What is the average IQ of PhD students and academics? Are they REALLY smart?

The question of intelligence and its relationship to academic achievement, particularly at the level of a PhD, has always been a topic of discussion within education policy and academia.

It is often assumed that those who attain a PhD are “really smart” and possess superior intelligence, as measured by traditional IQ tests. 

While the average IQ score of PhD students and academics, according to some studies, falls in the ‘superior’ range of around 125, this doesn’t exclude those with an average IQ from undertaking a PhD.

IQ tests can only measure a fraction of what we consider as intelligence, and the score obtained is influenced by a range of factors.

Many university professors and PhD students exemplify not just high cognitive abilities but also exhibit qualities like dedication, creativity, and problem-solving skills. 

The average IQ of PhD graduates and students

According to some sources, the average IQ score for people with PhDs is around 125, which is considered superior.

according to some studies, falls in the 'superior' range of around 125

However, this does not mean that people with lower or higher IQs cannot obtain a PhD, as IQ is only one of many factors that influence academic success.

Moreover, IQ is not a fixed or definitive measure of intelligence, as it can vary depending on the test used, the context, and the individual’s background and motivation.

Here is a table of the range of IQs mentioned for PhDs in some studies and their citation:

IQ Range for PhDs (Some Studies)
– 115+Classified as ‘Very bright’Jensen (1980)
– 120+Classified as ‘Superior’Terman (1925)
– 125+Classified as ‘Superior’Gladwell (2008)

Can You Get a Ph.D with an Average IQ?

Yes, you can certainly pursue and successfully complete a Ph.D. with an average IQ.

Completing a Ph.D. is not just about high intelligence or academic prowess.

It requires a unique combination of traits such as resilience, passion for the research subject, and the ability to execute ideas into practice.

Understanding that the path to success involves overcoming numerous challenges and setbacks is crucial.

  • Developing a genuine enjoyment for your research will help maintain motivation during the years spent pursuing the degree.
  • Bridging the gap between theoretical knowledge and its practical application through effective execution is essential.

Therefore, having an average IQ does not preclude you from achieving a Ph.D., provided you can cultivate and leverage these other critical traits and skills.

The IQ Myth in Academia

Completing a PhD is not just about having a high IQ or acing undergraduate courses.

It entails a mixture of different characteristics that, when combined, contribute to one’s potential to successfully finish a doctoral program.

These traits can be better encapsulated in the following table:

Understanding SuccessYou must comprehend that success is not a straight line, but a path filled with ups and downs, failures, and recoveries. The ability to weather these obstacles and learn from failures is critical.
EnjoymentA crucial element to completing a PhD is having genuine interest and enjoyment in the field of study and research process. This passion fuels perseverance and motivation, making the lengthy process more bearable.
ExecutionApplying theoretical knowledge to practice is essential in a PhD program. The ability to bridge the learning-doing gap through effective execution of ideas, conducting experiments, and writing contributes significantly to PhD completion.

Not everyone who gets a PhD has a high IQ. 

I have seen many average students get a PhD because success often relies on much more than IQ. It is a combination of Luck, persistence, IQ and supervisor choice. 

The term “smart” is multifaceted and can mean different things to different people. However, in a general sense, we often use it to denote a combination of:

  • knowledge,
  • intelligence,
  • and wisdom.

In this context, individuals who have obtained a PhD degree are certainly well-educated.

They have pursued a subject matter in depth, contributed original research to the field, and demonstrated the ability to think critically and solve complex problems.

That said, the choice to pursue a PhD isn’t necessarily an indication of “smartness” if we consider wisdom or the ability to make well-informed, prudent decisions.

Some people embark on a PhD journey without a clear understanding or vision of what they want to achieve at the end, which might not be the wisest decision.

In some cases, individuals may choose to do a PhD because they’re uncertain about their career path and see it as the path of least resistance.

This, too, might not be considered a smart move, as a PhD requires significant investment of time, energy, and often money.

It can also be a stressful and challenging endeavor, so it’s crucial to have a clear purpose and motivation when making this commitment.

On the other hand, a PhD can indeed be a smart choice for those who have a clear objective that aligns with the skills and opportunities offered by such a program.

This might include a deep interest in research and academia, a desire to contribute to a particular field of knowledge, or specific career goals that require or are enhanced by a PhD.

The features of a person with high IQ scores

A person with high IQ scores might exhibit the following features that may be beneficial for a PhD:

  1. Longevity & Health: A high IQ is associated with longer lifespan and better overall health.
  2. Resistance to Stress Disorders: High IQ individuals may be more resilient to conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder.
  3. Success in Education & Occupation: They are likely to achieve educational success and gain higher occupational status.
  4. Higher Income: High IQ often correlates with higher income levels.
  5. Less Sensitivity to Disgust: High IQ individuals tend to be less disgust-sensitive, although the exact reason is unclear.
  6. Non-Impulsivity: Despite higher IQ, these individuals may not necessarily exhibit less impulsive behavior.
  7. Intelligence Despite Disorder: It is possible to have high IQ and still have disorganized behavior or difficulty implementing long-term plans.
  8. No Correlation with Industriousness: Surprisingly, there’s no apparent correlation between high IQ and industriousness (the tendency to work hard and diligently). The reasons for this remain unclear.
  9. Physiological Differences: People with higher IQs tend to have slightly bigger heads and brains (when controlled for body size), thicker axons on their neurons for more efficient electrical message transmission, and faster simple reflexes.

The above are general tendencies observed in some studies and may not apply to all individuals with high IQ scores.

Also, correlation does not imply causation, and many factors can influence these outcomes.

Wrapping up – Intelligence and PhDs

While it’s common to link high IQ scores to academic achievement, specifically at the PhD level, this isn’t a definitive measure of intelligence.

The average IQ of PhD students and graduates is approximately 125, but that doesn’t exclude those with an average IQ from pursuing a PhD.

Success in academia depends on more than IQ; resilience, research passion, and the ability to turn theories into practice are all key traits.

It’s important to highlight that undertaking a Ph.D. isn’t inherently an indication of “smartness”.

Some choose this path without clear goals, which, given the investment required, might not be the wisest decision.

On the other hand, for those with specific career goals or a deep interest in research and academia, pursuing a PhD can be beneficial.

High IQ individuals tend to have certain traits, like longevity, resistance to stress disorders, and higher income, but these are general tendencies and not applicable to everyone.

Conclusively, the relation between intelligence and PhD attainment is nuanced and impacted by several factors.

The Author

Dr Andrew Stapleton has a Masters and PhD in Chemistry from the UK and Australia. He has many years of research experience and has worked as a Postdoctoral Fellow and Associate at a number of Universities. Although having secured funding for his own research, he left academia to help others with his YouTube channel all about the inner workings of academia and how to make it work for you.