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Looking deeper at the scientist stereotype

According to popular media, scientists are a strange bunch. They range from being benignly absentminded to arrogant and maniacal. Then there’s the Wunderkind – the twenty-something triple doctorate, whose extreme intellect is tempered by outrageous social ineptitude. Think Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory.

Science is apparently an antisocial career for antisocial people. But I know a lot of scientists and a few mathematicians, and none of them fit this caricature. So what are scientists really like? And what does it take to succeed as a scientist?

Fortunately, scientists themselves have some answers, based on personality research. A popular framework for personality is the Five Factor Model. The five factors, known as the Big Five, are essentially personality traits that appear to varying degrees in an individual. The first of these, openness, describes a willingness to entertain new ideas and experiences. Conscientiousness is the ability to stay organized and finish tasks on time. Extraversion encompasses a person’s ease in understanding and interacting with other people. Agreeableness describes how accommodating, caring, or unselfish a person is. Finally, neuroticism subsumes negative emotions, like worry and anxiety.

In the simplest portrait, scientists are painted as high in conscientiousness and low in extraversion. This seems to agree somewhat with media stereotypes, implying someone dedicated to their work, with little care for the people around them.  According to the research, these traits seem particularly strong in those who work in the so-called “hard” sciences, like physics or chemistry, which are devoted to the study of things, rather than people. But look a little deeper, and the picture quickly gets more complicated.

The most introverted and conscientious of aspiring scientists may enjoy science, but end up struggling in academia. They quickly learn that doing science is only one part of the job. The rest is communicating it. Scientists spend a good deal of time actively convincing others that their research is worthwhile and sound.

Introverts must put aside their natural reservedness, or academia becomes a miserable experience. According to a study done by John Lounsbury and his colleagues at the University of Tennessee, career satisfaction among scientists in academia actually correlates with extraversion and agreeableness. Despite attracting introverts, academia rewards “prosocial behaviours” involved in presenting and networking.

Yet, Dr. Gregory Feist, a major researcher in the psychology of science, suggests that agreeableness actually correlates negatively with creativity in science. This is in part due to the competitive nature of the academic environment.  “Success is more likely for those who thrive in competitive environments, that is for the dominant, arrogant, hostile, and self-confident,” Feist stated in a 2006 review article.

So, while advancement in science favours creativity, the system itself supports conformity and agreeableness. This is especially apparent in graduate school. Creative students may generate excellent ideas, but can also generate friction with their supervisors.  In fact, students who choose not to continue with their graduate degrees often cite irreconcilable differences with their supervisors as the main cause.

So what does all of this mean for an undergrad interested in a career in academia?  Well, maybe not very much.  Individual traits correlate only weakly with real measures of career interest and job performance. In the end, there is no one type of person pursuing science, because type doesn’t really matter. There is one trait, however, that all successful research scientists have in common: persistence.

Notes from the ivory tower is a Sci+Tech blog, published every two weeks. Caitlin Mouri can be reached at