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Everyone in this community I think would be familiar with International Mathematical Olympiad, which is an International Mathematics Competition held for high school students, with many countries participating from around the world.

What's interesting to note is that many of the IMO participants have gone to win the Fields Medal. Notable personalities include Terence Tao (2006), Ngo Bau Chau (2010), Grigori Perelman (2006), etc.

I would like to know: what advantage does an IMO student possess over a 'normal' student in terms of mathematical research? Does the IMO competition help the student in becoming a good research mathematician?

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This is something I have wondered too - because I never got into solving the problems from competitions I wonder if I am missing something. – anon Sep 18 '10 at 11:23
This could be debatable but I would say that if one has the capability to do formal mathematics, then, with sufficient practice, one certainly has the capability to solve olympiad problems. On the other hand, certain areas of mathematics literally have no overlap with olympiad problems; for example, the abstract theory of schemes and sheaves. – Amitesh Datta Jun 12 '11 at 4:27
I think it is pretty absurd to say that «many of the IMO participants have gone to win the Fields Medal»! Indeed, only an insignificant number of IMO participants have won that medal. A more cheerful statistic would be the proportion among Fields medallists of those who have been IMO participants... – Mariano Suárez-Alvarez Sep 30 '11 at 16:43
The solver of fermats last theorem in not a IMO winner... – user157581 Jun 17 '14 at 11:50
An example is Manjul Bhargava, who won a fields medal, but did not compete in IMO, didnt win Putnam etc.. – Lebes Feb 8 '15 at 10:48

10 Answers 10

Training for competitions will help you solve competition problems - that's all. These are not the sort of problems that one typically struggles with later as a professional mathematician - for many different reasons. First, and foremost, the problems that one typically faces at research level are not problems carefully crafted so that they may be solved in certain time limits. Indeed, for problems encountered "in the wild", one often does not have any inkling whether or not they are true. So often one works simultaneously looking for counterexamples and proofs. Often solutions require discovering fundamentally new techniques - as opposed to competition problems - which typically may be solved by employing variations of methods from a standard toolbox of "tricks". Moreover, there is no artificial time limit constraint on solving problems in the wild. Some research level problems require years of work and immense persistence (e.g. Wiles proof of FLT). Those are typically not skills that can be measured by competitions. While competitions might be used to encourage students, they should never be used to discourage them.

There is a great diversity among mathematicians. Some are prolific problem solvers (e.g. Erdos) and others are grand theory builders (e.g. Grothendieck). Most are somewhere between these extremes. All can make significant, surprising contributions to mathematics. History is a good teacher here. One can learn from the masters not only from their mathematics, but also from the way that they learned their mathematics. You will find much interesting advice in the (auto-)biographies of eminent mathematicians. Time spent perusing such may prove much more rewarding later in your career than time spent learning yet another competition trick. Strive to aim for a proper balance of specialization and generalization in your studies.

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@Chandru1: One immensely important personality trait of all successful mathematicians is persistence. If you read biographies of mathematicians you'll be amazed with stories of their great struggles with difficult problems. My impression from your many postings here is that you could learn much more if you spent more time struggling with your problems before posting them here. Those learning experiences are essential for your success in mathematics. Don't rob yourself of that experience simply because you have access here to an answer oracle. Use it wisely - e.g. when you're hopelessly stuck. – Bill Dubuque Sep 17 '10 at 14:32
@Mark In response to "... when I am stuck how do I know when to give up or keep on hitting ...", I would say that the amount of time that you spend on a problem should be correlated with your knowledge of the difficulty of the problem. However, if you find that you are simply unable to solve a problem even after a lengthy period of failed attempts, then I think it is a good idea to leave the problem be and return to it later; sometimes, this does the trick and allows you to derive a marvellously clever solution. – Amitesh Datta Oct 12 '11 at 11:24
+1 for "While competitions might be used to encourage students, they should never be used to discourage them" – Dinesh Oct 14 '11 at 18:04
The point of competitions is not competition tricks, but the habit of thinking really intensely. Actually much mathematics can be dismissed as elegant "tricks". Look at "Proofs from the Book". I would say they are inspiring, not just silly "tricks". But then I am a firm believer in the problem approach to math teaching. @should never be used to discourage students Why not? Many students should not do math research. It will be misery for them. Everyone, including them, will realize they are wasting their time. – debitanostra Oct 5 '12 at 12:30
@debitanostra Problem-solving is not just for research mathematicians. Contests should be used to encourage a general love of and skill for problem-solving. Honest advising might be used to discourage a student from pursuing a pipe dream. – Austin Mohr Apr 26 '13 at 21:10

I would say that olympiads build some, but far from all, of the skills needed to excel at mathematical research. I'd compare it to running 100 meters versus playing soccer. Usain Bolt is probably a better soccer player than the vast majority of the population, because he could outsprint anyone and because he's generally in fantastic shape. But that doesn't mean he's going to be able to play on a top team.

Being a successful researcher requires the ability to learn new fields of mathematics, and develop ways of thinking about them that others haven't. It requires the discipline to spend months or years returning to a problem and trying new angles on it. It requires, or at least is strongly aided by, the ability to communicate and "sell" one's results, in writing and in talks. It requires the ability to write good definitions, that will be useful and cover the boundary cases correctly. It requires the ability to form an intelligent guess as to which unproven statements are true and which are false. It requires the ability to hold a complex argument in one's head and play with it. It requires, or at least is strongly aided by, the ability to find clever technical arguments.

I would say that olympiads are very helpful in developing the last skill, somewhat helpful in developing the fifth and sixth, and not at all in developing the first four.

I definitely, at some points in my research, find myself needing lemmatta which would be fair to put on an IMO or a Putnam exam. And when that I happens I feel myself relaxing, because I know I can do that. But I also spend a lot of my time trying to learn how to think about a subject, or figuring out what to prove, or trying to figure out how broadly a phenomenon holds. And those are not skills which I found olympiad training helpful in.

For the record, I was very competitive in my High School years, but not a world level competitor; I was the first alternate to the US team in 1998 and, during my senior year, I regularly came in somewhere in the top 10 spots in national contests. I've heard similar views expressed by Kiran Kedlaya and Ravi Vakil, who were much more impressive competitors.

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Keep in mind that what you have here is a correlation, not a causation. While doubtlessly Olimpiad Training would help develop some skills necessary for research, I think it is likely that many of the strongest mathematicians participate in these competitions when they are in high school and go on to do research later.

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For example, I would suspect there's far higher correlation with being from a relatively wealthy family with educated parents and winning the fields medal, than IMO success and a Fields medal. – Ryan Budney Sep 17 '10 at 13:49
Really? This seems extremely implausible. First of all, I assume you mean to restrict your pool to professional mathematicians, as otherwise this claim is crazy. But, even within this, I would gladly take a direct measure of an individual's own talents over a measure of his or her parents' talents. – David Speyer Sep 17 '10 at 15:15
@David: Yes, of course I'm restricting to professional mathematicians. There are a few things leading me to make the above suggestion. A "big one" that is a partially non-intuitive I've learned from people that work at admissions offices at several US universities -- one of the most reliable early indicators of academic success is how wealthy a person's family is. One that is harder to measure at admissions but which I presume is more important would be how well educated that person's parents are, and to what extent they're "available" to the young person. – Ryan Budney Sep 17 '10 at 17:50
Keep in mind, a fields medal isn't a reward for "how far you've taken yourself", it's not something relative to the individual. Individual skill has much to do with how far you can take yourself in your life. How far you actually get relative to an absolute standard tends to more often be dictated by where you start, and to what extent you have support through the process. I read your response David (and upvoted it). I don't see my supplement as being contradictory to what you say -- I'm just placing the question in more of a sociological context. – Ryan Budney Sep 17 '10 at 17:53
Ryan's comments are very realistic but also, I think, specific to the academic pipeline in the USA. In other countries, it varies. In places where, up to a relatively advanced level, promotion is based on examinations, and students are less dependent on parental funds to get through university, talent will take you a long way --- but personal or political connections may be very important (as they also are, if less overtly or universally, in the US). – T.. Sep 17 '10 at 18:19

I can say from personal experience that the bulk of people who train for the IMO tend not to become any more exceptional at research than any other person/s who take up the subject - with intent to become a researcher - at university and beyond.

Some of the top-performing students at the IMO - including a good number of Gold and Silver medalists (from the US atleast) - I have known: and I can't say that they became any more exceptional at research than any other non-IMO participants and / or top-scorers.

Basically, the competition tends to make participants into very sharp-minded and 'clever' problem solvers (which, perhaps, has some advantages in some contexts in research); but as far as giving you a -significant- advantage, it really doesn't do much as far as I've seen.

Rather, follow the advice of a well-known mathematician, John Milnor -- think carefully, think deeply, and work patiently and diligently at whatever problem you're working on.

I think you might find that proves the best approach to research, regardless of academic specialization.


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First of all, before I comment I would like to state that I am merely a high school student and I apologise if I give people an impression that I am an outsider(I am only a 15 year old and I doubt if my views will be taken seriously).

Participation in mathematical competitions, in my opinion, is not an end in itself.I personally believe that these competitions introduce a student to the rigors of mathematics much before others get a feel for it.Let's take this aspect: An IMO contestant has to attack 6 problems in 9 hours over 2 days.Imagine it for yourself.Someone gaining that experience at an early age ensures a smooth transition to "Real Mathematics".Automatically, the tenacity to attack a problem for a sustained period of time is gained.That is bound to help later on.But I also believe that someone who hasn't participated in these competitions has an equal chance of carving out a good career.

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Well the education system in India doesn't provide room for problem solving skill development.Most of my friends and students who have done well at Regional Math Olympiads and INMO take up coaching from elsewhere.They usually start early say by 7th-8th grade.When I reached my high school level I found I that I was just nothing in mathematics.Frankly speaking I am not that good in maths .But sometimes I even amazed myself by solving some Olympiad problems quite quickly!!!.I found that i succeded because the problem was solvable with just jugglery of some very elementary concept.But I often failed with other intricate problems that demanded observing a trick or pattern. Now,I feel I should have taken this rigorous approach.At least it does good to your skills and improves thinking.Being a Computer Science student(well I gave up the idea of taking maths further coz I thought I am no good :( )I think that rigor would have been a great asset in my career. Well as far as IMO,Putnam etc.. and Fields Medal is concerned I would say that inventing something is a matter of chance but the better prepared guy holds the advantage.

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I think the high score on the IMO helped get them into a great school where they had great teacher, and that is what really helped them to do good research and also, along with the skills and exercise they did to do well on the exam. I mean how many Field medals went to student of poorly ranked colleges/universities. I think it more of the added benfits that result because they got into the best universities and the high IMO score helped their entrance.

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I think tricks can be helpful to a tiny extent. I am not sure if short problem solving skills are helpful. I think combinatorics/number theory problems are the most useful practice for doing simple research (in probably combinatorics).

I think the courage/tenacity to solve a problem you are not sure you can solve is what you should develop from olympiad training. I sometimes am discouraged in my dream to do research to mathematics. Sometimes, my self esteem is shaken when I see so many people at my school better/faster/smarter than me at both doing mathematics and learning it (and taking tests and doing psets). But whenever I am discouraged, I am reminded of the hard work I went through during the olympiad years, and I become calmer and more focused and more determined and less afraid of working towards a goal despite the odds. (the last sentence is an exaggeration, but now that I've said, I can see it becoming true)

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I would like to add that my advisor is a great combinatorialist, and he never participated to math competitions (at least that I know of) and doesn't really even know anything about the IMO. THere are lots of mathematicians who never did competition math or were too slow, but can produce great research – user2372086 Apr 25 '14 at 20:41

Regarding Bill Dubuque's comment about problem solvers versus theory builders there's a nice paper called "Birds and Frogs" by Freeman Dyson about this topic.

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Students who manage to make IMO are much smarter than the average math major. People will disagree with me, but anyone who's gone through undergad with IMO medalists will know that I have a point. To make it to the top levels of any competitive intellectual pursuit, competitors must already have a very high level of base intelligence that's transferrable to many other domains. Every IMO participant I know is insanely smart in general, not just in math competitions.

I don't buy these two common arguments:

  • "IMO students have the same mathematical abilities as any other math student."

This simply isn't true. It's no coincidence that more than half of the participants of the US team get their PhD's, and essentially every US IMO participant who chooses to pursue graduate school ends up getting into a top program and suceeding. Do some Google searching for past participant's names if you don't believe me. It's also not a coincidence that a very significant percentage of IMO medalists end up taking graduate math courses their freshman year of college. That's much more impressive than the average undergraduate math major.

Fields medals and the like are indicators of extreme outliers, and should not be the main factor used when guaging the general research ability of a population.

  • "IMO students only train on learning competition tricks."

IMO performance doesn't happen in a vacuum. You have to consider the kinds of kids who win IMO: Smart, motivated, and passionate about math. Many IMO medalists will learn far ahead in high school, and many will learn enough math to conduct legitimate research during high school or early undergrad. This gives them a rather significant head start.

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