How Clever Are Doctors? (& Why You’re Smart Enough To Be One)

Updated on: December 3, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

Every article is fact-checked by a medical professional. However, inaccuracies may still persist.

If you’ve ever wondered how clever doctors are (and whether you’d be smart enough to be one) then this article is for you.

Doctors are, in general, more intelligent than the average person. Doctors have to have achieved top grades to be accepted into medical school, been able to synthesise vast amounts of information at medical school and need to perform complex tasks under high pressure in their job. All of which require a keen intellect.

However, although doctors might be more intelligent than the average person, you can still go to medical school even if you’re not the whizz kid at school with stand out marks on every exam you’ve ever done.

We’re going to see how there’s a lot more to becoming a doctor than just meeting a particular I.Q. threshold. Or even getting certain grades!

How Smart Are Doctors?

It’s true that you won’t meet many doctors that anyone would describe as unintelligent. To do their jobs well, investigating, diagnosing and treating, doctors have to be mentally sharp.

However, this intelligence can come in many different forms. It doesn’t necessarily have to be A*s and 9s across the board in exams.

One of my good friends, who by all accounts is an excellent doctor, actually missed his grades to get into medical school. Instead of meeting his triple A offer, he got ABB in his A-levels.

Now ABB is by no means a bad set of A-levels, but it unequivocally falls short of the AAA benchmark set by the majority of medical schools.

Forced to take his back-up option, he studied biomedical science at Cardiff.

But that desire to become a doctor was still very much there.

Applying as a postgraduate, he applied to four-year graduate-entry medicine degrees. Many of which require you to sit the GAMSAT. (The GAMSAT is a gruelling five-and-a-half-hour entrance exam used by some medical schools in place of the UCAT.)

Student revising for the GAMSAT

Out of everyone who sat the GAMSAT that year, he scored in the top 1% of the country. Which considering the calibre of people who apply for graduate-entry medicine is incredibly impressive.

Although he hadn’t done amazingly well at his A-levels, he clearly had intelligence that shone through on the more aptitude centred GAMSAT.

You do have to be smart to be a doctor, but just because you aren’t getting outstanding grades at school doesn’t mean you won’t make a fantastic clinician.

What’s The Average I.Q. Of A Doctor?

Your intelligence quotient, or I.Q., is a is a measure designed to represent your standardised intelligence. An I.Q. test is essentially just a series of questions that assess a person’s reasoning ability.

Although not in any way perfect, it can be a useful raw measure for comparing different people, professions or populations. So what’s the average I.Q. of a doctor?

The average I.Q. of a doctor is approximately 125. Studies have determined that a doctor’s I.Q. will normally fall within the 110-130 range, putting them into the ‘high average’ and ‘superior’ Wechsler classifications. The average I.Q. for the general population in the UK is 100.

IQ RangeIQ Classification
130 and aboveVery Superior
110–119High Average
80–89Low Average
69 and belowExtremely Low
Current Wechsler classification

There hasn’t actually been a huge amount of research into doctor’s IQs. Matarazzo & Goldstein, 1972, suggested that the mean I.Q. of individuals with a medical degree was 125. Whereas Hauser, Robert M. 2002 determined an average of approximately 121.

The exact figure isn’t really that important. I think the value comes from being able to compare doctors with other professionals- which is exactly what Robert Hauser does.

In the 2002 paper, doctors actually come out with the highest average I.Q. out of any profession studied. Just beating out college professors!

However, the average I.Q. of medical professionals is just that. An average. There is no I.Q. exam at the start of medical school that gets you thrown out if your score is too low.

Some doctors will intuitively suit the question style of I.Q. tests and some won’t. All the patients care about is that you’re giving them the right treatment at the right time and not what you got on your standardised test!

Can An Average Student Become A Doctor?

If you’re just an average student, with big dreams of becoming a doctor, should you just give up now? Or is it possible that you’ll get into medical school and be able to follow your passion?

With sufficient determination and hard work, an average student can become a doctor. Once you’ve reached the minimum academic requirements for entry into medical school, the course can be completed by any student who’s willing to dedicate the time and energy required to understand and learn the curriculum.

The thing with medical school is the actual core concepts really aren’t that difficult to understand. With enough revision, pretty much anyone can learn all the muscles in the forearm for example.

Many subjects such as maths, physics and engineering will have far more complex ideas and theories that you’ve got to try and get your head around.

University students sat in a lecture hall

What makes medical school so difficult is just the sheer volume of content that you’ve got to ingest and comprehend over such a short period of time. Which can test even the brightest of students.

Now if you’re just an ‘average’ student, you will probably have to dedicate more time to learning than the couple of bright sparks that are in every medicine intake.

But at the end of the day, you’ll both have the same knowledge and understanding of anatomy, physiology and disease. If you’re dedicated enough, it really won’t make a blind bit of difference if it takes you twice as long to learn the bones in the hand compared to someone else.

You’re both still going to graduate as doctors.

Don’t be put off by the idea that only high-flyers apply and get into medical school. I genuinely believe the key to being a good doctor is passion. If you’ve got a passion for medicine, and the drive to become a doctor, you’ll find a way to get there and will undoubtedly deliver fantastic care to your patients.

Are Doctors Smart Or Just Hardworking?

We’ve seen that doctors do, on average have a higher I.Q. than the general public and are always intelligent in some way. But how much of this is down to being naturally clever and how much is just plain old hard work?

Well this 2021 paper in the BMJ wanted to put to the test the phrases β€œit’s not rocket science” and β€œit’s not brain surgery.” They did this by gathering up 600 aerospace engineers and 148 neurosurgeons to compare them to data from the general public.

Each group was scored in six different domains of intelligence:

  1. Semantic problem solving
  2. Mental manipulation and attention
  3. Memory
  4. Spatial problem solving
  5. Problem solving speed
  6. Memory recall speed

When both the rocket scientists and neurosurgeons were compared to the general population, only two differences were significant: the neurosurgeons’ problem solving speed was quicker and their memory recall speed was slower.

Everything else was statistically insignificant!

So there’s definitely an element of natural intelligence but I can also personally vouch for how hard doctors work- especially neurosurgeons.

Having previously worked on a neurosurgery ward, I can confirm the neurosurgery registrars are some of the hardest working doctors I’ve ever come across. They’d be in work before me and without fail leave after me.

As a microcosm for medicine as a whole, I think this paper demonstrates that doctors are naturally smart, but a significant portion of their success is down to just sheer hard work.

Final Thoughts

Doctors are generally very clever. They have to be to have got through their GCSEs, A-levels, medical school and post-graduate exams.

However, that’s not to say just because you’re not in the top 1% you can’t become a doctor.

Everyone has their own individual strengths. For some doctors that might be fact recall regarding exact drug doses, for others that will be being an incredibly sympathetic professional who can support patients through some of the worst times of their life.

If studying medicine is your goal, and you’ve got the drive to keep on going, I believe you’ll always be able to achieve it- even if you have to take the long way round.

About the author
After studying medicine at the University of Leicester, Dr Ollie now works as a junior doctor in London. His interests include medical education and expedition medicine, as well as having a strong belief in the importance of widening access to medicine.