Personality and career choice

If you are unsure what you want to do in your life, there are all kinds of tests online that help you make up your mind. Most of these tests are based personality test-like questions. Are these tests reliable? And out of many tests, which ones should you believe?

In this post I will discuss some new research on the relationship between career choice and personality. There will also be some discussion about which personalities enjoy college the most, and which not. Applying what you learn from this post in real life is easy. You just need to know your Big Five personality type.

Let me start with a little background information on the study in question. Humburg (2014) has data on roughly 20,000 Dutch individuals who took a cognitive (standardized exam) and a Big Five personality test in 2000 and 2001, when they were 13-14 years old. Then around 2005-2006, they made decisions on whether to go to college, and if yes what to study. The sample is representative of the Dutch population in terms of field of study choice, and decision on whether to go to college. Men and women are treated separately, as the results might differ by gender.

A quick summary of the Big Five personality types straight from the paper, for those who don’t know them (click to enlarge):

Big Five type descriptions

The first finding is that every personality trait except extroversion and emotional stability has a significant influence on whether one goes to college. The effects of personality traits are nevertheless largely overshadowed by the influence of cognitive skills. A one standard deviation (SD) increase in math ability increases the probability of attending college by around 50%, a similar increase in verbal and information processing ability by around 35%. There are no gender differences here. (To make things a little bit more concrete, if we assume that abilities and personality traits are normally distributed, then a one standard deviation increase represents about a 34.1% increase.)

As for personality, the most important is conscientiousness, which is not all that surprising. Conscientious people tend to work hard, plan well, have discipline and self-control. So one could indeed expect that such people have a higher chance of going to college. Specifically, for men a one SD increase in conscientiousness increases their chance of going to college by 16%, for women by 11%. Then comes openness to experience with 8% for both genders, which again is not surprising as people with this ability tend to have high intellectual curiosity. Finally, agreeableness with 6.5% for men, but only 3.8% for women.

These results for personality traits are confirmed by other studies. Agreeableness is sometimes found to have a negative effect, but in all cases the effects are small. Thus these results seem to be robust and well-established.

Let’s move on to field of study choice now. Humberg (2014) divides fields into six broad categories: Humanities, Social Sciences, Law, Business and Economics, STEM, and Medical Studies. This is somewhat of a waste of a nice big sample in my opinion. He didn’t need to aggregate the fields so much. Also it’s a shame business and economics got lumped together because I’d hypothesize that there are significant personality differences between these two fields.

The following table summarizes the effects of each personality type, and cognitive abilities on field of study choice. The “more likely” column shows fields that people with a given trait are significantly more likely to choose, in descending order (i.e. the fields mentioned first are the ones people with the given trait prefer the most). The “less likely” column lists fields that people with a given trait are significantly less likely to choose (again the field mentioned first is the one people with the given trait are least likely to choose). A given personality type has no significant effect on choosing any of the fields that are not mentioned.

Personality vs. field of study

(Legend: “W” – Women, “M” – Men, “SS” – Social Sciences, “Business” – Business and Economics, “Medical” – Medical Studies.)

One thing worth mentioning is that while there are sporadic effects for each trait, it really is extroversion that has a very good predictive power of what one might like. Indeed Law, Business, and Social Science tend to be associated with extroversion, whereas STEM, and Humanities with introversion. This makes intuitive sense, as extrovert people like to talk and be the center of attention, while introverts prefer to work and think alone.

Agreeable people have high empathy towards others. And indeed agreeable men tend to prefer Medical Studies, and Social Science, both of which gives them the opportunity to work with and perhaps care for or improve the situation of others. Business on the other hand is an enemy of agreeableness. Less empathy can intuitively make one succeed in business more. Perhaps also for Economics, the lack of empathy can be useful, as it is then easier not to be influenced by emotional arguments, to look at the cold hard facts, and to make good logical objective decisions.

Conscientiousness seems to correlate with choosing Medical Studies. The author points out that this may be because in the Netherlands, there is a very limited number of places available for prospective medical students, and these places are awarded via a lottery where one’s high school grades have a weight.

Emotional stability is the enemy of the Humanities. In other words, neurotic individuals tend to prefer the Humanities. Someone with less emotional stability may prefer a less structured, more artistic environment. Sure enough, women who are emotionally stable (and thus potentially prefer stable environments) tend to prefer STEM fields, which are perhaps the exact opposite of Humanities in this regard.

The effects of openness to experience on field choice are puzzling to the author, and to me as well. Humanities might make sense, but there’s no clear reason why Law should be preferred or Social Sciences rejected by open people.

As for cognitive abilities, women with higher math ability tend to select into STEM fields, but not men. Students with high math ability are also less likely to select into Humanities, and Law, which makes sense as these fields use little to no math. Almost all other fields tend to use at least some amount of math.

People with good verbal abilities prefer the Humanities, which makes sense. They dislike STEM and Business, however. I don’t see a clear reason why they should not like Business. Perhaps here the results are driven by Economics, where indeed verbal abilities are not really important.

Finally, the results for information processing ability make sense as well. Much information from diverse sources needs to be processed in the STEM and Medical fields, whereas the Social Sciences and Humanities might be different in this regard.

All in all, this is an interesting study. To be honest, I find some results surprising, such as the lack of predicting power of math ability for entering into STEM fields for men, or the lack of predictive power of agreeableness for entering into Medical Studies for women. Another interesting feature is the striking gender differences. Given the large sample size (20,000), the results can be expected to be quite reliable, so these are some real puzzles.

One must note though that despite its liberal policies, the Netherlands is still a country where women differ starkly from men in terms of their career choices. This phenomenon might be caused on the deeper level by how women with a given personality trait act different than men with the same trait for some reason, as evidenced by the results of this study. It would be interesting to see a similar study in a country with more gender parity in field of study like Eastern European countries or some Asian countries. (Yes, this is counterintuitive, but these countries indeed have much more gender equality than supposedly progressive European countries when it comes to career choice. See for instance this.)


One thought on “Personality and career choice

  1. Pingback: ZeeConomics | Through what channels does personality operate?

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