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