Your Personality and Preferences

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Learning Objectives

  • Learn more about how your personality may influence the way you interact with the people in your academic and professional life.


“Getting my PhD was not just about becoming an expert in astrophysics. I had to become an expert in understanding myself and the people who held my future in the palms of their hands.”

“I worry about angering people in my lab. We don’t work well together and without the ability to collaborate with my labmates, I will never complete my research.”

“I don’t feel very comfortable talking to my advisor. I don’t know what it is, but I just feel uncomfortable around him, he never really listens to my concerns.”

The Influence of Your Personality

Every exchange between two or more people involves a complex mingling of two distinct personality styles. The way you each think about the world, react to struggles, and handle stress, varies widely from others. For decades, psychologists have conducted research to understand just what makes people unique and different from each other, and how they approach each other. As you learn more about yourself in regards to coping styles, thinking habits, and stress triggers, it is also useful to consider how these personal characteristics affect your interpersonal life — or, how you interact with others. Given that you are not the only person involved in your success in graduate school (see Stakeholders), this module is designed help you learn more about how your personality may influence the way you interact with people in your program environment, including faculty members, classmates, co-workers, advisors, committee chairs, labmates, undergraduates, and administrators.

Definition of Individual Preferences

The term "individual preferences" refers to the different personalities, opinions, styles, and other features that make people diverse and contribute to their unique ways of doing things and perceiving the world. The word “preferences” was chosen because these are characteristic styles and preferred patterns rather than fixed traits. Terms like proclivities, temperament, and predispositions can also be used to describe these individual differences.

Researchers suggest that your personality is made up of a variety of factors, including aspects of yourself that are inherent to being human and are shared by everyone; individual patterns of behavior that are unique to you and mostly stable throughout your adult life; the ways in which you adapt to different situations and become motivated; the stories you tell that give your life meaning; and how you're shaped by your culture.1 Sometimes your individual preferences clash with those around you, which can lead to unsuccessful professional relationships in graduate school. An interesting phenomenon about personal styles and preferences is that when people find themselves in difficult circumstances or interpersonal conflict, they actually become more tied to their preferred styles. Often that leads to starker contrasts between the players and more conflict. The first step in understanding how you can work best with the people around you is to reflect upon what you bring to the table.

Your Individual Preferences

You have unique preferences about how you like to get your work done, how you choose to interact with others, and how to reach your own professional goals in graduate school. Each of your faculty, classmates, and others you work with in graduate school has individual preferences as well. Why is this important to keep in mind? It is important because much of your productivity, satisfaction, and success in graduate school and your career depend upon how effective you are in relating to and working with others.

For example, you might work best under pressure, whereas other members on your research team might prefer to pace themselves. Your officemate might prefer music playing in the background, whereas you might only be able to concentrate in silence. Many types of individual preferences that contribute to the climate of your work environment are less obvious.

For example, conflicts in individual preferences have been known to contribute to the demise of many advisor-advisee relationships.2 Here are some examples of how your individual preferences might conflict with those of your advisor. You:

  • Desire constant feedback
  • Desire positive reinforcement
  • Desire to be personable with your advisor
  • Like to go with the flow

Your advisor:

  • Takes a laissez-faire approach to advising
  • Believes in constructive criticism
  • Desires to stay strictly professional with advisees
  • Likes to plan ahead

Personality differences have a lot to do with individual preferences for working and interacting with others. One way of defining personality is a person’s characteristic patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior2. The five-factor model of personality is a very popular way of explaining individual differences in personality3,4According to the Big-Five theorists, the degree to which you vary on the following traits makes up your personality:

  • Extraversion (talkative, assertive, energetic)
  • Agreeableness (cooperative, trustful)
  • Conscientiousness (orderly, dependable)
  • Emotional stability (not easily upset, rational)
  • Openness to experience (intellectual, independent-minded)

Other theorists5 group your personality traits into different categories, such as the categories below:

  • Sensing vs. Intuition (Do you prefer to first gather facts and evidence when making decisions or do you “feel” your way through, preferring to rely on insight and intuition?)
  • Thinking vs. Feeling (Do you prefer to think logically and weigh the pros and cons when making decisions or are you more guided by personal values? Are your decisions guided by producing harmony between yourself and others at stake in the decision-making process?)
  • Judging vs. Perceiving (Do you plan ahead and prepare for different types of outcomes or do you prefer to “live in the moment” and solve problems as they arise?)
  • Extraversion vs. Introversion (Are you energized by being around other people, or do you need to be by yourself to re-group and gain energy for the day?)


Rank the options from what describes you the MOST (1) to the one that describes you the LEAST (5).

In the lab ...

  1. You are usually the one coming up with creative solutions to your group's typical problems. __
  2. You are definitely the most organized person in your lab group. __
  3. Even though you're the only woman in your lab, you're definitely the most social. __
  4. You are everyone’s “helper,” and your colleagues are always asking for your assistance. __
  5. When crises occur, you are typically the only one not panicking. __

In your life outside of school ...

  1. You love to go out with your friends — a top priority. __
  2. You really enjoy trying new things. __
  3. You like to plan way ahead of time and make sure things are done in a thorough fashion. __
  4. Your friends usually think of you as the logical one. __
  5. You consider yourself to be kind and affectionate. __

Now see how each answer matches up with the Big Five

In the lab ... 1) O, 2) A, 3) Ex, 4) C 5) ES

In your life outside of school ... 1) Ex, 2) O, 3) C, 4) ES, 5) A

Do you see a discrepancy between how you are in the lab and how you are outside of school?

Noticing discrepancies are important for two reasons:

  1. You don’t want to drift too far away from your “true” self, or the person you enjoy being and the things you find fulfillment in doing. Taking notice of these types of changes early on can help you build a more balanced life plan (see Balance for more).
  2. School does not completely define you. Remember that indeed, there is life outside the lab and it’s OK to take the academician hat off once in a while. In fact, it may be a sanity-saver to do so in a regular fashion.


When Maki entered her program, she was assigned to an advisor in her department. Maki has been in the program for 2 years now, and she has found working with her advisor to be very difficult. Her advisor is rarely in his office, and he often answers his emails days after having received them. He also gives feedback only rarely. Maki prefers meeting in person when possible, and she relies on consistent communication and feedback. Lately, she has been very discouraged by her progress, and she is considering talking to someone in her program about it.

Which of the following would be the best option for Maki to do next?

Best answer: B. While confronting her advisor (answer A) is a good option, Maki has been working with her advisor for 2 years already. Expecting significant changes may be difficult, or even impossible. She may have already spoken with him about it, to no avail. Doing nothing (answer C) will only cause more frustration and may hinder her progress further. Similarly, working indirectly with another professor (answer D) may cause inter-departmental confusion or additional problems. The best answer is to explore what options she does have control over, and see if she can place herself in a better situation. That may include looking into to transferring to a different advisor that better matches her style.

The Person-Organization Fit

Recognizing how you may be different than others on the above personality characteristics might give you a better understanding of and patience for the behaviors and work styles of others. Not only will your individual preferences influence how you work with each individual in your program, but they will also affect how you fit in with your program as a whole. Researchers have tried to understand the individual and environmental characteristics that can predict a good match between an employee and an organization. Person-organization fit is a term researchers use to describe the degree to which an individual’s goals and values are congruent with their organization. There are different ways a person might “fit” with an organization:6

  • By possessing similar characteristics to the overall organization (for example, most research-oriented programs have a strong work ethic, and you fit in better if you possess that characteristic)
  • By adding something to the organization that it is missing (for example, if your research team needs a statistician and your background is in statistics)
  • When the organization fulfills your individual needs (for example, help from your advisor to produce publications)
  • When the individual has the ability to meet the demands of the organization (for example, being a productive research assistant, teaching assistant, and/or student)

Put simply, the more likely your organization (or, in your case, academic program) meets your individual needs, and the more likely you are able to meet the demands of the organization, the more satisfied you will be. The idea is that it is not just the job that you do that promotes satisfaction, but whether or not you are compatible overall with the characteristics of and people in your organization.

Reflections: Needs assessments

Does your department: Possess similar characteristics that you have or desire? Yes__ No__

  • What are they?__________

Do you feel you add something meaningful to your lab group or departmental mission? Yes__ No__

  • What do you add?_________

Are your individual needs being fulfilled? Yes__ No__

  • What are your needs?_____________

Do you think you meet the demands of your department? Yes__ No__

  • What does your department expect from you?__________

Ahh! What does a bunch of “No’s” mean? And what if I don’t know what I add or what I need?

1. You need to find strategies to help you get some, if not all, of your needs met.

2. Your needs are secondary to those of the department.

3. You have overlooked many of the strengths that got you into graduate school in the first place.

4. You’re in the wrong field.

Let’s start with #3. You may be forgetting some of your greatest assets in the process of attaining your end goal. See How You Think for more on maintaining an optimistic perspective, as well as Coping and Self-Efficacy to help enhance your confidence in your abilities. You got here! You have the skills to make it through, as well.

Let’s take #1. Getting your needs met and figuring out what you want in the short-term and the long-term are not “things” per se, they are skills. These skills can easily be learned during your time on this site. They take practice, but it does not depend on some secret knowledge or special genetic gift. Just as in science, it involves logical thinking, planning, and practice.

Gender and Culture

As you know, preferences do not only vary from person to person. Work style preferences also vary across gender and culture. Some studies have suggested that females tend to have a more affiliative, cooperative work style than men7. On the other hand, employers have been found to react differently to male and female employees. For example, employers respond better to men than to women who use strong and direct influence techniques for getting their needs met at work8. Overall, Westernized culture has been known to value independence and competition in the work environment. Yet, these values may not be shared universally. For example, people from a Latino/a culture may place greater value on close, personal work relationships as opposed to the more rigid, hierarchical relationships that characterize most organizations and institutions9. International students from cultures in which collective responsibility is valued may feel isolated by the more individualized American work environment10. Another example of a work-style preference that varies culturally is with regard to interactions with authority figures, where some (i.e., women, people from Asian cultures) may be less likely to challenge authority figures or to ask for a raise or promotion.11

Academic and Career Success

Individual preference is an especially relevant topic with respect to the relationship with your advisor or peers that you will have long-term relationships with, professionally and socially. Having a strong mentoring relationship is known to be an extremely important factor in your academic persistence and career path. Unfortunately, many students report dissatisfaction with their graduate program advisor. Differences in personality, communication style, relationship preference (such as wanting more frequent contact), and career aspirations have been identified as factors that lead to unsuccessful mentoring relationships12. It is critical to remember that advisor-advisee relationships are essentially hierarchical relationships, similar to bosses and employees. The differential in power between superiors and subordinates implies that the preferences of the person with greater power take precedence over any others. So, if the differences between you and a superior are too great, you will be more likely to succeed if you accommodate his or her preferences or you may want to consider changing advisors or positions.

It’s also important to remember that the collegial relationships you create with your academic peers may serve as an important network during, as well as after, your graduate-school experience. These relationships can serve as pertinent support for you. Being clear yet flexible with your labmates may ward off future misunderstandings and help create a pleasant and/or tenable climate for your day-to-day work.

Clearly, recognizing and negotiating differences in individual preference are activities that do not stop once you graduate. In fact, some studies have shown that many early career professors quit their academic positions because the goals and values of their organization did not match with their own7.

CareerWISE Point on Individual Preferences

The take-away message here is that you all have values and ways of behaving that you take for granted, and while these may suit you best, they sometimes do not apply to the people around you. Being sensitive to diverse styles and experiences is essential to avoiding conflicts and promoting a productive working atmosphere.

CareerWISE Tip on Individual Preferences

In each new working relationship you form in graduate school (such as with a potential new advisor or labmates working on a long-term project), it may be helpful to have an initial conversation about individual preferences. This can help you to prepare for a productive relationship and clear up potential misunderstandings down the line.


  1. McAdams, D. P., & Pals, J. L. (2006). A new big five: Fundamental principles for an integrative science of personality. American Psychologist, 61, 204–217. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.61.3.204
  2. Johnson, W. B., & Huwe, J. M. (2002). Toward a typology of mentorship dysfunction in graduate school. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 39, 44–55.
  3. McCrae, R. R., & Costa, P. T. (1987). Validation of the five-factor model of personality across instruments and observers. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 81–90. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.52.1.81
  4. John, O. P., & Srivastava, S. (1999). The big five trait taxonomy: History, measurement, and theoretical perspectives. In L. A. Pervin, & O. P. John (Eds.), Handbook of Personality (2nd ed., pp. 102-131). New York: Guilford Press.
  5. Jung, C. G. (1923). Psychological types. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.
  6. Fontana, D. (2000). Personality in the workplace (3rd ed.). London: MacMillan Press Ltd.
  7. Reybold, L. E. (2005). Surrendering the dream: Early career conflict and faculty dissatisfaction thresholds. Journal of Career Development, 32, 107-121. doi:10.1177/0894845305279163
  8. Tepper, B. J., Brown, S. J., & Hunt, M. D. (1993). Strength of subordinates' upward influence tactics and gender congruency effects. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 23, 1903-1919. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.1993.tb01072.x
  9. Vasquez, M., & Comas-Diaz, L. (2007). Feminist leadership among Latinas. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
  10. Constantine, M. G., Anderson, G. M., Berkel, L. A., Caldwell, L. D., & Utsey, S. O. (2005). Examining the cultural adjustment experiences of African international college students: A qualitative analysis. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 52, 57-66. doi:10.1037/0022-0167.52.1.57
  11. Carnevale, A. P., & Stone, S. C. (1995). The American mosaic: An in-depth report on the future of diversity at work. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  12. Johnson, W. B., & Huwe, J. M. (2002). Toward a typology of mentorship dysfunction in graduate school. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 39, 44-55. doi:10.1037/0033-3204.39.1.44

Becoming an Independent Voice as a Young Faculty Member
The process of establishing yourself in the same department as your spouse.

Leisure Activities
Using leisure activities to relieve stress and build friendships.

Interpersonal Satisfaction
The satisfaction that comes from working with colleagues and interacting with others.

Practical Satisfaction
Motivation for doing work: interacting with students and doing research that can make a difference in the world.

The Joy of Making an Impact
Explains an interdisciplinary branch of physics and the passion for research, service, and teaching.

Words of Wisdom: Dr. Lunardini
The importance of finding your own style.

The Two-Body Problem
Challenges with being married to a fellow academician and finding faculty positions.

The Challenge
The selfish satisfaction of "I did it" as motivation to persist despite obstacles.

Words of Wisdom: Dr. Andino
Advice for students: stay focused, ask questions, and remain open-minded when working with others.

Time in the Classroom is at the Heart of Motivation
Teaching as the impetus for work.


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