Do You Need To Be Smart To Be A PhD?

by golbguru on January 27, 2007

I was reading an interesting article titled “Ph.D.’s in Debt” the other day. I have some thoughts on this article, but I will postpone them for the time being (it’s a topic for another post). Check out the comments under the article when you visit the link. Here are two conflicting ones:


phd decision graduate students

What’s your take on this? Do you agree with “kgotthardt” or “Perry” ?

Being a PhD student myself, I have some insight into this issue, but I don’t want to bias you guys with my point of view.

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1 Super Saver 01.27.07 at 1:10 pm


Ok, I’ll be the first to weigh in.

I think one needs to be a good thinker and a good problem solver in their field to get a PhD.

To be financially secure, I think one needs to have good understanding of money and finances.

Being good at one doesn’t necessary mean one will be good at the other:-)

2 James 01.27.07 at 1:35 pm

Being a grad student in pirsuit of the Ph.D. myself, I can tell you that it requires average intellience and persistence. Thats all thats required.

3 peg 01.27.07 at 3:02 pm

I side with Perry 100% BUT I have the feeling that Perry, like myself, was a science graduate student. There is a world of difference between the science grad students and those in the liberal arts, and I apologize for not being able to speak from a non-science view. In my experience, the successful students in my program were not just able to perform the science but to take it a step further. It’s not simply intelligence or genius; as our lab secretary stated, “You grad students live, eat, and breathe science.” It’s about being able to plan the experiments, to anticipate and plan for future experiments, and to put together a complete story for your dissertation. You really needed the passion and the drive in order to get that PhD.

The “professional students” were the ones who were going into their 8th yr of grad school. The ones I knew were very smart,but seemed to feel that as long as they hung in there, they’d eventually get a PhD….simply because they’d been there for so long. For these students, I don’t know what their future plans are. They certainly will NOT earn the high level postdoc positions and tenure-track positions at the top tier research institutions. If this is not their intention, then why waste all those years for the PhD? In the end, they’re only going to earn a piece of paper and the bragging rights to carve PhD into their tombstones.

I don’t know where kgotthart got that opinion that a PhD is just time and money. That’s the lazy way out and that attitude is NOT going to get you anywhere in the field of scientific research, much less anywhere in life.

4 S/100/30 01.27.07 at 3:39 pm

Nothing cured my respect of PhDs like entering a doctoral program. In the past two years, our top two students have left for industry and two utterly mediocre students were granted PhDs. I’m thinking of leaving, not because of the intense hours or long pay, but because seeing these people graduate totally devalues the degree for me.

5 S/100/30 01.27.07 at 3:42 pm

To answer your question, I agree with both of them — almost anyone can obtain a PhD with enough money and time, and most of them have no future in academia.

6 Stingy Student 01.27.07 at 5:36 pm

I think you’re asking two different questions here. First is whether obtaining a PhD is difficult. Second is whether staying in academia after obtaining the PhD is difficult. The answer is different for each in my opinion.
Out of the people I knew in college who were headed for graduate school, they were either geniuses or average to good students who were very interested in the given field. In 10 years, I predict that the ones who are the geniuses will be in line for tenure positions while the more normal students will have no chance at distinguishing themselves in such a highly competitive field as academia, and they will fall back to industry.

7 mbhunter 01.27.07 at 11:36 pm

About a year or two before I finished my PhD I realized very clearly that I wasn’t cut out for academia. And there isn’t a thing wrong with that. I had five or six papers published while other graduate students had more than 50. (OK, you win buddy!)

I’m probably one of the mediocre ones. But don’t you get some mediocrity everywhere? Everyone can’t be a superstar. Even Microsoft, who aims to hire the top 1%, gets mediocre folks.

Mediocre or not, I have my PhD. I can either participate in the club, or not. If you don’t have the PhD, you can’t. Now having said that, I recommend to people that they carefully think about why they’re getting a PhD, because it’s an awful long time and a lot of lost earnings during that time if you don’t have a clear plan and a love for what you’re doing.

8 jersey jen 01.28.07 at 9:09 am

as far as my experience goes, all the Ph D students and degree holders i met are above average. when i was in undergrad, i had some research projects with graduate students. oh my, these people were either valedictorian or salutorian during their undergrad.

9 dimes 01.28.07 at 10:19 am

Both, except not really. Half the people on earth are smarter than average, right? (Well, median, but you know what I mean.) Tenacity and concentration are more necessary attributes. And let’s not forget funding.
I went to a very expensive and selective undergrad school, and I can tell you that a LOT of my classmates were not particularly brilliant but were just well funded. I, on the other hand, was a genius, or at the very least, wise enough to know that I needed to stop digging the student debt hole in order to get more elite pieces of paper and graduate regalia.
I don’t begrudge people who stay in school, but I’m not going to respect them any more for having a doctorate, and I’ll respect them a lot less if they declare bankruptcy to get rid of some of the indirect debts incurred while they were being perpetual students.

10 Dav 01.28.07 at 10:29 am

No. I was offered one during my msc neurosci. yr after a month in the lab; I said no as i didn’t want to continue in science really, didn’t have the time or money (or inclination to hide from the real job world).

Yes, because competition can be fierce.


11 ispf 01.28.07 at 11:42 am

golguru, stingy student: I agree with stingy student. The two people are talking about slightly different things. The first response is about “just getting a degree”. If thats all you want, a piece of paper, then as long as you have time and patience, you can evenutally get it. Frankly, you dont even have to average to go this route!

The second response is about “doing it right”. Here, it doesnt matter if you get that piece of paper or not. What you care about is identifying problems and proposing solutions (which may not always work, by the way). To be able to do that effectively in a 3-4 year time frame, then get into academia and eventually get a tenure, you bloody well be way above average.

mbhunter: Great point. Mediocre or not, Ph.D gives me an option to persue academic career if and when I am ready for it. I really dont know at this point, if the ~4 years I spent to “have this option” was worth it, but nevertheless, I really like having it :)

12 Golbguru 01.28.07 at 12:00 pm

I would like to address each comment individually, but there are lot of issues going around, so I will make note of some general observations on my part.

-Assuming two people of equal interest, dedication, and knowledge in their field of work, the one with greater financial security has a definte advantage over the one who has to struggle to keep himself/herself financially stable. Money is certainly a factor.

-PhD time span is longer than most people perceive…unless you are very lucky and have a few postdocs to help you and your advisor puts your name on every paper your lab publishes (irrespective of whether you contributed or not!). In this time span, many interests change: your objectives might change, your advisor’s objectives might change..and worse…your funding agencies interest might change. Any of the above will mean significant delays in your perceived time span. So, please don’t judge PhDs on how much time they required for their degree. :) PhD students seldom have a time factor in their control. Certainly, I have seen average and less than average students get out with a PhD..even before they even understood the meaning of “Philosophiae Doctor” :)
-Being smart is just not enough (I am talking about science fields); there are a lot of other factors that you don’t control through your struggle for PhD. Reasons for this are similar to the above reasons on the time time-factor in Phd.

-One of you mention “tenacity”…I think that’s one of the keys. You need the ability to hang in there no matter what. That is a plus point no doubt, but there is a risk in overdoing it. There comes a point when it is smarter to realize that pushing further beats common sense. It is smarter to know when to quit…than being adamant about getting that degree.

-Also, I think the biggest point of debate is “What is smart”? being able to solve complicated differential equations is smart? or being able to invest your money properly in the real world and getting rich is smart? I have seen some “differential-equation-smart” PhDs do some incredibly stupid things in real life and honestly I don’t have an answer to that question.

Sorry about these random musings…but you guys drew me into it ;)

13 MoneyFwd 01.29.07 at 8:59 am

I think a lot of it is how much work you want to put into it. A non-genuis can be a great PhD if they know how to get the answers. Intelligence doesn’t always lead to greatness.

The type of PhD also makes a difference. A PhD in something like creative writing is different than neuroscience. And for some people, it’s about the title more than anything else.

14 biokermit77 03.21.07 at 8:22 am

People, you don’t have to be genius to get Ph.D. Actually, geniuses don’t get Ph.D. Most people that have Ph.D., although their I.Q. might be above the average, they are not geniuses. I remember when I was in graduate school (getting my Ph.D.) there was this guy that was a genius, really smart, smarter than the prof., sometimes even made him looks ridiculous with his astounding questions. But guess what, the guy couldn’t pass the qualifier exams so he got expelled. Getting a Ph.D. involves more than being smart. It involves discipline, dedication, wiliness, sacrifice, time, motivation, money, and of course you cannot be dumb but you don’t have to be really smart, either. The IQ distribution is normal, therefore, all people which IQs fall above the mean can be candidates to get a Ph.D.

15 vicsrokoye 05.23.08 at 11:08 am

I am a phd student. I am in business and my reason for trying to get a phd has nothing to do with tenure. I have my own business and I want to expand my business and possibly publish some business books.

16 Senem Simsek 04.12.10 at 2:57 pm

Oh My God! only this sentence came to my mind.,Oh My God! I would like to add also for these angry words,another angry words, , people are just working in their area via PhD and even did not get reach some prices like Nobel are not important, forget it,this is wasting of time!
Is this nice Dr. Perry? To discourage people to take PhD journey,dismiss them to learn critical things from their supervisors? As for publications. I am PhD myself. I made very important job, I controlled mammalian gene transcription.However one gene could not be targeted, mouse did not born and I had no publication. I got ref letter from my laboratory supervisor. How do you know I am not intelligent? If the mouse borned, I would publish in Nature today could it be affected my IQ level?
Life is not turning around PhD degree. I know many CEO without PhD degree and today playing the world economy without publications! For me publications are just vehicle to take money for foundations. If you have, you can even hire robots.Just doing good PCR or FACS. In my opinion, a PhD should carry IQ to handle the job plus EQ to be aware of the impact of job to the human being. And aware of the human being. I did not like this writing. Yesterday one of our PhD student was nearly off the road she was telling me she is not intelligent enough.Little protein discovery or good PCR are nothing I told her. I know myself I never ever followed my PhD ex supervisor. Anybody who got enough education and training can get PhD. A fantastic supervisor plus money can push them to discover also! The most important thing is that to like the life. Only angry people towards life can talk in an arrogant way. As an academician and future group leader everybody can knock my door. Who really loves what they do. Today I have great boss and I get this motto from him. And I will publish next year.And this never makes me high IQ than today. One of the neurologist in USA this year killed some of her collagues anybody knows? She had tenure. In summary, Life is the central. Not the PhD degree. My mother with high school diploma is more clever than me to handle the life problems. So, if you need PhD, anybody is very welcome., Just desire it. And target it.

17 Lawrence 06.06.12 at 4:21 pm

Parts of both “kgotthardt’s” and Perry’s observations are well taken. It is my understanding that the generally considered minimum IQ to obtain a graduate degree is 111. Thus (and if my understanding is correct) “kgotthardt’s” view that “You don’t have to be a genius to get a Ph.D.” is true. His subsequent commentary that “You just need time and money” would (based upon the aforementioned understanding) be incorrect, as one needs a certain minimum level of intelligence. I would agree with Perry wherein he states: “Permitting people who are not smart to slug away at doctorates for 8-12 yrs is abusive…” I would however highlight the “people who are not smart” segment of Perry’s comment, as there are any number of legitimate (and I believe excusable) reasons for not completing a degree’s requirements within the generally specified time allotment—not the least of which is the absence of money.

That through the deception of “social promotion” and other politically inspired schemes people who are in fact “not smart” are allowed to obtain that to which they are not entitled is not merely abusive it is a disgrace. Yet I must take a poke at Perry, who critical in one aspect, is inexcusably naïve (or his institution singularly unique) if he believes that brains alone are the criterion for success in academia.

I would add my last two cents by expanding on commentator Peg’s observation that “There is a world of difference between the science grad students and those in the liberal arts…” From my observations the “hard-sciences” (physics, math, et al.) require a substantially higher IQ that do the “soft-sciences” (sociology, psychology, et al.) but true liberal arts in the sense of classical antiquity and NOT where “liberal” becomes license, requires the highest intelligence of all. I would further comment that holders of professional degrees are oft times little better than glorified vocational students in that they are highly trained experts in their field of endeavor, are extremely well educated, but are seldom actually learned and wise. That we emphasize and reward educated specialization to the detriment of learning and wisdom breeds a society of plutocratic Rupert Murdocks, when in my view we are in desperate need of a society containing more meritocratic Galileos. This is what TRUE liberal arts should be about, NOT the politicized monstrosity it has become.

18 Oldeknoll 09.08.12 at 2:53 am

@Lawrence: it has been my experience that “soft science” is more difficult than “hard science”. I have an equal background in both the humanities and the natural sciences, philosophy and biology to be exact. I find the philosophy grad students to be fiercely intelligent and very well rounded to boot. Natural scientists are very good at following procedure and tend not to have the fierce witt and that well-rounded world-view of the philosophers. This is why I opted for a more science-based PhD; while I’m competent in philosophy, I don’t think I could make a career out of it. Nevertheless, my interest in philosophy is still high, so my thesis will certainly have a philosophical slant to it (mind-brain, etc…).
As for IQ and occupation, I’d put my money on a philosopher any day of the week, over any other profession. There is some evidence suggesting that those with philosophy degrees out-class ALL others in terms of IQ. Indeed, philosophy undergrads have the over all best score on the GRE and GMAT out of any other group. They are #1 in verbal resoning and #3 in mathematical reasoning (close on the heels of those with math and physics degrees).

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I finished my PhD I realized very clearly that I wasn’t cut out for academia.

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