Even if the title might seem self-explanatory, I would ask you to read the entire post to understand what exactly I'm trying to understand here.

I'm from the Russian Federation. We don't have a lot of departments of pure mathematics. Most of those undergraduate programs named "mathematics" are actually aimed at people who wish to teach mathematics to engineers/IT/finance people or those who themselves wish to get into engineering, IT or finance. Actually, when I say "we don't have a lot" I mean we have two and a half. No exaggeration here. My explanation is actually a bit oversimplified, but I hope you understand what I meant to say.

The funny thing is that the most renowned of Russian schools for the quality of its pure mathematics students is called Independent University of Moscow. They offer free education with entrance based on how you perform during the process of education itself. It has no entrance exams, everyone can attend lectures at first, but to get the status of a "student" you must do well in a first three mandatory courses. Why did I call the situation a "funny thing"? The reason is that its degree is not recognized as an official undergraduate degree in Russian Federation. So, despite being called Independent University of Moscow, it doesn't have an official university status in Russia !

What I wish to understand is how top graduate schools in mathematics would treat a candidate with such a degree. From what I understand, it has a good reputation in mathematics. Many people from IUM were accepted to the best graduate schools in mathematics all over the world. For example, Harvard, MIT. Some of those even had their IUM "degree" as the their only degree. That is, they didn't have any official Russian undergraduate degree in any field.

But IUM doesn't have a lot of alumni. So, those IUM alumni attending MIT/Harvard might look like special cases, even exceptions. Besides, all recent IUM graduates had another official degree from another Russian university. The latest case I know of with a man being accepted to MIT with only an IUM degree is dated 2006. Moreover, even if such a practice was appropriate in US before, it might have changed in recent years, I'm not sure.

That said, I understand there were exceptional cases of enrollees being admitted to top graduate school (in US) without any degree at all, based on their exceptional recommendations or their research. I know at least three such people, all from my country. They applied in 1980s/1990s to Harvard and MIT.

So what I'm trying to understand is how do graduate schools treat the lack of an official status of a foreign school with it being a strong academy with capable students and top-rank professors. Another nuance I'm thinking is that, from a US/Can/EU university point of view, it is an overseas school. I'm not even sure how to US departments verify the validity of one's undergraduate/masters degree if it's not from US or EU.

Of course, what I'm asking is purely about bureaucratic procedures within academia. I absolutely understand that to have a chance in getting into top graduate school in mathematics you must have exceptional credentials: recommendations from renowned professors or even your own research articles. But, say, one has such distinctions (for example, you can get those things during a successful process of getting a "degree" at IUM, that's the reason it has so few alumni). Yet how would top overseas graduate schools treat such a potentially strong candidate if his degree is not official in the country where it was obtained ?

  • Please explain what you mean in this part: But, say, one has such distinctions (for example, you can get those things during a successful process of getting a "degree" at IUM, that's the reason it has so few alumni). Do you mean that - owing to their talent and/or publications during their primary degree - most IUMs graduates get easy entrance to top Russian and overseas Math graduate schools and therefore those graduate schools claim credit for their subsequent achievements, including claiming them as their alumni rather than IUM's ?
    – Trunk
    Commented Jun 21, 2022 at 16:08
  • This is really enrollee rather than applicant right?
    – BCLC
    Commented Jun 23, 2022 at 4:30

3 Answers 3


Since the question is, by now, 5 year old, my answer is probably largely irrelevant to you but it might be useful to others.

  1. The statement "We don't have a lot of departments of pure mathematics." (with the clarification "two and a half") is not even wrong. It is irrelevant (for the graduate admission purposes) if a department names itself as one of "pure mathematics," or if it is teaching only pure math, or if it employs only "pure mathematicians." Quality-wise, there are several high-quality and reputation math departments in RF (Russian Federation, in what follows), the ones I am most familiar with are at the Higher School of Economics (in Moscow), Moscow State University, St. Petersburg University, your institution (IUM) and Novosibirsk State University. That's more than 2 and a half.

  2. What counts as "top" graduate programs in the US is ambiguous. Whatever this means, I am not going to speak for every one of these, I will describe the overall admission process as I know it:

The graduate admission process in the US involves two levels of bureaucracy: University (campus)-wide and departmental. Neither one cares at all if your university is officially recognized by the RF. What university bureaucracy cares about is if you submitted the required paperwork (transcripts, letters of recommendation, personal statement, GRE scores - in pre-pandemic times, TOEFL scores). They will likely also care if your TOEFL results are "sufficiently high" so you can be trusted to, say, work as a teaching assistant.

Departmental bureaucracy is usually a graduate program (admissions) committee, and, once the formal requirements listed above are met, the decision on admission is made by the math department. The admission committee does take the reputation of your department into consideration. However, what matters here is the scientific reputation of your recommendation letter-writers and not the jobs that 99% of your fellow students will get after graduation.

Edit. People at the admissions committee are less likely to look at your application closely, the less-known your academic institution is. There is a good chance, they will not look at it at all if they never heard about it or, for some reason, they keep it in very low regard. This is another way in which reputation matters.

Other important factors will be: What courses did you take, what grades did you get, if you participated in IMO-competitions (as a high school student), what your recommendation letters say, your undergraduate research experience (say, if you already have research papers/preprints). And yes, I saw plenty of applications from Russian applicants who already had high-quality papers/preprints by the time of graduation. Your personal statement does play some role, but less than what's listed above. What's more important is if you know names and research interests of some of the faculty and explain how compatible these are with your research goals.

  1. To conclude: The official status of IUM in RF is irrelevant for your graduate application process, you should focus on other matters.

IUM (quite purposefully) distances itself from the "officially recognised" education and relies on informal recognition in a sub-group of well-established mathematicians. As an IUM graduate, you most likely will be recognised as an outstanding candidate for your ability to do maths. You will also have recommendations of internationally renowned mathematicians. Many academics will feel themselves very reassured hiring someone with IUM credentials.

However, universities do not consist of academics only. HR departments may have their views on the process too. It is fair to say that even the best professors sometimes have only limited influence on HR when it comes to formalities. And of course, the list of recognised qualifications is one of such things.

Unfortunately, there are no universal rules which HR departments apply. It is likely that for a particular unusual situation like the one you described, the decision will be made ad hoc by someone in HR department. And once it is made, it is unlikely they will go back on it.

That is why many of IUM graduates prefer to also get themselves a degree from an officially recognised university. Even if it does not give them the level of education compared with IUM, the official degree always works well to pacify the HR departments, while academics will always look at IUM degrees on your CV as something really outstanding.

  • 1
    Thank you for your answer. It's truly unfortunate that such pointless beaurocracy puts even potentially strong candidates at risk. After all, I do not believe that a university can teach someone mathematics, I bealive it can only offer some help to a student in teaching himself.
    – Jxt921
    Commented Jan 17, 2017 at 15:28
  • But I'm not that against official undergraduate pure mathematical programs. It's just that I don't have a lot of choice in those. Even those available are easier to get into for those who do very well (when I say "really well" I should note that HSE, for example, is reserved for those who can do 280/300 on 3 school exams: math, physics and russian language, those are easy subjects compared to university math, but you need to spend months polishing skills of doing silly tests fast and without mistakes) in school-mathematics, rather than those who know quite a bit of real mathematics.
    – Jxt921
    Commented Jan 17, 2017 at 15:34
  • A sad situation, truth be told. Not that there are a lot of those who already know a lot of real math prior to entering a university, but I think their cases should be taken into account, nevertheless. I personally would wait 2 more years and get straight into masters, but it appears it's forbidden as well to do so without an undergraduate degree. What can one do...
    – Jxt921
    Commented Jan 17, 2017 at 15:37
  • Gather signatures for a petition and lobby your local Moscow MP to grant "official" recognition of IUM degrees - backdated to first graduates.
    – Trunk
    Commented Jun 21, 2022 at 20:19

I think you will find that most major global universities have a bureau dedicated to screening exchange partner universities.

While the administrators of these bureaux are usually graduates themselves, they would not usually be competent to evaluate a candidate university department. Therefore many departments have one or more faculty that provide guidance on matters specific to each department's studies versus those of potential partners.

The thing is of course that each major university wants to have links with foreign universities at least as prestigious as itself, if not better. This could work for or against you depending on how prestige is defined in the mind of the academic bureau evaluating partner universities. They may grade a university more on the basis of quantity (number of students, faculty, facilities, amenities, past achievements, etc) rather than quality (highly ranked faculty, top-rank publications, recent star academics, current repute, growth rate, etc).

You might first go to IUM and ask for a list of universities that currently engage with them via their Math Semesters in Moscow programme. Obviously you will not have to explain much about IUM in your applications to these universities.

You might also enquire about the diaspora of IUM graduates doing postgraduate studies in top math departments in the world. Especially those foreign universities who have accepted more than one IUM graduate, e.g. after the initial PhD was found very satisfactory and others from IUM were invited to apply for PhD studentships.

The HR aspects - e.g. accepting high type II error risk (miss hiring a very good person) to minimize type I error (hiring a bad candidate) - may not be so critical in mathematics. Talent is talent in mathematics, after all - and ambitious professors want as much of it as they can get and they are not too bothered about where it comes from.

P.S. I am surprised that Russia has so few pure mathematics departments. In the western hemisphere we associate a lot of the "New Math" we had forced on us at school with the impact of Sputnik and how far ahead the USSR reputedly was in both the content of their mathematics and their teaching methods. Most UK and Irish universities have lots of faculty and fellows from Russian universities.

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