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The Four Types of Scientists

In September 2010, I posted to my (now defunct) personal blog a cheeky theory: scientists can be categorized into four types, which roughly agree with some of the Myers-Briggs personality test buckets. I’ve re-posted it here, with a few updates and tweaks based on reader comments.

I took my first Myers-Briggs personality test in the seventh grade, on the one afternoon of the year my teacher had set aside for us to go ahead and choose a future fulfilling career already. We all sat down at a computer, answered a few hundred multiple-choice questions, and finally discovered which of the 16 types best fit our preferences.

I’m an ISTJ. In the system’s jargon, that’s ‘Introverted, Sensing, Thinking, Judging.’ In plain English, the type is often referred to as the inspectors, the truth-tellers, the ‘Just the facts, Ma’am‘s.

My best-fit careers, the program told me, would be structured, analytic, number-crunching-type things. Then the dot-matrix printer spit out meatier descriptions of specific job possibilities. And for the next couple of years — despite the fact that it had little to do with my interests in chemistry, math or the piano — I really and truly thought of myself as a market researcher in-the-making. That’s right: someone who designs and analyzes surveys.

Later on, when it became clear that this was not the right prescription, I decided that the Myers-Briggs was, at best, psychological nonsense, and at worst, a pernicious tool that is stifling our children’s hopes and dreams.

But then I started writing profiles of scientists, articles in which I try to really ‘get’ who they are and what drives them. I started categorizing them into crude types based on two questions: 1. Are they motivated by data, or by theories? 2. Are they nerds, or adventurers? There are four possible combinations of answers, and each one, to me, forms a distinct type. I have yet to find a scientist who doesn’t fit (pretty well) into one of them*.

I was babbling about these types with my fiancé, who teaches management courses in the corporate world and is, in fact, a certified Myers-Briggs interpreter. As it turns out, these four types correspond damn well with four Myers-Briggs categories. Gasp! Could it be that this psychobabble has some usefulness after all?

So, without further ado, here are Ginny’s four types of scientists. (My theory crumbles, of course, as soon as a commenter points out some famous scientist who doesn’t fall into one of these buckets. So far, I haven’t been able to find any, though…)

1. The Data-Driven Nerd/Myers-Briggs ISTJ (yes, that’s my type) or ISTP (see comment below):

These are guys and gals who seem to spend every waking hour in the lab. They’re precise and thorough. They like new technologies that get them better — and more, always more — data. They hate writing up their papers because there’s never enough good data to say something definitive. They generally see no need for (and have no patience for) journalists, unless lapsing into an effusive geek-out moment over some surprising new data. Archetype: Rosalind Franklin, the meticulous X-ray crystallographer whose work formed the backbone of Watson and Crick’s DNA discovery. According to PBS: “Rosalind Franklin always liked facts. She was logical and precise, and impatient with things that were otherwise.”

2. The Theory-Driven Nerd/Myers-Briggs INTJ or INTP (see comment below):

These are big-thinking intellectuals who build systems and make wide-sweeping hypotheses. They love giving long keynote lectures at scientific conferences. They listen to classical music in their rich mahogany offices while writing up their papers, in which they’re likely to quote philosophers or drop in bad poetry. Archetype: Albert Einstein. According to his Nobel Prize write-up, “Einstein’s gifts inevitably resulted in his dwelling much in intellectual solitude.”

3. The Data-Driven Adventurer/Myers-Briggs ESTP:

These are the doers. The field scientists — archaeologists, geologists, deep-ocean divers — who want to be the first to discover something, no matter what the risk. The forensic scientist who scrapes underneath dead fingernails. The microbiologist who works with Ebola. Other appropriate cliches: They’re not afraid to get their hands dirty, plunge right in. They’re straight-shooting, fast-talking. They live in the here and now. Archetype: Neil Armstrong. He blasted through the atmosphere, lived on dehydrated food, put on that silly helmet, and collected the Moon rocks. But I bet it was a bunch of ISTJs who studied their geological composition.

4. The Theory-Driven Adventurer/Myers-Briggs ENTP:

Lastly, there’s my favorite kind of scientist (if only because they make the best protagonists): the Theory-Driven Adventurer. They’re problem-solvers, multi-taskers, broad thinkers. They love showing off their skills and playing with big, impressive toys. Journalists like labeling them as ‘rebels’ and, especially, ‘mavericks’. Archetype: Craig Venter, who spent months and months sailing his personal yacht around the world to collect microbial samples for gene sequencing. His most clever nickname is ‘Darth Venter’; the least clever, ‘asshole‘. (The last time I posted this, one of my readers argued that Venter hasn’t made any theoretical advances, and that Charles Darwin might be a better archetype. Maybe, maybe…but as I responded then, Venter does seem to think about the genome holistically. For example, he was one of the few people who said, from the beginning, that sequencing the genome will not be the answer to all of the world’s diseases. Also, as I’ve written about, Darwin doesn’t seem like much of a maverick.)

Crafting these buckets is not (only) for a cheap blog laugh. I think typing actually gives useful insight into what it means to be a scientist. You’ll notice that each of these types contains a T. In the Myers-Briggs code, you can be either a T (‘Thinking’) or an F (‘Feeling’). When making decisions, Ts prefer to “first look at logic and consistency”. Yup, that sounds like a scientist. Fs, in contrast, “first look at the people and special circumstances”. I’ve never met a scientist who looks at the outliers first.

**

Disclaimer: These types are not absolute, but rather generalizations of an individual’s typical preferences. Obviously Rosalind Franklin cared about theories, too, and Einstein cared about data and Neil Armstrong probably did some kind of lab work on the way to getting that aeronautical engineering degree. In the same vein, my own typing of ISTJ is more accurate than I first realized. Although I still shudder at the idea of a market surveys, it turns out that my job requires quite a bit of inspection, truth-telling, and ‘Just the facts, Maam‘s.

Photo via Flickr

15 thoughts on “The Four Types of Scientists

  1. I adored this post. I went through Myers-Briggs back when I was in the corporate world. I was very dubious at fist but when they described my profile (INTP) a lot of the common behaviours were pretty close to my own.
    The trainer used one film character for each profile and I was extremely proud that mine was Dr. Spock.
    I’m now embarking on a second career as a research scientist and was horrified to see no INTP scientists in your classification! Surely someone who isolates themselves from the outside world to devote many hours to quite intellectual contemplation would have a role in science?
    I should also smugly point out that this site (http://typelogic.com/intp.html) lists Darwin, Newton and Einstein as INTPs

  2. As an engineer, and detail driven computer programmer, i’m ISTJ. My peers say “it’s CSI every day” for me. Except that, at the Astronomy club, it turns out that what i really like to do is outreach. I bring my scope out to parks and schools, give talks at clubs and schools, and i joined a team that puts out a free half hour monthly astronomy TV program in SE Michigan. The coolest thing is when the cub scout takes a long look at Mars in my scope and says (under his breath), “OMG”. And yet, the “I” in ISTJ.

    Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good prejudice.

  3. I think you should definitely take personality profiles with a pinch of salt and not turn them into a self-fulfilling prophecy, but I do see a lot of myself in my MB profile.

    Its interesting that I’m an “I” too, and I adore talking about and teaching ideas that are important to me. But I feel that I thrive in an environment when I’m in control and in a position of responsibility, such as acting as a teacher, but I don’t particularly enjoy contributing to a chaotic debate for instance. Being an “I” isn’t about being shy and not talking openly or even avoiding people, but maybe more about gravitating to more structured forms of socialising

  4. Dan,

    After consulting with my Myers-Briggs-expert fiance, we agreed that the ‘Theory-Driven Nerd’ could be an INTP or an INTJ. Similarly, the ‘Data-Driven Nerd’ could be an ISTP or an ISTJ. I’ve updated the post.

    The difference between P and J is, as I understand it, about making decisions. Js (like me) tend to make pretty firm judgments about the world based on the data they have available. Ps are always searching for more data. Depending on how you view scientists, either one might fit. Or maybe scientists are Js when making theories and Ps when amending them. 🙂

    Anyway, thanks for reading!

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  6. As an ENTJ I love a Myers-Briggs! Clearly according to your categories I am not cut out to be a scientist – I’ll have to concentrate on something else.

    I wonder if anyone’s school career aptitude test actually got it right?

  7. I am an INTJ and definitely a theory-driven nerd in a lot of ways, though I would say some of my training has beaten it out of me (in order to avoid overstating hypotheses without good evidence). But “rich mahogany offices?” Then you don’t actually know that many scientists! 😉 My office has a tiled floor that has never in four years been cleaned, all the furniture is 1970s hand me downs, and my view out the window is of an air conditioner compressor. Rather than “give long lectures” I would probably say “write very long blog posts.” Otherwise you have it right!

  8. Thanks for a very thoughtful and thought-provoking post! Myers-Briggs typing was actually a frequent topic of conversation among my marine biology grad school cohort, and we definitely had a non-zero proportion of F–including me.

    I don’t know that the F designation is *only* about focusing on outliers–but even if that’s just part of it, I think it can make a good scientist. Looking for the exceptions, the systems or species or individuals who don’t fit established theories, and trying to figure out why and how they don’t, can bring tremendous scientific insight.

    I think the sense of wonder that comes with being INFP is part of what drove me to science, in fact. For other Fs it could be compassion, the desire to help people, that inspires them to do research.

    I’m hesitant to claim that so-and-so famous scientist is definitely an F, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find Fs in people like Rachel Carlson, Aldo Leopold, or Carl Safina. (I do note that those three examples all did/do a lot of science communication, as well as research–and I myself am moving in that direction–so that’s interesting!)

  9. “I’ve never met a scientist who looks at the outliers first.”

    Could you elaborate? I’m thinking you must mean something other than what I take from this.

    I find it difficult to believe that most scientists don’t look at the exceptional cases in their data, so I take it you must mean something else. (Indeed, I once heard an excellent technician point out that scientists, if anything, spent to much time looking at the “odd” cases and not enough considering the ‘run-of-the-mill’ pattern.)

    (In one sense you’re right, in that it would be a tautology as outliers are by definition exceptions to a trend, so you have to first observe the trend, but I’m sure that’s not what you’re after either. I have to admit I’m confused by how you go from writing about ‘feeling’ to this. Perhaps you mean that in terms of explanations scientists run with Occam’s Razor, first looking to the likely—i.e. data-driven—explanations before the ones from ‘instinct’.)

    1. The ‘first’ is the important part of that sentence. Scientists, from my experience, are first interested in major trends, and preferably those that agree with their hypothesis. After that, sure, they’ll look at potentially interesting outliers. But not first.

  10. So I guess that, as an ENTJ with a computer science degree, I’m kind of an outlier. Which will come as *no* surprise to anyone who knows me!

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