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Career development: What's your type?

Personality and vocation tests can help researchers to improve their 'soft skills' and find careers that suit them.

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When physicist David Dean joined the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee in 1995, he says, he was a “typical theory guy”: a staff scientist focused on research. About ten years later, as head of the nuclear-theory research group, he joined an in-house leadership-development programme that involved extensive personality tests meant to get trainees thinking about their leadership potential, and what skills they needed to work on. The tests, along with one-on-one sessions with a psychologist and a human-resources professional who helped to interpret the results, showed Dean that he had a 'collaborative' leadership style. But they also taught him that sometimes he needed to be a more 'directive' leader — to be more assertive and to make executive decisions more readily. Knowing about different leadership styles and when to implement them was useful and relevant as Dean took on a post first as a strategic planner for the director's office at Oak Ridge, then as a senior science adviser for the US Department of Energy. And, in July last year, the techniques he learned helped Dean to win the post of head of the physics division at Oak Ridge. The tests and the training augmented his leadership skills, says Dean. “It takes a certain personality to do these jobs.”

Credit: R. TATE/VETTA/GETTY

Early- and mid-career scientists use personality tests in settings from career-counselling and human-resources offices in academia and businesses to training workshops at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). Tests such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator assess how people tend to behave in certain situations, focusing on personality traits such as extroversion and agreeableness (see 'Type by type').

Assessments can also show people how they might differ from their colleagues in terms of, for example, communication style, approach to the workplace, interactions with workmates and conflict resolution. Armed with this information, scientists can manage their own behaviour to avoid misunderstandings, improve their communication and leadership skills, troubleshoot personality clashes, make teamwork function more smoothly and, like Dean, take their careers to the next level. “An awareness of your type can give you insight into your strengths and liabilities, and the ways you can grow as a scientist, as a member of a team, a member of society and a member of a household,” says Sharon Milgram, director of the NIH's Office of Intramural Training and Education in Bethesda, Maryland.

Integral traits

Bill Lindstaedt: “Myers-Briggs results provide just one window through which you can look at your overall capabilities.”

The Myers-Briggs assessment is probably the personality test most widely used by scientists and the general public, says John Lounsbury, a psychologist at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville who has conducted personality tests on Oak Ridge scientists. He and other academic psychologists say that Myers-Briggs is overly simplistic and misses out a few key traits, and that better tests exist. However, it remains popular because it is easy to understand, many people have been trained to administer it and there is a large body of interpretive books, websites and other materials that further boost awareness of the test. It assesses people on eight different personality traits, grouped into four dichotomies, so that a person is designated as introvert (I) or extrovert (E); sensing (S) or intuition (N); thinking (T) or feeling (F); and judging (J) or perception (P). The result is 16 possible combinations of personality type, such as INTJ, that can help to explain how people approach different aspects of their lives.

The big benefit of the Myers-Briggs assessment is that it shows test-takers how they differ from others in their personalities and approaches, says Milgram. “For many people, it is a validation of the fact that people can bring different styles and approaches to work and still be successful,” she says. For the past couple of years, Milgram's office at the NIH has run training and orientation programmes including the Myers-Briggs assessment for students, postdocs, staff scientists and principal investigators.

One set of Myers-Briggs traits that is particularly relevant to scientists is the sensing versus intuition axis. 'Sensing' people tend to focus on details and proceed through work step by step, whereas those designated 'intuition' look at the big picture and are less detail-oriented. “Good scientists need to be able to operate out of both worlds,” says Bill Lindstaedt, director of the Office of Career and Professional Development at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), where he administers tests including the Myers-Briggs (see 'Interests before indicators'). No one can change whether they are inherently S or N, but with proper interpretation from a trained person such as a psychologist or career counsellor, personality assessments can suggest ways in which people can adjust and manage their behaviour to better understand and work with different personalities. For example, a big-picture thinker might need to sharpen their focus on the minutiae of a project or experiment when giving directions to a detail-oriented person. People can modulate their behaviour, develop skills or hire people who will complement their way of working to make sure that their team can move between the two modes, says Lindstaedt.

In and out

Melissa Wong: “The worksheet helped me to realize what's most important in a work environment.” Credit: C. GOODFELLOW/GLADST ONE INST.

Another pair of traits that can come into play in the lab, especially in meetings, is introversion versus extroversion. For example, extroverts tend to talk aloud as they think, whereas introverts prefer to formulate their thoughts before voicing them. Milgram says that she is trying to alter her own extroverted behaviour by being less talkative in meetings and giving introverts in the room a chance to process before they speak.

Melissa Wong, a graduate student in virology and immunology at the UCSF who took the Myers-Briggs as part of an internship programme exploring non-academic scientific careers, was struck by how the E–I difference can underlie misunderstandings in the lab. For example, extroverts may think that introverts aren't bright enough to speak up right away, and introverts may think that extroverts speak without substance. “I work with both of those types of personalities, and I think there's a lot of miscommunication,” says Wong.

Becca Stoloff, a graduate student in neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley, is considering embarking on a teaching career. She says that the Myers-Briggs confirmed that she had the personality of a mentor; this autumn, she will teach maths at a private school for a semester as part of her career exploration.

Individual scientists and labs are even starting to use Myers-Briggs outside training programmes. Milgram says that postdocs and students on the NIH's Bethesda campus are requesting Myers-Briggs workshops for labs and retreats. And in one developmental-biology lab at the University of Missouri in Columbia, the students have all taken the assessment; their four-letter personality types and a few words of description are posted on a chart next to the door. Lab leader Dawn Cornelison says that she first took the test as part of a lab-management 'boot camp' for new faculty members offered by the US Society for Developmental Biology in Bethesda. When she told her students about it, they became interested, took the test and asked students joining the lab to take it as well. The assessment has become part of the culture of the Cornelison lab. “It's like a getting-to-know-you game,” says Cornelison: it breaks the ice and helps new students to integrate rapidly into the lab.

Prescription precaution

People who administer personality assessments are quick to point out that they are not meant to be deterministic or prescriptive. The results should not be used to pigeonhole someone, or to tell them what kind of job they should have or whether they can succeed at it. The assessments do provide some insight into what kind of person the test-taker is, but only as one data point to be used in overall career guidance and development. “Myers-Briggs results provide just one window through which you can look at your overall capabilities,” says Lindstaedt.

Milgram emphasizes that there is no 'right' or 'wrong' personality type in science. No one needs to change their personality to be an excellent scientist. “It's about how you manage your behaviour,” she says.

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Lok, C. Career development: What's your type?. Nature 488, 545–547 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/nj7412-545a

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