The effect of personality on labour market success

A successful transition from education to the labour market affects careers later in life, but what role do personality characteristics play in making this transition? In the recruitment process of highly educated professionals personality features are an increasingly dominant factor, besides the more obvious requirements of specific competences, specialist knowledge, and cognitive abilities.

Indeed, learning style and personality have a rather direct and solid effect on labour market outcomes, a 2005 PhD thesis by dr. J. Semeijn shows. Her findings hold in particular for graduates with a broad occupational domain (e.g. economists), while they seem somewhat less applicable in highly regulated sectors of the labour market, such as medicine and health sciences.

One of the studies indicates that a specific personality profile is particularly attractive to employers: other characteristics (e.g. Grade Point Average) being equal, they would prefer employees with this profile. While different sectors of the labour market may favour particular traits, this profile is generally valued in business, government and academia alike.

You are likely to be successful on the labour market and obtain a high quality, satisfying job if you are ambitious, ascribe success and failure experiences to your own responsibility, and if you are rather flexible (but not too much), and only willing to take reasonable risks.

This may sound unsurprising to you, but watch a little closer and compare this profile to you own and you might gain valuable insights as to why some of your attempts in your career succeed and others fail.

Persons with this personality profile are competitive and time conscious. They have a constant urge to achieve more in less time and function well in environments with high performance standards. The academic environment certainly is such an environment: if high performance standards and performance pressure are major causes of stress for you, this is a serious factor to consider if you choose to pursue a career in academia. Also, don’t overdo your ambitious attitude or you may come across as impatient and hostile, prefer quantity over quality, tend to make fast but too poor decisions.

Persons with this profile tend to believe 1) that they can influence their environment (in stead of things just happening to them) and 2) that achievements largely depend on their own efforts (rather than on luck and other people/institutions). They don’t need constant change and challenge in order to stay motivated and keep their engagement. Their behaviour tends to remain true to their inner selves and reflect their inner state of mind rather than that they adapt like chameleons to their environment while loosing their identity and ignoring their inner thoughts and feelings.

Dr. Semeijn wonders whether it is a matter of self-selection of graduates to opt for a certain job, or of preference of the employer for a certain employee. More recent research reveals that, based on the Big Five traits, a certain personality profile also revealing ‘desirable characteristics’, confirms the pattern among (older) employees of a large company. However, a more longitudinal analysis of the above mentioned group of graduates is coming up, and will bring more insight in the longer term effects of their personality.

It surely pays to know your own personality profile. That allows you to recognize your strengths and use them in a desirable way, and effectively train to improve specific weaknesses. Moreover, knowing yourself does indeed allow you to better control the effect you have on others and hence improve your chances at success on the labour market and satisfaction in your job.

While this certainly also applies to early career researchers within academia, it holds even more strongly for PhD’s and PostDocs seeking to continue their career outside academia. One of the biggest issues they face is that they need to communicate better who they are themselves, what they stand for, what they are excited about in their field.

If you are interested in further exploring these themes, you might like my workshop on career planning and personal branding for academics. In this 2-3 hour workshop you will identify your core qualities and develop a personal, professional mission statement in relation to your natural talents. You can contact me for more information or leave your question in the comments section.

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