Tell me what you are studying and I’ll tell you who you are

A new PhD study from AU makes clear that there are significant differences on a group level between student personalities across fields of study. The character traits that lead to success on the respective degree programmes also vary.

[Translate to English:] Den stereotype studerende på Handelshøjskolen, Foulum, humaniora og medicin her afbilledet i 2010 i forbindelse med en artikel om fordomme i den tidligere universitetsavis, UNIvers. Foto: Lars Kruse
[Translate to English:] Anna Vedel forsker i personlighedstræk i den akademiske verden og er nået frem til, at der er markante forskelle på de studerendes personligheder på tværs af studieretninger. Foto: Privatfoto

Medical students are conscientious, psychologists are neurotic and economists are extroverted, but still not quite as agreeable as the Science and Technology (S&T) students. However, S&T students have a tendency to be more introverted, while at Arts the students are generally very open to new ideas and impressions, but less conscientious than students elsewhere.

All of which sounds like a list of typical prejudices – but which are in fact the conclusions of a PhD study carried out at Aarhus University’s Department of Psychology. Anna Vedel carries out research into personality traits in the academic world and her conclusion is that there is a difference between the students and their personalities across the various degree programmes.

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Notable results
"All international research in the area and a study from AU itself shows that there are some reasonably consistent differences between the students across fields of study. According to statistical standards the differences between groups are moderate to high, so we’re not talking about trivialities here. However, it is important to underline that we’re talking about an average, which means that the individual degree programmes can easily find examples of students who don’t fit the average," explains Anna Vedel.

The research compares the students by using what is known as the five factor model, also called The Big Five. Within psychology this is the prevailing model to describe human personality. According to Anna Vedel it is recognised within the research world and is also used as a recruitment tool in business and industry. The model focuses on five factors that are said to be relatively stable over time and situation, as well as being relatively comparable across countries and cultures. The factors that a person can either score high or low on are: Openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, extroversion and neuroticism, which among other things covers a tendency towards worry, depression, and vulnerability.

Differences across fields of study
Anna Vedel’s research shows that there are large differences across the different fields of study in how high or low the students score according to the five factors.

"Taking for example an average student at Arts, he or she would have a high score for openness, which covers being curious and tolerant towards new ideas and values, among other things. This is also true of psychology students. Both Arts and psychology students also have high scores when it comes to the trait called neuroticism, and they worry more than other students. Arts students score low on conscientiousness, which covers self-discipline, decency and ambition. On the other hand, psychology students have a high score here," explains the researcher.

Openness does not guarantee success everywhere
During her research Anna Vedel has also discovered that there are differences between the character traits that give most success in the various degree programmes, in this case in the form of high marks.

"Conscientiousness is generally beneficial when it comes to marks, but there are also differences. For example, you can see that this character trait is more strongly associated with success at Medicine, Psychology and Law than it is at Economics and Business. It doesn’t appear to be quite as important here," she says.

Form of study can be significant
The research does not clarify the reasons for the differences, though Anna Vedel suggests it might be connected to the different types of exam and forms of study.

"Openness is an advantage if you’re studying political science, but it’s a hindrance if you’re taking law. So here it might make sense to look at the content of the fields of study. Law is very detail-oriented, while political science is more of a generalist degree programme, where you need to be able to juggle several different theories and methods and apply them to the material," explains Anna Vedel.

Even though personality traits vary between the various degree programmes, she does not think that students should choose a degree programme according to how well they match its average personality traits:

"You should never take a personality test and then choose the degree programme that’s best suited to the profile. I wouldn’t recommend doing that. But this is clearly one of the things we considered, because these personality traits were measured in the students before they began a degree programme. They haven’t ended up like this through socialisation. The differences are there from the beginning."

Anna Vedel has eighteen months remaining of her PhD degree programme and is currently investigating which other factors could be thought to play a role in the students' choice of study and their success in the academic world. In relation to future research perspectives she envisages the results perhaps being used as a source of inspiration for lecturers or student counsellors. She also points out that departments wishing to attract a broad group of students will be able to exchange ideas with departments that have students with a different profile.



In 2007 a research group at Aarhus University conducted a survey among the new students. Using data extracts from this survey, Anna Vedel has compared the students' character traits with one another across the various fields of study based on The Big Five. The most significant results are shown below.

The five character traits the students are measured on are:

  • Openness (towards): Imagination, aesthetics, emotions, actions, ideas and values.
  • Conscientiousness: Decency, dedication, aspiration, self-discipline, competence and self-discipline.
  • Agreeableness: Trust, straightforwardness, altruism, compliance, modesty and gentleness.
  • Extroversion: Warmth, sociableness, self-assertion, activity, thrill-seeking and positive emotions.
  • Neuroticism: Apprehension, anger, depression, self-awareness, impulsivity and vulnerability.

Arts: High scorers: Agreeableness, openness and neuroticism. Low scorers: Conscientiousness.

Economics and Management: Low scorers: Agreeableness, openness and neuroticism.

Political Science: High scorers: Openness and extroversion.

Law: Low scorers: Openness and agreeableness.

Science: High scorers: Agreeableness. Low scorers: Extroversion.

Medicine: High scorers: Conscientiousness, agreeableness, openness and extroversion. Low scorers: Neuroticism.

Psychology: High scorers: Agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness and neuroticism. 

The article was published 04.19.2016.

Translated by Peter Lambourne.