I am extremely poor in solving a problem quickly, which leaves me doing badly in olympiads and other contests. But, if I just don’t give up on a problem, no matter how much time it takes, I usually end up solving it. To have a future in mathematics or physics, is it necessary for me to excel at contests, because these days children excelling at contests have an advantage over those who don’t (not complete advantage, but advantage nonetheless)?
closed as primarily opinion-based by user223391, Joffan, Chill2Macht, Shailesh, Daniel W. Farlow Aug 7 '16 at 0:30
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Mathematics takes place at different time-scales. If you can solve a problem in $5$ minutes that others need an hour to solve, you can probably get a good job. If you can solve a problem in a month that others might need a year to solve, you will probably do well as a graduate student. But if you can solve a problem in $10$ years that nobody else can solve in a lifetime, you could be a great mathematician.
It's nice to have awards from contests on your grad school, etc. applications, but they have little resemblance to what mathematicians or physicists do in practice. Math is about solving very complicated unsolved problems with months or years of hard work, clever insights, and building off results in the literature; contests are about solving very short contrived problems from scratch with elementary tools under a severe time contraint. It's like asking whether solving crossword puzzles is necessary to be a writer.
Of course, it is not necessary to be good at Olympiads to become a mathematician. Competitions often require to solve a problem in minutes, and don't allow research or collaboration with others. In real mathematics, problems are usually bigger, and the critical factor is not speed, but perseverance and meticulousness.
However, it is not true to say that it will not influence your future. Obviously excelling at an Olympiad looks good for applying to elite schools and securing scholarships. That's not to say you can't get the same benefit otherwise: For instance if you are just not good at being quick, you can instead work hard on your studies, or perhaps even do some kind of research or similar long-term project that shows your abilities.
The second caveat is that while mathematical work in itself is not under as much of a time constraint, becoming a successful mathematician is easier if you do well in school. Doing well in school is often dependent on doing well in exams. Exams are often done with a time pressure. So while speed is not a huge factor for the mathematical work itself, it may be a big factor in getting to that work in the first place.
Lastly, I will dissent from the disdain of those asserting that success in Olympiads mean nothing. They do demonstrate several important things:
- They set a fairly high lower bound on the intelligence of the person. Though clearly you don't need to be a genius to do well at them, having some mental acuity is obviously important.
- They show interest and familiarity with mathematics. Others have pointed out that the problems come down to "knowing the right tricks". Fair enough - with the heavy time constraint you can't do much else anyway. But consider where those tricks would be learned in the first place: One must have some love for mathematics and capacity for independent study to bother learning those tricks at all. Many people would simply be too bored.
- You can only learn so many tricks whilst avoiding mathematical enlightenment. Sooner or later your mind will start to see patterns whether you look for them or not. As such, the quality measured directly in Olympiads is not remarkable. The quality measured by proxy is another matter.
Much like IQ tests, chess and the SAT, by itself the test seems trivial and arbitrary. But it so happens that this arbitrary measure correlates well with success in many areas, and with good reason.
So, to conclude: No, you don't have to be a good Olympian to become a successful mathematician or physicist. But it is not a completely irrelevant measure. You should consider why you are bad at it, whether it's really that hard to just get better, and whether you're willing to accept this unfair handicap (and perhaps be driven to compensate by succeeding in other areas).
Terence Tao once wrote a blog post on this: https://terrytao.wordpress.com/career-advice/advice-on-mathematics-competitions/
The summary is what others have been saying here: no, because Olympiad-style problems require more cleverness and less patience than research problems:
While individual steps in the solution might be able to be finished off quickly by someone with Olympiad training, the majority of the solution is likely to require instead the much more patient and lengthy process of reading the literature, applying known techniques, trying model problems or special cases, looking for counterexamples, and so forth.
Accuracy is more important than speed. Sure, if you're fast at solving problems, it's an advantage, but math is all about understanding. These days, not all math competitions are based on time. So never fear! Math companies would rather employ a slow but accurate problem solver than a fast but messy one.
If you want to improve on speed, I'd suggest timing yourself and setting goals. Try to take past math contests within the given time. Eventually, you'll see a difference!
Solving problems quickly may help you in some scenarios such as completions and Olympiads, but you don't need to be good in those to be a good mathematician or physicist. All you need is to be passionate and willing to work hard. In research no one is going to say "solve this problem in the next hour, or you're out." Research much more understanding based rather than speed based after all.
Don't let "being slow" deter you at all from pursuing math or physics. If you can solve problems then that's all you need.
Solving "exercises" that just require formulaic application of pre-learned tricks (as is the case in most of these contests) quickly or not will likely have very little bearing on any future that you might have in mathematics. I would suggest reading "A Mathematician's Lament" by Paul Lockhart (https://www.maa.org/external_archive/devlin/LockhartsLament.pdf) if you want to hear a little bit more (targeted at the educated layperson) about how the "mathematics" that you have been exposed to in school is very different from what mathematicians engage in.