Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and Academia

Here is a blog that is not as much about Biblical Studies and theology, as about academia more generally – especially the arts and humanities. People can go into study for different reasons at different stages of life, but I would say that very few start out at undergraduate level with the aim of going into academia as a career or longer-term. At postgraduate level, however, things are different. Naturally, it depends on the course. For instance, someone doing an MBA is more likely to take that with them back into the world of work, rather than staying in academia longer term. Yet, for a lot of postgraduate degrees in arts and humanities, my perception so far is that many people do them as a gateway to PhD and maybe academia longer term, or at the very least as a means of testing their suitability for PhD and further work.

Throughout my studies and especially recently, in postgraduate studies, I have often thought: what makes a great researcher or academic? Having become very familiar with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality test over the last year or so through doing it together as a church staff team at St Nic’s, I thought this might be an interesting lens through which to do some playful thinking about personality types that might be well suited to academia.

MBTI is something that either means a lot to someone or is utterly alien. For the uninitiated, MBTI gives 16 different personality types based on four pairs of preferences in response to a survey of some 80 questions[1]:

1)      Extroversion (E) v. Introversion (I): Do you generally derive your energy from being with lots of different people, discussing ideas aloud, doing life at a faster pace, (E) or do you value time alone, working things out independently and generally taking life more slowly (I)?

2)      Sensing (S) v. Intuition (N): When it comes to discerning the way ahead, do you base this on previous experience, using more of a bottom-up model, taking account of lots of small details (S) or do you go more with instinct and theories or ideas, taking a more top-down approach, more mindful of the bigger picture (N)?

3)      Thinking (T) v. Feeling (F): When it comes to making decisions, do you base them on logic and reason, more impersonally (T) or do you go more on what your feelings are – and those around you (F)?

4)      Judging (J) v. Perceiving (P): Are you someone who plans things down to the final details, who thinks deadlines are to be respected and finds task lists useful, and prefers to make a decision (J) or do you prefer more spontaneity, find deadlines and task lists restrictive, and prefer to generate ideas rather than settle on a single solution (P)?

It is very rare to be wholly extroverted or wholly introverted. It is more useful to think of each of these pairs as a sort of scale. Unless you are slap-bang on the dividing line, you pick up a letter from each of the four categories, which gives 16 different combinations and 16 different personality types. For example, I come out pretty convincingly as “ISTJ” with moderate preferences for introversion and thinking, a fairly strong preference for sensing, and a very strong preference for judging. You can find pages and pages of articles listing various strengths, weaknesses, and indicators of each type – some of it very insightful and revealing, some of it more speculative[2] – but most, although not all, people fit neatly into one of the 16 categories, or at the very least straddle a couple.

Enough of the theory, though: what does this mean for academia in the arts and humanities? Is there a personality type which is particularly well suited to it? The short answer is obviously ‘no’ but I do, however, have one hypothesis based on my own observations and perhaps my own struggles, namely: of the eight different preferences, the most useful preference for academia is intuition (N).

A preliminary Google search yields nothing substantial by way of results to prove or disprove this. If anyone can direct me to a study, I would be very interested to see it. I would bet good money, however, that there are a disproportionate number of academics in the arts and humanities who are more N than S.

With the other categories, there are significant advantages on both sides, such that they cancel out, and there is a certain neutrality. In terms of I/E, while a lot of research is necessarily independent, the academic community is a place where it pays to be more extroverted – there are significant strengths on either side here. Similarly, in terms of T/F, while it is crucially to be able to argue logically and think pragmatically, there are many disciplines – particularly in the arts involving literature – where an understanding of feelings and emotions is just as vital, so again, I feel there are benefits on both sides and thus, some neutrality[3]. Lastly, in terms of J/P, while I think academics are more likely to be J, I would not think the proportion to be significantly higher than in the general population; being more P is also extremely valuable in terms of generating ideas and not being led down one exclusive avenue.

I do not feel that there is such neutrality though when it comes to N/S. Through my undergraduate studies and also through preaching experience, I have become very aware of what my academic strengths and weaknesses are. Moreover, I think that my preference for sensing over intuition dictates these strengths and weaknesses.

I am occasionally commended for being able to subtly weave together lots of small details and come to an independent conclusion, based on the evidence I have taken the time to digest. I really struggle when not given time to weigh things up and have to come to swift, theoretical, big-picture decisions; I needed time to work on details. Similarly, I am often warned not to become too obsessed by smaller details but to try and keep in mind the bigger picture: classic S tendencies and struggles. Undoubtedly my most critical end of term report had a line: “the Socratic mode is something Alex finds difficult”. Again, probably classic N v. S tendencies: I could see an argument or two along the line, but not a lot further. I struggle with the discipline of arguing based on theories and logics, which is a very useful ability to possess in academia. Moreover, with academia, the goal is frequently a creative one: to penetrate where no-one has gone before. While this necessarily involves building on other people’s work in a given field, the real impetus behind great scholarship is an ability to think outside the box, which is an inherently intuitive trait.

In sum, I would posit that there are more visionary thinkers and critics (N) among academics in the arts and humanities than there are more scientific fact-based dextrous weavers (S).

Yet, this has all been a bit simplistic and a bit of fun. Ultimately, we need all sorts of personality types in research; there is no one MBTI profile which means someone is destined to become a professor or not. Thankfully, it is not something which you put on your university application.[4] Above all, the MBTI is not a restrictive thing and it is only about preferences: it is possible that these might change over time – some people find that they drift from one category to another, based on life circumstances. It is possible to transcend whatever MBTI category we might currently find ourselves in.

This idea of adaptability is particularly important to remember for those of us who are Christian believers. The Holy Spirit is at work in us transforming us into the people God has called us to be, regardless of Myers-Briggs preferences. God will use our natural preferences and gifts, but He will move us on to new things and change us from the inside out, in accordance with where He is leading us and where we are willing to go.

I nevertheless remain fairly convinced that there a greater proportion of N academics in the arts and humanities than S ones though…

[1] The most effective way of doing MBTI is with the official test and with a certified assessor looking at your responses. This isn’t cheap though, and you can get a fairly clear idea based on simpler Internet versions such as this one – http://www.humanmetrics.com/cgi-win/jtypes2.asp.

[2] e.g., finding a person from the Bible to characterise each of the 16 personality types. ISTJ comes out as Luke, apparently. I’ll take that.

[3] I would probably rank T as the second most useful preference to possess as an academic though…

[4] Although, interestingly, the Church and many corporations might ask you on an application form and take note.

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