Can Certain Personality Traits Predict Job Success After College?

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Social science has long recognized the notable role that socioeconomic status and cognitive abilities play in success. But a growing body of research has shown that a blend of personality traits is necessary for individuals to be successful in education, and eventually, in their careers.

Aside from being a source of income, careers often become a core aspect of one’s identity that enable the development of new skills. Therefore, it is important to understand whether there is a strong correlation between personality and career trajectories.

D.W. Fiske developed The Big Five personality traits theory in 1949. The theory, which other researchers have expanded on throughout the years, includes extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism.

In simple terms, neuroticism refers to a lack of positive psychological and external events, openness refers to the degree to which an individual is open to new experiences or ways of doing things, agreeableness measures how compatible individuals are with others, and conscientiousness is impulse control that facilitates task and goal-directed behavior.

Scientists believe that this so-called “person-centered” approach better reflects the integrated character of relevant human behavior systematically.  And over 100+ years of psychological research has found conscientiousness to be the top predictor of job performance.

For example, a 1982 study found that men with a high self-directed conscientiousness earned higher salaries over a ten-year span. And an increase in emotional stability across middle adulthood was associated with self-perceived meaningful jobs.

Additionally, a 2006 study found that as job satisfaction increased, neuroticism decreased and extraversion increased, regardless of the stage of the individual’s career.

One year later, a study surveyed males and females from seven occupations, including pharmacists, teachers, bank employees, hotel staff, dentists, salespeople, and air-traffic controllers.

Researchers found that conscientiousness was the only personality trait that consistently predicted job success of an individual across six of the seven occupations.

Neuroticism was significantly negatively correlated with job success, while extraversion and conscientiousness were significantly positively correlated with job success for all occupational groups.

And most recently, a December 2020 longitudinal study measured young adults aged 17 to 29 on the Big Five personality traits and surveyed them for five indicators of early career success. These indicators included income, degree attainment, occupational prestige, and job and career satisfaction.

Researchers found extroversion, conscientiousness, and emotional stability had the strongest effects across both studies. Specifically, conscientiousness was tied to career satisfaction, emotional stability to income and career satisfaction, and extroversion to job and career satisfaction.

Notably, studies have shown that personalities aren’t immutable. Individuals can remold themselves even beyond 30, shifting personality traits on their continuum in ways that can be either beneficial or deleterious.

“Overall, study findings highlight the importance of personality development throughout childhood, adolescence and young adulthood for promoting different aspects of career success,” Kevin Hoff, assistant professor of industrial-organizational psychology at the University of Houston, said in a press release.

“You’re not just stuck with your personality traits, and if you change over time in positive ways, that can have a big impact on your career,” Hoff concluded.

Scientists believe that the Big Five personality traits theory reflects the character of relevant human behavior systematically, potentially more accurately predicting career success.

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