Interview , News of 5 January 2015

SOEP People: Jule Specht

At the age of just 28, psychologist Jule Specht is an Assistant Professor at the Freie Universität Berlin and a Research Fellow at the Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP) at DIW Berlin. Jule Specht completed her undergraduate and doctoral studies in Münster. Since writing her diploma thesis, she has been studying the development of the personality across the life course using data from the SOEP. In January, Jule Specht will be awarded the renowned Berliner Wissenschaftspreis (Berlin Science Prize) 2014 for Young Scholars. She is being honored not only for her outstanding research, but also for her publications in popular science media. We visited Jule Specht in her office at the Freie Universität Berlin.

1. You’re a professor of psychological diagnostics and differential psychology. But you started off with very different plans…
I actually wanted to become a journalist. But I was always hearing that if you want to become a journalist, you should study anything but journalism. I decided to study psychology because psychology deals with important social questions. It also gave me a chance to pursue my interest in statistics. Going into research was definitely the right decision for me, and I still find research and teaching very exciting. What you find out is often just a small detail compared to the knowledge that existed before and what is still to come. But it gives you a thrill when you realize you’re on track to finding a solution.

2. What was your most exciting research finding so far?
Using the SOEP data, I found that significant personality changes take place in old age. In the past, researchers often assumed that personality changes a great deal in early adulthood, that these changes slow down in middle age, and that the personality remains stable from then on. Very few personality psychologists studied what happens in old age—partly because there is not a lot of data available on the subject. Now, using the SOEP data, it’s possible to look at old age in a very differentiated way.

3. You’ve been working with SOEP data since your diploma thesis. What makes the SOEP data interesting to you?
The SOEP surveys a large number of people over a long period of time. It also collects information on important psychological constructs such as the personality, people’s worries and concerns, and their life satisfaction. This combination makes the SOEP a remarkable dataset for being able to answer questions from psychology.

4. You haven’t renounced journalism completely. You write for a general readership, both on your blog and in your column in the popular psychology magazine “Psychologie heute.” How did that come about?
I had a kind of breakthrough moment. I was on a train and the person sitting next to me asked me what I do. I began telling him enthusiastically about my dissertation and about how people change—but only just a little, since overall people remain approximately the way they are. And my seatmate just said: “Well, if personality doesn’t change, then there’s nothing to study.” This made something clear to me. As a researcher, I have to ask myself again and again: Is what I’m researching important for normal life? And what exactly is the connection to “real” life? After that conversation on the train, I started writing my blog. I enjoy explaining to other people what new things psychology is able to explain.

5. You’re still young but you’ve already done and achieved a lot. What are your hopes and desires for the future?
I can easily imagine staying in research for a long time. I definitely want to find out how personality changes in old age and why it changes. I can also imagine writing more popular scientific articles and books. I’ve tried out a few things in recent years and found out which ones I enjoy. And I want to keep doing these things.

See our interview in a video in the DIW Mediathek (in German).