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When you meet new people entering the world of academic research, it is often tempting to try and guess what “sort” of researcher they'll be, based on their personality, character, known qualities, and defects, etc. You'll sometimes hear people say things like “he's not cut out to be a researcher”.

But I wonder: are there any studies that have probed the link between personality/character and success in academic life (and academic research in particular)?

The sort of studies I imagine would be possible are things like assessing researchers' personalities (e.g. by the well-known Myers-Briggs classification) and comparing the distribution against that of the general public… But I could not find anything serious through Google, though I imagine researchers in behavioral sciences, psychology, or other related fields must have tried to address this question.

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    This is a great question. That said, I think we should all be wary of poor studies along these lines. Myers-Briggs itself is not without criticism. – Chris Gregg Oct 4 '13 at 8:39
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    That's an understatement @ChrisGregg, Myers-Briggs is a joke. – Stephen Tierney Oct 4 '13 at 9:26
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    @ChrisGregg Yes, I know that Myers-Briggs can be (and has been) criticized… I'm citing it to help give people a somewhat well-known example of what I mean by “personality/character”… – F'x Oct 4 '13 at 18:54
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    CogSci.SE gets a lot of questions similar to this. You might get a faster/better/more in depth answer there. – ThomasH Oct 7 '13 at 18:12
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    I believe there are no comprehensive studies at this point, not even with non-personality measures such as GPA. Mostly there's a lot of anecdotal evidence, where someone famous gets asked what the secret is behind his success. Last year I made the prediction that such a study will show up within the next five years, because it's an important and interesting question. But so far, I haven't seen anything. Not posting this as an answer in hopes that I'm wrong and that some studies do exist :) – Ana Oct 9 '13 at 8:55
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1) Psychologists on Psychologists:
Helmreich, Robert L.; Spence, Janet T.; Beane, William E.; Lucker, G. William; Matthews, Karen A. (1980), "Making it in academic psychology: Demographic and personality correlates of attainment". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 39(5), Nov 1980, 896-908.

ABSTRACT: Examined personality, demographic characteristics, publication rate, and citations to published work in a sample of 141 male and 55 female academic psychologists. Reputational rankings of their graduate schools and current institutions were significantly related to citations, as were components of achievement motivation. Mastery and work needs were positively related to citations, whereas competitiveness was negatively associated with the criterion. Large sex differences were found in citations, with men receiving significantly more recognition and producing at a higher rate. A model of attainment in psychology is proposed, and possible explanations for the differential attainment of the sexes are explored. (26 ref) (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)

2) A more general review paper that includes a discussion and literature on psychological factors:
Fox, M. F. (1983). "Publication productivity among scientists: A critical review". Social Studies of Science, 13(2), 285-305.
available at
http://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/68920/10.1177_030631283013002005.pdf

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    "Reputational rankings of their graduate schools and current institutions were significantly related to citations" -- ugh. In other words, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer? – James Oct 13 '13 at 0:39
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    @James I am not surprised by this correlation finding. One can interpret it in many ways: the "conspiratorial" view that elites first and foremost attempt to preserve themselves -but also as basic risk aversion that lead people (including editors and reviewers) to seek for "third party confirmation" in making a decision -and the fact that one is affiliated with a highly reputable institution is a comfortable third-party confirmation, creating a positive bias which, as most biases, has some roots in reality but eventually tends to... bias outcomes. – Alecos Papadopoulos Oct 13 '13 at 0:55
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    @AlecosPapadopoulos: what about better schools choosing better professors providing better mentorship, and reputation correlating with quality? I'm ready to believe you have a point, but I don't see it in the correlation discussed in the abstract. (I'm with a reputable supervisor at a less reputable institution, but the latter's not a problem and I have lots of anecdotical evidence about this "positive" and non-conspiratorial view). – Blaisorblade Oct 18 '13 at 3:20
  • @Blaisorblade Certainly. The way I see it, the "paper selection bias" results not so much because reputable institutions are not really high quality viewed as a whole and on average, but because this tends to reflect "automatically" to a specific scientific paper, which may not be quality. Still, it does bias publication decisions. It is not the institution's fault, and the Editor is not conspiring with the Dean. It is human nature and an attempt to save on information processing costs. – Alecos Papadopoulos Oct 18 '13 at 10:34
  • Correlation can't detect what you describe. But there are studies detecting it. See the background of this FAQ on double-blind reviewing (you can ignore any conference-specific bits on the rest of the page): cs.umd.edu/~mwh/dbr-faq.html#studies – Blaisorblade Oct 18 '13 at 14:47
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I recently stumbled across this study, which postulates that modern science selects for sociability and perseverance at the expense of creativity and intelligence. The successful academic will be agreeable and persevering, but will not necessarily be very intelligent or creative. (These traits are derived from Eysenk's Personality Questionnaire.) In short, dull people are preferred!

I'm not sure I agree with the authors' analysis, since I've met many interesting, creative, and highly intelligent academics, including many in positions which are indicative of success--however, as StasK pointed out in a comment, perhaps these individuals are just more memorable. My subjective experience in no way indicates that the majority are not of the dull and agreeable sort. :)

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    You remembered meeting creative and intelligent people. What the paper argues is that there are scores of agreeable and persevering people in academia, and while they may not be as noticeable as the bright people, they make up the majority. – StasK Oct 14 '13 at 12:46
  • @StasK Good point--I've edited my answer to reflect this. – J. Zimmerman Oct 14 '13 at 13:11
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+50

There are some small studies that examine the role of personality in academic success. You should search academic databases, if you can.

Here are a few:

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