Defining Your Scientific Personality

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Scientists and engineers dive into unknown territory fraught with trial and error. This discovery-based process leads to diverse work environments (self-directed vs. directed vs. team-based), differing management strategies, and variable metrics to determine progress. With so many permutations, it can be difficult for a scientist or engineer to actively seek (not just passively find) the right fit in their career. This post is about taking more control over your professional path by defining your work-relevant values– something I’m calling your scientific personality.

This exercise can be particularly useful near the beginning of your career. Perhaps you are in a graduate program and you are struggling to define your priorities and what constitutes success. Maybe you are currently job searching and want more predictive power when deciding what environment would be best. Or you may already be employed, but sense there is a mismatch between what you value and what is rewarded in your workplace.

I spent 4 years in a graduate program that was surely troubled, but not atypical. It wasn’t until I moved to a start-up company that I realized that I had a specific scientific personality, and that my graduate program’s values were nearly opposite of my own. I wasted time judging myself on misconceived flaws – things I thought were “bad”, but in reality were simply less valued in that environment. I could have spent that energy improving real weaknesses and better leveraging my strengths.

An “advice” blog post can never replace your own learning experiences, but defining your scientific personality can help you better utilize your skills in your current position and give you more control when choosing the right environment for your career.

Scientific Archetype Spectra

Category 1: Knowledge Values

Individual_Institutional

Lovers of individual knowledge are endlessly inquisitive. They tend to be well informed on just about everything. They may not be naturally inclined to document that knowledge, but are willing to share it, typically verbally or demonstratively, if and when someone asks.

Scientists or engineers who value institutional knowledge love to document. You’ll find these people naturally writing thorough protocols and reports. They love to share what they know. In research, institutional knowledge scientists might be the few and brave with methods sections you can actually replicate.

Career perspective: This distinction could self-select for industry (institutional knowledge) vs. academia (individual knowledge), but each type is necessary in both environments. Make sure that your values benefit you in your workplace, and you can turn on or off your sharing ability in the right situation. Someone who naturally shares information (valuing institutional knowledge) could be taken advantage of in a competitive environment, and someone valuing individual knowledge could be viewed as an isolationist in teamwork situations.

Applied_Foundational

Applied knowledge builders prefer to create a solution with a specific problem in mind. They are able to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant knowledge towards this end, and can even ignore things they deem irrelevant to make progress forward.

Those that value foundational knowledge enjoy building an expertise because the process of discovery is important, regardless of whether the knowledge can result in a specific product, technology, or technique. If provided with a problem to solve, they begin by learning all the basic facts rather than focusing on what might be the most obvious flaw.

Career perspective: This is typically used as a distinction between academia (foundational knowledge) and industry (applied knowledge), but this isn’t necessarily so strict. Instead, consider your preference and the pressures of the work environment. If you are a foundational knowledge builder, make sure you are given the time and flexibility to build your information base. You might get frustrated and feel pressured to ignore certain areas of knowledge if you are rushed with a hard deadline. An applied knowledge builder could be highly valued because of their ability to quickly create prototypes, but they could be seen as sloppy in a foundational knowledge environment if they don’t take everything into account.

Category 2: Task Values

Builder_Explorer

Builders like detail. They like to tear a thing apart and look at the nuts and bolts. They have patience for iteration. A builder’s biggest satisfaction comes from a system or product that is built soundly and functioning robustly. They aren’t necessarily risk-averse, but the risks they take are in a controlled environment and vital to the task at hand.

Explorers like the unknown. They like to reach and jump to try new things, and as a result, may be less emotionally affected by a negative result. They are risk-takers and opportunists. After the discovery is made, they are ready to move on – iteration can be left to others.

Career perspective: Builders may be drawn to developing devices or production pipelines, or working within a core facility. Explorers may enjoy interdisciplinary research, managing groups of diverse disciplines towards a common goal, or doing hands-on research in a new field.

Doer_Thinker

Doers favor a pilot experiment over a planning session. They might re-discover a thing or two they could have read in the literature, but they trust the physical proof of their own work more – they probably would have repeated those experiments anyway. The crazy or circuitous route they take to solving the problem widens the possibility of discovery. Doers may never solve the original problem at hand – they may find more interesting things to do or circumvent the issue entirely.

Rather than jump into an experiment, thinkers plan out the problem. Sleep on the problem. Read on the problem. They build a roadmap. They might take a while to get started experimentally, but once they do, their trajectory to solving the problem may follow a nearly straight line.

Career perspective: Thinkers may prefer project management, analyst, or consultancy positions. They may not need to do the physical experimentation themselves, but can effectively direct it if given enough time to determine a course of action. They would likely be frustrated if working under very strict timelines. Doers may prefer hands-on work where they are in charge of the first iteration of a project or task. They may prefer a discovery-oriented environment where less is known and the experimental burden is high.

Short Term_Long Term

Short-term goal people need to see concrete accomplishments in weeks or months to maintain motivation. If they can’t see something they can define as progress they begin to feel aimless and burnt out. If presented with a long-term goal, they will naturally subdivide it into smaller steps to create a roadmap to a solution.

Long-term goal people need to have a grand vision. This vision doesn’t have to stay fixed – it can morph and adapt, but if it is drastically changed or suddenly taken away, they feel disoriented. Someone motivated by long-term goals can even develop tangential skills (in other words, moving laterally rather than vertically) as long as the top is still in view. If a long-term goal person is put into an environment with only short-term goals, they will naturally create a larger construct so all the small tasks can be accommodated into one objective.

Career perspective: Short-term goal people may prefer a career resulting in lots of tangible results (a device, a product, a software program). Long-term people can shoot for a large goal (curing cancer, revolutionizing a large industry) even if accomplishing this goal may take their entire career lifetimes.

Category 3: Work Environment Values

Internally_Externally

The internally motivated utilize a vision. If they aren’t immediately drawn to the goal, they create a construct they can be passionate about. It is no longer about the requirements on the page; it’s about completing their vision for the task. They’d rather do 80% of the job and do it right than rush to make a deadline.

Externally motivated people are closers. The deadline is sacred, and people depend on them because of that reputation. To quote a Facebook mantra, they believe that “done is better than perfect”. They value pushing a job across the finish line. If they can’t accomplish everything they set out to do, that’s ok – iteration after release is part of the process.

Career perspective: An internally motivated person will be highly valued in an environment where product quality is essential. An extrinsically motivated person could be an incredible salesperson. Beware of a career mismatch here – if you aren’t a good fit in this regard you could quickly find yourself labeled as “not meeting expectations”. Consider how you will be evaluated and what metrics will be used.

Teamwork_Independence

People who prefer teamwork aren’t absent of self-direction. Once there is a clear objective and concrete tasks to accomplish, they are more than capable (and perhaps prefer) working independently. But when an idea is developing, they find that a brainstorming session is the most productive way for them to organize their thoughts. The round-table input from others gives them confidence that all potential avenues have been discussed, and they have collectively arrived at the best path forward. Teamwork-oriented people may be more inclined to discuss their work at a variety of stages rather than waiting until all ts are crossed before making a report.

People who prefer independent work aren’t necessarily isolationists. They may find a brainstorming session with a team very distracting, and instead prefer the solace of their own thought until they can plan a trajectory to solving the problem. They prefer to be active in every step of a process and dislike large lapses of personal involvement or understanding along the way. They are less inclined to share results mid-way through a process, and instead may keep things to themselves until they can provide a finished product or final report.

Career perspective: Team-oriented people may like working in an interdisciplinary field where input from multiple people is usually required. They may enjoy a consultancy in which they have to work with a small team and clients to solve a problem. People who prefer independence and self-direction may like freelance work in which they are entirely responsible for producing a quality product. They would likely enjoy building and maintaining a reputation within a certain area of expertise. While most people have a preference with this spectrum, you rarely find a career that’s exclusively independent or team-based. To make sure your preference is positively utilized in your work, ask yourself: In what situation does it really matter that I call the shots? When is working with a team most valuable to me?

Conclusion: Find Matching Values

I see the world in grayscale rather than black and white, which is why I’ve insisted on creating an archetype spectrum rather than just an identity. You likely don’t fall to one polar opposite or the other. Your preference could shift based on context or under certain stressors, or evolve with experience and time. You may want to re-determine your scientific personality before every career move to see how your exposure and experience has affected your values.

I hope this post has prompted some self-evaluation and you can mark where you lie on each spectrum listed above. It’s even better if you can associate situations or anecdotes to each spectrum as examples of your preferences. I believe if you know your own value construct, you have a better sense of how to find a work environment with similar priorities. If you aren’t feeling validated with what your current job defines as “success”, perhaps it is time to navigate to something with more congruent values.

Coming soon:

  • Working effectively with a coworker or a manager who has a different scientific personality
  • Hiring the right team by balancing scientific personalities
  • Managing effectively by determining your team members’ scientific personalities

** Note: In case you are curious, the setting visualized on each spectrum is totally random. It does not, for example, reflect my personal preference, but perhaps I’ll define my own personality as an example in a later post!

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3 thoughts on “Defining Your Scientific Personality

  1. BillNyeTheScienceGuy says:

    Spot on for these categories. I particularly liked the distinction between valuing a quick and dirty prototype that goes through quick iteration vs. waiting to release a more finished final product. It would’ve been good to know how my collaborators operate before starting to make things smoother.

    Looking forward to the next posts.

  2. NicholeFitz says:

    This is a great post, Courtney! It’s almost as if you were eavesdropping on conversations that my colleagues and I have been having as we brainstorm our next career moves… except you are more articulate and there is a lot less cursing 😉 It’s really nice to have these concepts explained so well- it gives me a vocabulary and framework to define what I’m looking for!

  3. […] thinkers, like our semi-fictional Phaedrus, to quit. Instead of quitting, I instead found a value-matched […]

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