Do you need to be smart to become a PhD?

Today, I’m exactly halfway through my PhD project, and I’d like to pay tribute to my favorite question that is asked by students who are almost finishing their master studies. They often immediately tell me the reason for this question:

“My grades aren’t that great, so I’m not sure whether I’m capable to become a PhD…”

Aah, school grades, our favorite measure of intelligence. It’s fascinating how long it takes before we realize that grades don’t dictate our post-education life. The first question I ask students who genuinely wonder whether you have to be smart to become a PhD, is whether they are considering to become a PhD themselves, or just think I was a straight-A student because I’m currently pursuing a PhD degree. Most of the time, it’s both.


Definitely not a straight-A student


I’m not going to pretend that my grades were somewhere in the top among my fellow students’, because I wasn’t even near the top. However, I never experienced that as a problem, because it’s not so strange that a university attracts students who rock at studying. I was the kind who rocked at studying during courses I liked, and failed miserably at courses I didn’t like. For example, I had to re-exam a chemistry course five times during my studies, because I thought, eerr, I came to study nutrition, not chemistry. Poor me, never having realized how much of nutrition consists of chemistry. But hey, I managed, especially thanks to the nutrition behavior and public health courses I did like. I graduated without having straight-A’s, but with a clear focus: understanding the chemistry behind nutrition, but studying the behavior around it.


Definitely curious


The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’, but ‘That’s funny…’ – Isaac Asimov

Which brings me to maybe the most important feature you do need to become a PhD: curiosity. I have no research to defend my statement, so I smartly (ha ha) added “maybe” to it, but still, I really believe it. In the first place because of personal experience, but also because of what I experience around me at Wageningen UR. Although colleagues and students here are probably also smart (whatever may define smart), their curiosity is what gives us the strong reputation of being an innovative organization. I don’t feel intelligence when I talk with them: I feel engagement, commitment, enthusiasm, and yes, curiosity.


Nuance: combining curiosity with intelligence


Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect – Samuel Johnson

As a true scientist, of course I had to add some nuance into my text, and what other way than to quote someone else? It’s likely that you need curiosity and intelligence equally to succeed in obtaining a PhD degree. But then again, you also need things like skills, knowledge, focus, motivation, supervision, responsibility, perseverance, punctuality, money, time…. and even luck. The list is long, that’s for sure, but I propose that it’s curiosity that has brought me halfway my PhD project, and hopefully will do its work during the next two years too.

And to everyone who’s considering to pursue a PhD degree: curiosity alone won’t get you there, but it’ll make getting there much more awesome!

I posted this blog on LinkedIn first.