A Personality Test Can Help You Find the Right Career
The ‘neurotic’ tailor and the ‘conscientious’ paralegal
It’s a common piece of advice, especially to those in professions with high turnover or poor job security: Know your escape route. If your chosen career doesn’t work out, have another idea in the back of your mind — something else you’d like almost as much, and would be particularly well suited to. My colleague Wade Millward’s advice is to always be looking.
To help guide you to a career that actually suits you, whether you’re weighing up a job change or entering the market for the first time, I’d like to suggest something a little out of the box: Start with a personality test.
While many personality tests are no more meaningful than your horoscope, there’s one in particular that psychologists return to time and time again: the “Big Five,” which measures five (dimensions) of personality traits. They are:
- Extraversion (sometimes called surgency). The broad dimension of extraversion encompasses such more specific traits as talkative, energetic and assertive.
- Agreeableness. Includes traits like sympathetic, kind and affectionate.
- Conscientiousness. Includes traits like organized, thorough and planful.
- Neuroticism (sometimes reversed and called emotional stability). Includes traits like tense, moody and anxious.
- Openness to experience (sometimes called intellect or intellect/imagination). Includes traits like having wide interests, and being imaginative and insightful.
Unlike many other personality test metrics, these five characteristics seem to remain quite stable from one test to the next and across people’s lifespans. The traits are assessed relative to the rest of the population — whether you’re in the top 25% for extraversion, for instance — and don’t carry value judgments. While few people like to be described as disagreeable, the test isn’t designed to flatter or criticize. You can take a test through Penn State University here.
Next, use the relative strength or weakness of these five traits to point you in the right career direction. Using data from around 8,500 workers, researchers in Belgium have put together a rating system for dozens of different jobs based on the relative importance of each trait to that occupation.
Less agreeable folks could consider a career in the military, the police or as a prison guard. Those who score highly on openness to experience might do well in the arts, as an actor, composer, designer or photographer. And the more neurotic among us will find their attention to detail rewarded as a tailor, librarian or machine operator.
Conscientiousness often lends itself to professional success, especially in the right field. In a study published in 2019, researchers found that people who scored highly in conscientiousness had a strong "preference for more predictable environments," meaning they might feel more at home in well-organized occupations with a lot of structure, such as legal services or dentistry.
In a sense, you may be speeding up something that might have happened anyway. Data suggests that many people naturally fall into the profession that best fits their personality type.
Researchers from a selection of Australian universities analyzed the “digital fingerprints” of more than 120,000 Twitter accounts, encompassing more than 3,500 different occupations, creating a different personality profile for each. They found that people in a given field are often very like one another in character. Top tennis players have more in common than a powerful backhand and nimble feet. They generally come across as less open and more conscientious and agreeable, according to their study.
Researchers also found striking similarities between personalities of people in sometimes quite disparate fields, suggesting potential lateral career moves. At least in character, magazine publishers greatly resemble foreign diplomats, while fire chiefs have much in common with community center directors. You can find your current career and its sibling jobs in this interactive data visualization put together by the researchers.
Zoom in and hover the mouse to find your current role as well as the nearby roles you might also be good at.
A personality-first approach may be particularly relevant for people in declining industries. Suppose you’ve been made redundant after a career as a postal carrier, where jobs are expected to decrease by 28% between 2018 and 2028, according to Department of Labor figures. Temperamentally, the data from this study suggests, you might be well suited to a career as a healthcare manager or IT manager, where jobs are expected to increase by 29% and 10% respectively over the same period.
And if you’ve long worked as a telemarketer, a field in which jobs are expected to decline by 17% in the next decade, but know yourself to be a secret wallflower, embrace your inner introvert and shine brighter (if a little more quietly) among the expanding ranks of bookkeepers or librarians.