What doctor specialty should you pursue based on your Big Five Personality type? If you’re struggling to choose your medical path or want to know which personality traits best match each specialty, keep watching.
Do personality tests have much scientific validity? Overall, the answer to that question is no. All personality tests have their limitations, which we covered in another guide that digs into the science behind their effectiveness.
But there is one test that has some scientific backing, and that’s The Big Five.
While personality tests like Myers-Briggs and the Enneagram are popular amongst the masses, The Big Five is the most widely accepted personality test among scientists. This is because The Big Five uses a trait model rather than a type model. Although this makes test results a little less interesting, type models are not considered scientifically sound because people are too complex to precisely sort into types.
The Big Five organizes people by traits on a spectrum. The model proposes that human personality can be measured along five distinct dimensions, which are Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism, or OCEAN for short. The HEXACO personality test is similar with the added axis of honesty-humility.
The Big Five shows more validity and reliability than other tests, and various studies have demonstrated value in predicting job performance and team effectiveness. One study successfully tested the association of each Big Five trait with various different brain regions. For example, extraversion covaried with the region of the brain that processes reward information, and neuroticism covaried with brain regions associated with threat, punishment, and negative affect.
Let’s take a closer look at each trait and discuss what medical specialty might be an ideal fit for you based on your current Big Five traits.
Note that this breakdown is meant as a conversation starter and exercise for anyone struggling to choose a medical specialty. Any personality type can find success in any specialty, but there are very real factors that will make it more or less difficult for you.
For example, someone who is very extraverted will likely find a more solitary specialty like radiology lacks the stimulation they crave. Someone who doesn’t like new experiences will find the unpredictability of emergency medicine stressful. Can an extravert thrive in radiology? Absolutely! But they will have to find social stimulation and adventure outside of their career.
Openness to Experience
The first dimension of The Big Five is Openness to Experience.
Openness refers to someone’s tendency to think in creative and abstract ways. This trait is further broken down into:
- Artistic Interests
- Intellect, and
People who score high on Openness are intellectually curious, love to play with new ideas, and pursue adventure and new experiences. They typically like art and novel forms of self-expression. They think in metaphors and like to notice patterns. High Openness scorers also like to explore and are often bored by the mundane.
People who score low on Openness are more practical and straightforward thinkers. They like routine and tradition. They are not particularly drawn to art or creativity and prefer to stick to what they know. They gravitate toward hobbies and jobs that feel useful and serve a practical purpose, and they are resistant to change.
From a neurological lens, Openness seems to be related to how deeply different regions of the brain are interconnected, which could explain how those who score high on Openness are able to see patterns and connections where others do not.
If this is an area of The Big Five you score low on, don’t be discouraged. The beauty of this model is that everyone is composed of all dimensions, and you can continue to work on improving areas you’d like to score higher on.
Neurology and infectious diseases are a good fit for those who score high on Openness because they are fields that require critical thinking, adaptability, and comfort dealing with the unknown.
There’s so much we still don’t understand about the brain, and new treatments and technologies continue to completely disrupt what we thought we knew.
Infectious disease doctors must be as adaptable as the microorganisms that infect the human body, which are constantly evolving and developing antimicrobial resistance. Plus, they must be prepared for the new bacteria, parasites, and fungi that continue to emerge.
The fundamental principles of these specialties change regularly, which requires an open mind that’s ready to receive new information and change direction as needed.
Emergency medicine and global medicine may also be a good fit for those who score high on the Adventurousness sub-trait of Openness in particular.
Other specialties well-suited to high Openness include: Plastic surgery, gender surgery, ENT, urology, pathology, dermatology, allergy/immunology, and global health.
For those who score low on Openness, you may be more drawn to specialties with fewer unanswered questions and puzzles to solve. For example, radiology, anesthesiology, family medicine, and physical medicine and rehabilitation.
The next dimension is Conscientiousness.
Conscientiousness refers to someone’s tendency to be self-disciplined, determined, hard working, organized, and goal-oriented. This trait is further broken down into:
- Self-Discipline, and
People who score high on Conscientiousness can easily delay gratification to instead relentlessly pursue their long-term goals. They struggle with flexibility and don’t enjoy being spontaneous. They are reliable and steadfast but can be seen as too rigid.
People who score low on Conscientiousness are casual and prefer to live in the moment. They do not like to plan ahead and are often impulsive and unpredictable. They can be seen as irresponsible, unreliable, and flaky. They tend to put play before work.
From a neurological lens, Conscientiousness is associated with frontal lobe activity. Our frontal lobe regulates the impulses we receive from other areas of the brain. Scoring high on Conscientiousness suggests one more easily uses their frontal lobe to control their impulses, such as turning down dessert or choosing to study instead of watching Netflix.
People who score high on Conscientiousness are well-equipped for the rigors of medical school. If you score low in this trait, it doesn’t mean you can’t succeed in medical school and beyond, but it will be an uphill battle. You’ll need to build solid habits and processes that can help you develop your Conscientiousness, especially the sub-traits of Self-Discipline and Dutifulness.
People who score high on Conscientiousness are well-suited to straightforward medical specialties with stable careers. It’s also a good fit for specialties that require notable attention to detail, such as radiology and surgery, including surgical subspecialties like plastic surgery, cardiothoracic surgery, otolaryngology, and urology.
If you scored high in everything but the Cautiousness sub-trait, look to the more adventurous specialties we mentioned earlier when speaking about Openness, such as emergency medicine and global medicine.
Next is Extraversion~~, the most commonly misunderstood personality trait there is.~~
Extraversion refers to someone’s tendency to feel positive emotions like excitement and joy, particularly when communicating with other people. This trait is further broken down into:
- Activity Level
- Excitement-Seeking, and
People who score high on Extraversion are energized by interacting with other people. They enjoy crowds, big parties, and having a busy schedule. They seek stimulation from the outside world and enjoy the attention and praise of others. They are excited and motivated by the pursuit of power and prestige.
People who score low on Extraversion are more introverted and independent. They are easily tired out by social situations and care less for their social standing. They prefer low-key environments and do not require attention or praise from others to feel happy. Introverts aren’t necessarily shy; they simply think social pursuits are tiring, uninteresting, and not worth the energy.
From a neurological lens, people who score high in Extraversion tend to have more dopamine activity, which means they are more motivated by the potential of a reward. Introverts have less dopamine activity, which makes them less motivated by rewards.
People who score high in Extraversion can find stimulation and excitement in specialties like emergency medicine, trauma surgery, and sports medicine, particularly if they score high in the sub-traits of Excitement-Seeking and Activity Level.
People who score high in the sub-traits of Friendliness, Gregariousness, and Cheerfulness will enjoy specialties with plenty of colleague and patient interaction, such as family medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics, and OB/GYN.
Those who relate to being motivated by power and prestige may be drawn to competitive specialties, such as cardiology, neurosurgery, and plastic surgery.
If you don’t score high in Extraversion, you’ll find a more natural fit with specialties with less patient interaction, such as radiology or pathology.
The next dimension is Agreeableness.
Agreeableness refers to someone’s tendency to put others before themselves and put aside what they want in favor of what someone else wants. This trait is further broken down into:
- Modesty, and
People who score high on Agreeableness are typically empathetic, trusting, and kind. They prioritize getting along with and taking care of others, which makes them natural people pleasers. They like to cooperate, which means they make friends easily and are unlikely to get into fights. They may struggle to assert themselves and likely have a hard time saying no.
People who score low on Agreeableness tend to be antagonistic and suspicious of others. They are not motivated by what people think of them and have no problem holding an unpopular view. They are not very sympathetic to the needs of others and put themselves first. They would prefer to get ahead than cooperate.
In general, Agreeableness is a strong trait for doctors in all specialties. To pursue medicine, you should be trustworthy and have a strong moral compass. Altruism is also a common trait among people who pursue medicine.
People who score high in Agreeableness across all sub-traits may be well-suited toward specialties that require a great deal of patience and empathy, such as emergency medicine, palliative care, oncology, anesthesiology, pediatrics, family medicine, global health, gastroenterology, and psychiatry.
People who score lower in Agreeableness should be wary of the patient populations they will interact with when choosing a specialty. You may not want to pursue a career path where you’ll be dealing with difficult patients on a daily basis, such as psychiatry or pediatrics. Keep in mind that with pediatrics, you not only have to keep your patient calm, you also must manage their parents.
Lastly, we have Neuroticism.
Neuroticism refers to someone’s tendency to experience negative emotions. This trait is further broken down into:
- Immoderation, and
People who score high on Neuroticism often feel fearful, angry, sad, ashamed, or burnt out. They are more likely to perceive an innocent comment as an insult or feel intimidated when passing strangers on the street. They see danger everywhere and are more likely to doubt their own abilities. They take failure very hard.
People who score low on Neuroticism are generally calm, confident, and bold, even in stressful situations. They are less likely to be affected by stress in general and take failures in stride. They typically have high self-esteem and are carefree.
From a neurological lens, one study found that Neuroticism appears to relate to the interconnection of several different regions in the brain, including regions involved in dealing with negative emotions and processing negative stimuli. The study also found an association between high Neuroticism and altered serotonin processing in the brain.
While Neuroticism may seem like an undesirable trait, this is not necessarily the case, so you shouldn’t feel bad if you score high on it—though you likely will because you’re neurotic.
People who score high on Neuroticism are always considering how a situation can go wrong and are very aware of potential risks, which is an important trait in a doctor.
Since neurotics fear failure, this can also trigger someone to pursue excellence, which might lead people to tough or highly-competitive specialties, such as cardiology, plastic surgery, otolaryngology, dermatology, or neurosurgery.
If you score high on the Anger sub-trait in particular, you may not be well-suited for pediatrics, OB/GYN, and neonatology.
On the other hand, if you score low in Neuroticism, it means you’re generally fearless, which means you can better handle high-stress medical specialties, such as emergency medicine, military medicine, trauma surgery, and OB/GYN.
Of course, you shouldn’t base your career path on your Big Five results alone. There are tons of factors that go into choosing the medical specialty you want to pursue for the rest of your life. However, our stress tolerance, communication preferences, ideals, and overall nature make some specialties a better fit than others.
It’s our hope that this breakdown will spark an engaging conversation around choosing a medical specialty. How did you score on The Big Five, and does it align with the specialty you’re most interested in or have already pursued? Please share your experiences and ideas in the comments below.
Choosing a specialty is only the first step. After you decide on a specialty, you need to match into residency. Med School Insiders offers a variety of services to help you every step of the way. From residency application editing to USMLE prep and mock interviews, we’ve got you covered.
We’ve become the fastest-growing company in the industry with record setting satisfaction rates because we’re committed to results. We’d love to be a part of your journey to becoming a future physician, no matter the specialty you choose.
Next up: Check out our Myers-Briggs Medical Specialty Breakdown.