The human side of science: what is the archetypal researcher personality?

By Tamara R Zemlo, PhD, MPH & Robin Rothrock, PhD
Tuesday, 08 March, 2005



Are there some personalities that are better suited than others to a scientific career? To provide insight into this issue, The Science Advisory Board created the first-ever psychological profile of life science researchers. The Science Advisory Board's Scientific Personality Assessment (SPA) adapted the methodologies of various personality tests and used a detailed questionnaire specifically designed to reflect the unique aspects of scientists' interests, values, motives and opinions.

Like other personality tests, the SPA is based on the premise that the way people think, learn, communicate and interact is related to brain function. The SPA is based on the theory of 'brain dominance'. In 1981, Roger Sperry was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine by showing that the brain is divided into two major parts or hemispheres, the right-brain and the left-brain.

The left-brain is associated with verbal, logical and analytical thinking. The left-brain categorises things and is involved in symbolic abstractions, speech, reading, writing and arithmetic. Left-brain thinking has been shown to be linear and places things in sequential order.

The right-brain functions in a non-verbal manner; it processes visual, spatial, perceptual, and intuitive information. Speed and nonlinear, non-sequential processing characterise right-brain thinking.

Numerous psychologists and brain researchers have observed that certain personality characteristics are influenced by which hemisphere of the brain dominates a person's thinking. A number of researchers, notably Ned Herrmann, have also postulated that the interaction between left and right brain functions indicates that thinking is actually a 'whole brain' process.

The mechanics of the test

Like other personality tests, the SPA presents a series of descriptors and statements with which the respondents can indicate their level of agreement as to how well a word or statement describes themselves. The answers to each of these statements are used to calculate a numerical score by which the respondent can be classified as having a particular type of personality. Each personality type reflects a person's 'brain dominance' and can be used to point to his or her probable style of thinking.

As with other personality tests, the SPA draws inferences as to how each personality type's style of thinking will influence their behaviour. Segmenting scientists into different personality types is not based on formal statistical analysis. While the great majority of respondents expressed high levels of agreement with their personality description, the robustness of this exercise is solely dependent on honest responses from each participant. Furthermore, an individual's responses to the SPA and other similar personality tests may also change over time - either through conscious effort or as a result of a person's experiences and maturation.

Members of The Science Advisory Board were administered the 76-question SPA to self-assess their personality based on adjectives provided and describe their behaviour when making a decision, searching for information, reacting to change and interacting with others. Their answers were analysed using a proprietary scoring system to group them into one of four personality types:

  • Leader
  • Explorer
  • Enthusiast
  • Organiser

Leader

These disciplined scientists are best characterised by their ability to guide and manage other researchers. Leaders can be found at all levels of seniority within a laboratory but their preference is to be in control of projects in which they are involved. Leaders are persistent, assertive, independent, structured individuals who enjoy challenging projects. Because of this, they can also be extremely competitive, especially when it comes to being the first to uncover significant findings. They are self-assured and proud of their many scientific achievements.

Leaders excel at multi-tasking and prefer fast-paced research environments. They take action immediately, but are sometimes criticised for making decisions too quickly, often relying on their instinct rather than a systematic analysis of the facts. Since they are driven to get the job done, leaders can sometimes lack the diplomacy needed to keep everyone informed and involved when working in a group.

Concerned with achieving their personal goals and dreams, leaders value fellow laboratory members and suppliers according to their ability to help them in these endeavours. They work best with 'big picture' projects that need to be pushed through with aggressiveness or personal resolve. In a dysfunctional research team, they may be resented or even feared because of this aggressiveness and their perceived lack of concern for others' feelings. A healthy research team, however, will respect a leader and give him or her authority and responsibility to fulfil their mission. Leaders mandate perfection and are usually easy to get along with - provided that others measure up to the leader's high expectations.

Explorer

Explorers are the visionaries of the scientific community and are full of novel ideas. Willing to venture into uncharted territories, these individuals live life to the fullest and usually take an idealistic approach to the research process. Explorers are driven by competition and are wholly fascinated with new and exciting ideas and technologies. However, the downside of this is that once the fascination wears away, explorers can quickly lose focus and get bored, yearning for the next exciting challenge.

These outgoing researchers love to socialise at scientific conferences and enjoy being the centre of attention. As a result of their outgoing nature, some may view them as socially aggressive. Though explorers probably would not agree, they are often considered by others to be poor listeners as they usually monopolise conversations. They are confident, opinionated and are not afraid to say what is on their mind.

In the laboratory environment, explorers are the motivators of their research team. They excel at networking with fellow scientists and are natural communicators. However, explorers can be disorganised, impulsive and can struggle with follow-through and time management, especially when it comes to repeating failed experiments or meeting grant/publication deadlines. Explorers tend to attribute their successes to their own strengths and may fail to recognise the important contributions of laboratory members and suppliers.

[image] Percentage of scientists by personality type, n= 2950.

Enthusiast

The defining quality of enthusiasts is their motivation to interact with and please others. These sensitive and accommodating individuals effortlessly make friends with other researchers in their field, can easily work on collaborative projects and are great listeners. Because they are more apt to stay situated in a comfort zone, the enthusiast is resistant to change, steers clear of risk and avoids conflict with scientific colleagues.

Enthusiasts are more amiable than other scientific personas and often strive to reach a group consensus when decisions have to be made. As a result, others may perceive them as being unassertive and conformist. Their easy-going nature and lack of ego encourages them to expect and rely on the support of colleagues and suppliers. Enthusiasts tend to keep their thoughts and feelings to themselves, and in their effort to 'get along' they sometimes find themselves involved in projects or decisions in which they have little interest or no personal stake.

Enthusiasts are extremely hard workers and take pride in their strong work ethic. Their role in a research team is usually supportive and cooperative and they are viewed by others as dependable, patient and loyal - an enthusiast is not one to disappoint his or her colleagues. Because of their eminent likeability and trustworthiness, enthusiasts both excel at negotiating and are effective advocates for their research and laboratory.

Organiser

Organisers are defined by their methodical, traditional and pragmatic approach to scientific research. These highly intellectual individuals are soft-spoken and typically refrain from expressing their feelings, not wanting to overtly influence another's opinion or analysis of experimental results. However, this does not mean that an organiser does not feel strongly about the meaning of the data in question - organisers can be very particular and often judgmental of others, especially when a colleague's assumption contradicts his or her own.

Organisers thrive on facts and data. Because of the extensive detail they require of any task, organisers prefer to work on only a few research projects at a time. They are extremely cautious decision-makers and have a tendency to analyse problems from multiple angles - but their final analysis is routinely based on very sound judgment. Although organisers are notoriously dependable, they prefer working independently since their desire for order can become problematic in a team environment where everyone's opinion counts.

Other scientific personas may find the organiser to be too demanding. Organisers are perfectionists and are bothered by careless mistakes. They become frustrated and sometimes procrastinate when they must make a decision and sufficient facts are not available, or the quality of the available data does not meet their high standards. Organisers strive for high levels of accuracy and precision in their own work, and expect the same from colleagues and suppliers.

The implications of personality profiling

The descriptions of the four different personality types outlined in this paper include subjective terms, which can be open to multiple interpretations. We do not claim that our version is definitive, but only one means by which scientists can understand more about themselves and, ultimately, their role and responsibilities within the larger research community. The SPA is meant to help scientists better evaluate their strengths and assets as well as confront the particular challenges they face in their everyday work life. The goal is not to suggest that one personality type is better than another or that having specific character traits will engender more professional success, but rather to encourage people to align their career aspirations with their own particular blend of expertise and skills.

If you are interested in taking The Science Advisory Board's Scientific Personality Assessment (SPA), please email Lena Zappia at l.zappia@scienceboard.net. On completion of the survey, you will be given immediate feedback as to what type of scientific or medical persona best matches your preferences.

The Science Advisory Board is an international community of more than 23,000 life science and medical professionals. Board members convene electronically to participate in online conferences, surveys and discussions addressing issues of importance to their individual areas of investigation and/or clinical specialties.

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