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Programs Contests vs. PhD

  1. Jan 31, 2007 #1
    If you can do very well in a math or physics contest (preferably a university level contest), say, scoring in the top 2%, then I would that you are bright enough to be able to earn a PhD. However, what if, say you are good enough to place in the top 25%, but not good enough to place in the top 2%? Do you still have a good chance of coming up with useful original research to earn a PhD some years down the road?

    I've been able to place in the top 2% (and top 10 in my city) in the high school math contests I wrote, though I never wrote the Putnam. But I had many high school friends who got A+'s in their high school math courses but could not get a passing mark on a regular high school math contest if their lives depended on it (they just could not use their knowledge in the clever way that the difficult contest problems required). I lost touch with them so I do not know if they ever were able to earn PhD's. But my guess is that they didn't (if they tried at all).

    If a university student wrote, say the Putnam math contest, and could not come in, say, the top 10% (and lack of knowledge cannot be blamed due to the nature of the contest), is he good enough at problem solving to be able to solve an open problem years later to earn a PhD? Or should he just forget the whole thing, admit that he is not super-smart, and just settle for a degree?
    Last edited: Jan 31, 2007
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  3. Jan 31, 2007 #2
    In my opinion, just because you get an A's or A+'s in your courses, it does not necessarily mean that you are good enough to get a PhD. This is because getting A's means that you studied hard and understood what you learned very well. But it does not necessarily mean that you have the ingenuity to solve very deep problems (which don't appear in your exams). You MUST write a contest and see how well you do with the problems that require great imagination and ingenuity. The contest is the best test to see if you are clever enough to solve open problems later on.

    I'm not trying to discourage A+ students. But A+'s alone does not = PhD later. A+'s + successful contests is a better guarantee.
    Last edited: Jan 31, 2007
  4. Jan 31, 2007 #3
    Well the mentality required to do well in math contests is very different than that required to write a PHD thesis. Even the mentality required to do undergraduate research is different enough than that required to do reasearch towards a PHD that some professors advise students not to do undergraduate research.

    I don't see how you can even compare a math contest where you know that there are solutions and they are supposed to be accesible with a certain level of knowledge (as long as you have the ingenuity you speak of or have seen a similar problem before) with trying to solve a problem for a PHD thesis where you don't know if what you know is enough to solve the problem no matter how much ingenuity you have. I think this makes a HUGE difference. It takes alot of patience (usually) in order to solve a problem for a PHD. Contests are about thinking up answers quickly...its totally different.
  5. Jan 31, 2007 #4
    We shouldn't even get PhD's. We should just do math contests.

    <33 Just kidding homie.
  6. Jan 31, 2007 #5
    Winning contests has nothing to do with ones' ability to achieve a PhD. Well, possibly in math, but certainly not in physics. If I asked some graduate students that have passed the comp or even professors around my school about this, they would look at me like I had 3 heads.
  7. Jan 31, 2007 #6
    I love mathematics but it's synergy with physics is the most elegant aspect to me and is the PhD that I am pursuing.

    I was afraid I was going to have to do some Math contests to earn my PhD! That scared me. :)

  8. Jan 31, 2007 #7

    George Jones

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    Feynman won the Putman.
  9. Jan 31, 2007 #8
    Do one need to be good at feeding a cat to be able to drive a car successfully?

    What makes you think that people are predetermined to be able to obtain a Ph.D just by being in the top 2% of a contest? Even at University level? If you didn't notice, getting a Ph.D demands work and doesn't necessary have anything to do with your problem solving skills. Ever considered that the people who lost spent all of their time studying for something other than this contest?
  10. Jan 31, 2007 #9
    i agree:

    can't do well in (math) contests = not good enough at problem solving to get a phd (in math)

    does well in contests = you might be good enough at problem solving to get a phd
  11. Jan 31, 2007 #10
    Why? What has winning a contest have to do with being able to obtain a Ph.D?
  12. Jan 31, 2007 #11
    And with the contests, what if people can't work in such a stressful environment? That doesn't mean they aren't going to work hard to get a degree. And getting a degree doesn't necessarily mean you're amazing at something, it just proves that you know what you're doing and you are willing to work hard at it.
  13. Jan 31, 2007 #12
    However, it is not only contests that are stressful. Working on a Ph.D can sometimes be that as well. Also note that if one plans the entry in a contest satisfactory well, then there is no stress most of the times.
  14. Jan 31, 2007 #13


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    there are all kinds of different math abilities. one recent fields medalist, terry tao, seems like the sort who is good at contests.

    others of us are slower and less clever, but a phd allows plenty of time usually.

    being good at contests is a strength, and there are other strengths. try to maximize your=s.
  15. Jan 31, 2007 #14
    to earn a phd, you have to come up with something original and useful, which means that you must be able to solve an open problem that no one else has been able to before. if you can't solve insightful problems in a contest that involve simple topics that you already know, no matter how good your grades are or hard-working you are, how can you solve an unsolved problem to earn a phd later on?
    Last edited: Jan 31, 2007
  16. Jan 31, 2007 #15


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    In my opinion, if one does well in a contest, then one would probably be able to complete a PhD, successfully. However, I wouldn't say that the implication that if one does not do well in this contest, that one would not be able to complete a PhD successfully is true. They are two rather different things, and so one who is not able to complete a test in a few hours may be better suited to studying for a PhD, where the problems are solved in a much greater time scale.
  17. Feb 1, 2007 #16


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    the psychological side mentioned earlier is also more significant than one may think. It takes real guts to commit a lot of time and effort to an attack on a hard problem when one does not know if one is on the right track, or even if the result one hopes to prove is true. A contest problem has already been solved by someone. this knowledge and the consequent lack of doubt, is an enormous advantage.

    to be candid however about Phd work, it seems that often the problem is a setup, which the advisor has essentially already solved, or knows how to solve. Not every PhD thesis is particularly startling. One famous advisor, after listening to a lot of criticism of his student's work from the committee is said to have exclaimed, "All right, so its not the best Phd thesis I've ever written!"
    Last edited: Feb 1, 2007
  18. Feb 1, 2007 #17
    How to know if you are Ph.D. Material:
    1. Find a brick wall.
    2. Start banging your head against it.
    3. If after an hour or two, you notice that it is starting to hurt and you think that you would like to stop, a Ph.D. probably is not in your future.
  19. Feb 1, 2007 #18


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    I see no connection between doing well in contests and doing well in a PhD.

    Actually, the whole idea of contests makes me: :rolleyes: :frown: :uhh: :mad: :yuck:
  20. Feb 1, 2007 #19
    I think the best way to prove whether the prospective is right or wrong, is to investigate how many outstanding scholar have won a contest, such like IPhO, etc.
    Though I'm just an ungraduate, so I have no idea about PhD. But for the contest, I know that by heavy training you can won the contest. When I was in high school, some students only study on specific subject, and after lots of training, they do won the medal. But I think wining a contest is quite different from researching. And one who haven't won a contest doesn't imply he isn't clever. My proffesor said that you can learn calculus at 10 or 12 years old, but what you do is just learning many great people's work and use them to solve problem. Research needs creativity, and contest has nothing to do about it.
  21. Feb 1, 2007 #20


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    That's the crux of it!

    You can't write a decent PhD by reading a lot of books!
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