when seeking an academic position?

The university systems are similar in some ways and very different in others. Germany now – as did other European countries – has adopted a Bachelor/Masters system. However, this system is still different from the North American one in many details. These include basic things such as exams or the issue of class attendance.

Also, academic positions as such are not comparable. The transition from Assistant to Associate to Full Professor is not made the same way in Europe. In the UK, the positions are called differently but people can move between them at the same institution (i.e. get promoted from lecturer to senior lecturer). The question of promotion is not that simple everywhere and sometimes it is still not possible to get promoted from one level to the other at the same institution.

Further, the degree of independence of starting academics varies considerably. An assistant professor in North America is completely independent in conducting research. In European universities junior academic positions may depend directly on a more senior Professorship for funding and research orientation.

These are only some examples as I could literally go on and on about similarities and differences. Basically, many things that superficially look the same may not actually be the same and when looking for an academic position in Europe one needs to be aware of this and to make sure to know how things are done differently.

How has your experience in a variety of university settings in different countries shaped your perspective? How has it influenced your work?

One very human tendency is to consider the “way we do it” (whatever “it” is) to be the only and more importantly, the right way of doing things. Once one has seen several university systems one rapidly notices that there are many ways, all with pros and cons.  Knowing this really improves problem solving skills as it makes it much easier to part with the “way to do it” and try something else. Maybe something from a different system that seems to work better.

What advice would you have for North American and European researchers who would like to collaborate?

I have over the years collaborated with researchers from different regions (not only these two) and have not found that to be an issue. Different places run on different schedules and this needs to be acknowledged. For example, strikes by students or professors, which tend to slow down research considerably, are more common in Europe and Africa (but also in Quebec) than in the US. 

 What is it like teaching at a North American as compared to a European university? And what is it like having graduate students at a North American compared to a European university?

One issue is certainly the difference in role understanding between North American and European doctoral students. Quite simply, doctoral students in Germany and Switzerland are NOT students. They do no (or these days only limited) course work and are much more likely to teach classes than take classes. They may also supervise undergraduates who do their first research project. With this comes a larger degree of independence in conducting research and a different way to interact with their thesis supervisor, which takes this independence into account.

As regards teaching, my feeling is that North American undergraduates often treat the first years of university as if it were still school. They expect clear instructions and seek structure. In Europe students may often be somewhat older and more independent. This requires a somewhat different level of direction in class. Thus, German students may be insulted if asked to do comprehension quizzes on their reading, whereas North American students see these as an easy way to improve their grade.

You have worked in several difference languages. How does the language you work in influence what you produce?

That is an interesting question. Actually, in reality I have mostly worked in English.  I do all my writing in English (even my course notes, which I simultaneously translate into French or German while teaching).  So basically one could say I have “cheated” most of the time and not really worked in different languages.

 Your work examines how the communication of emotion interacts with social variables such as group membership. How did you come to be interested in this intersection of topics?

I think like most people I ended up studying what I do through a confluence of events. I had started out to study spontaneous versus deliberate facial movements from both an encoding and a decoding perspective. In decoding there is the interesting phenomenon that some people always seem spontaneous and others’ expressions seem put on.  This led to an interest in the influence of stereotypes in emotion perception and from there to other types of group influences. Some questions – gender differences in particular come to mind – were brought to the lab by students who persistent in trying to get me interested in the topic, others developed as part of other research.

Did you always use psychophysiological measures in your research? If not, how did you begin using these measures and what advice would you have for a researcher who wants to start using such measures?

For my diploma thesis I conducted judgment studies, but I was fascinated with the potential of psychophysiology for emotion research. This was the reason why I moved to Dartmouth to learn about the use of psychophysiology in John Lanzetta’s lab.

How has psychophysiology shaped the questions you ask in your research? And how has it shaped the answers that your research gives?

Actually, I have a very strong feeling that a dependent measure should NEVER shape the questions you ask and the research you do. This is why many a study from my lab uses techniques that have nothing to do with psychophysiology (behavioral observation, questionnaires, reaction times, etc.) to address the different research questions I am interested in.


Did you always know you wanted to be a professor and what influenced your decision to become one?

I always wanted to know how things work. I was one of those kids beloved by their parents for the many occasions they afford to buy new radios, clocks, vacuum cleaners etc. to replace those that were taken apart and less successfully put together (but it is amazing how in those days a few springs and screws which were not replaced did not actually seem to matter). This is why it was clear to me early on that I wanted to be a researcher. Being a professor is one way to follow that dream.

How do you balance teaching and research?

As best I can. I very much enjoy teaching, but clearly there are moments in the year when research seems to be pushed out of my live and I have to reassert my time schedule. 

What do you find to be most important in deciding where you want to work?

A good research environment. Teaching is largely under the teacher’s control, which means that I can find solutions myself. But it is hard if not impossible to find solutions to a lack of lab space and an administration that is not research supportive unless one is willing to completely reorient the research. Another really important aspect are colleagues with whom one can get along well.  An atmosphere of infighting saps energy in the long run.

What experiences have best prepared you for your career?

Being a post-doc at Klaus Scherer’s lab. He has a large research group and studies a wide variety of research topics.  Being involved in the daily running of the lab taught me many administrative and leadership skills, which are sorely needed to manage all the different tasks a professor is expected to deal with.

What was your favorite part of your graduate experience? And what is your favorite part of what you do now?

Analyzing the data – and I still love to do that today – even though these days I often have to sneakily “kidnap” the data from RAs who would like to do that fun task themselves.

Dr Hess, thank you so much for doing this interview and good luck with the continuation of your research!