Know Thyself

December 10, 2003

Whether you're a midcareer academic grown tired of teaching or a disillusioned A.B.D. ready for something new, you have options. You just need to know where to look. Increasingly, graduate-career counselors are suggesting that the best place to start looking is within.

Campus career centers offer a number of tools -- sometimes incorrectly referred to as career tests or personality assessments -- that can help draw out what motivates you. The "tests" are designed to help people make career or education choices that match their actual interests and preferences.

Angela Wood, a career counselor at Cal Tech, recalls a female postdoc in the sciences who was thinking of leaving academe and was struggling with whether that was the right decision. She felt so out of sync with others in her lab that she had started to doubt her abilities.

Wood suggested that the scientist take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, one of the most popular tools used for assessing personality types. The results helped the postdoc understand why she felt out of place. As an extrovert, she needed a more sociable environment than her lab, where others were not very gregarious, Wood said. Taking the Myers-Brigg instrument gave the scientist the confidence to search for a place that would better suit her work style. At the end of her sessions, she told Wood that she really "felt alive again." Not long after, she moved on to a job at a major research institute, working in a more engaging atmosphere.

Sometimes personality and interest inventories can help suggest a change in fields. Paul Fornell, associate director of the career center at California State University at Long Beach, tells of a graduate student in pharmacy who was having trouble with the technical course work and wanted some advice. Fornell suggested the student take one of the tests. His results showed that he wanted to help people and had a strong interest in art. He ultimately decided to leave his program and go into medical illustration, where he could satisfy his artistic leanings and his need to help others, just in a different way.

Personality inventories can also help Ph.D.'s confirm that they are on the right track. For an engineer at a major scientific research institution, both the Myers-Brigg assessment and the Strong Interest Inventory did just that. Although the engineer wasn't passionate about his work, it provided a good paycheck. The tools confirmed his analytical and investigative interests, so he decided to keep his job. The findings also showed he had a strong interest in the arts and helped him realize how important it was to continue playing violin in a community orchestra to keep his batteries charged.

Most personality and interest inventories compare a person's interests, abilities, and attitudes with those of people who enjoy their jobs. The report that's generated often lists likely occupations or career areas. The results are based on the assumption that people who share the same interests will tend to enjoy the same kinds of work.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator was initially developed during World War II to help the military classify people based upon shared characteristics or preferences. The idea was to put soldiers in jobs that fit certain traits, and thus squeeze more productivity out of them. Today, the most common version of the test takes about 40 minutes to complete, and asks questions like: When making a decision, is it more important to you to (a) weigh the facts or (b) consider people's feelings and opinions? Another sample question: Which is a higher compliment for you? To be called (a) confident or (b) compassionate?

The interpretive report then gives you a four-letter code, classifying you into one of 16 personality types, which can be linked to various occupations. Each letter in the code represents a person's preferences along four different continuums (extroversion to introversion, sensing to intuiting, thinking to feeling, and judging to perceiving). Your preferences are supposed to reflect how you prefer to interact with the world around you. While "extroverts" are energized around other people and tend to act first and think later, "introverts" need time alone to recharge their batteries and prefer to think something over first, then act. "Sensors" prefer to learn about the world through concrete facts, while "intuitives" prefer symbolism and abstract ideas. "Thinkers" tend naturally to see flaws and be critical, while "feelers" naturally like to please others and show appreciation. "Judgers" are product-oriented and take deadlines seriously, while "perceivers" are more process-oriented and consider deadlines fluid.

The words, and the constructs they represent, are not as simple as the labels may suggest. David Keirsey and Marilyn Bates in their book, Please Understand Me: Character and Temperament Types (Prometheus Nemesis, 1984), now in its fifth edition, and in the 1998 sequel to that book, Please Understand Me II: Temperament, Character, and Intelligence, expand on what the types imply.

Other instruments are a bit less intensive and take less time. The Self-Directed Search is another tool that can help you find careers that match your interests and self-reported abilities. It's based on the theory that people can be loosely classified into six different groups: realistic, investigative, artistic, social, enterprising, and conventional.

The questions it asks are fairly basic: for example, "Do you like or dislike helping others deal with personal problems?" You're also asked to rate how you compare with others your age on sales skills and understanding others. Once your three-letter code is generated, you can find occupations and areas of study that match your interests and self-reported skills. The Self-Directed Search told me that I'm an "ASI," which means that I like to work with creative ideas. I am drawn to careers where I can help or teach other people, rather than engage in mechanical or technical activity. And I generally like to explore and understand things or events, rather than persuade others or sell them things.

The Strong Interest Inventory uses the same model, but is far more comprehensive. It asks whether you like, dislike, or are indifferent to various kinds of work or workers. The resulting report is also more detailed, including occupational charts that show how similar or dissimilar your interests are with people of the same gender who are happily employed in various occupations. The results of my Strong inventory suggest that I share many likes and dislikes with female lawyers, but not as many with female architects.

Although these tools can be useful, they don't get the whole job done. They're just part of a larger process. You don't decide your career based on the suggestions of one inventory. It also doesn't hurt to take several and see where the results are inconsistent.

Every test or tool has its limitations. These instruments are definitely not smart bombs that zero in on a target with precision. People often expect interest inventories to pinpoint that one career or occupation that is perfect for them, said Chrystal McArthur, associate director of career services at Rutgers University at New Brunswick. Then once they get their results back, she noted, they often become paralyzed by the range of options confronting them.

A more apt metaphor, according to Fornell, would be a funnel. Your Myers-Briggs and Strong scores are just one of the things you pour into a funnel, along with your life history, your résumé, your talks with career counselors, friends, and advisers, and your own thoughts.

Sometimes the test results are puzzling. One interest inventory seemed out of whack when it suggested that I shared interests in common with heating and refrigeration inspectors. Interest inventories often raise questions that are best answered by a career counselor.

Also, bear in mind that the tools are not aptitude assessments. They don't measure what the person would be good at, but rather self-reported interests and tendencies, said Marcia Harris, director of career services at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

It never hurts to remember that your responses are what define the profiles you receive in return. Therefore, the reports are only as good as your responses. They do not tell us anything we do not tell them first.

Don't expect too much of the tools. These instruments won't tell you what career or occupation will guarantee you lifelong satisfaction. No tool can do that. What they can do is give you ideas for occupations you hadn't thought of, and suggestions worth following up.

Sandra Yin is an associate editor at American Demographics. She is also, according to her Myers-Briggs scores, an INTJ (introverted, intuitive, thinking, judging) type. According to another inventory, she shares many interests and motivations in common with funeral directors.