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Aunt Pythia’s advice

March 2, 2013

You’ve stumbled upon yet another week’s worth of worthy questions that will be awkwardly sidestepped by mathbabe’s alter ego Aunt Pythia.

By the way, if you don’t know what you’re in for, go here for past advice columns and here for an explanation of the name Pythia. Most importantly,

Please submit your question at the bottom of this column!

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Aunt Pythia,

I graduated seven years ago and since then I’ve been working in finance. (I was a floor clerk when Bear Stearns took a nosedive and the words “too big to fail” reared their ugly head.) Now I’m finally ready to flee this flaming cesspool. Do you have any advice on how to get out without suffering a major career setback? I have some skills relevant to data science — python, SQL, some tinkering with Hadoop — but I don’t have any formal training in either computer science or in statistics, and I don’t know a soul outside the financial industry. Is there a way out, or am I stuck here forever?

Lonely in Finance

Dear Lonely,

You are not stuck. Quit your job, live off your savings, and start networking in another space. What do you want to do? What turns you on? Take a leap of faith and get yourself moving. Of course it will be a career setback! Because you are going to begin anew! That’s a good thing, not a bad thing.

I’ll be you don’t have 3 kids and a mortgage even, and yet you still somehow feel like you need to be completely safe. You don’t! You have highly marketable skills, and yes you’ll have to develop even more, but for god’s sake don’t stay in a flaming cesspool just because the money’s good. That is something you know you will regret on your deathbed.

Get the fuck out.

Aunt Pythia

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Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m terrible at asking for advice, because whenever I think of a problem I immediately dismiss it as too silly, or too easy, or I convince myself that I know the answer. Sometimes I don’t ask for help because I feel too much like I’m mooching people’s time, or something like that. How can I get better at asking for advice?

Acrimoniously Chancing Ridiculously-Off Name, You Minx

p.s. Too meta? Or not meta enough?

Dear ACRONYM,

You’re right to be worried. Asking a question is a tough business, and it’s all about timing.

Say, for example, you came up to me on a packed subway car at rushhour, when I was reading my kindle (current book: Mostly Harmless Econometrics), say, and you poked me in my back and said, “hey buddy I’ve got a problem and you’re the person that’s gonna solve it!”. In that situation, and I have to be honest here, I’d be somewhat reluctant to consider your problem as one of my own.

Or, imagine you approached me while I was in the women’s lavatory stall at a public bathroom, and, say, wrote down your question on the back of the bathroom tissue and scooted it over to me on the floor, again I can’t promise you I’d appreciate it (unless you were asking me for more toilet paper, then we’d be good).

However, this being an advice column, I’m pretty confident I’ve made a safe place for even silly questions (and questions that are too easy are even better, because they make me feel smart!). That’s what Saturday mornings are for: I love doing this, and you are helping me do this!

Love,

Auntie P

p.s. Just meta enough!

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Dear Aunt Pythia,

Our culture would have us believe that we are nothing if we are not statistically above average, preferably gifted. Being successful is practically considered a matter of common courtesy. Nonetheless, most of us stubbornly persist in a state of statistical mediocrity, defiantly average. How can we quell our culture’s craving for exceptionalism?

Average Without Being Mean

Dear Average,

I’ve never met someone who thinks they are actually average. I might meet someone who will tell me they’re bad at tests or that they suck at math, but people generally know better than to stop there when self-assessing (hopefully! unless they’re actually really depressed).

After all, a given person has their own personal passions and interests and each develops their own skills and natural talents. While it may be true that someone is born with average potential for a certain thing, it’s more a matter of their passion and time spent practicing that thing than anything about their inherent ability that makes them good or great at something.

In other words, to exist in a state of (supposed) statistical mediocrity is to submit entirely to external measures of generic skills. Who would do that, and why? If I was against standardized testing before, this idea makes me double down.

In terms of our culture, I don’t know how to avoid these kind of “cravings for exceptionalism” if you want to work as a data scientist in a tech startup, for example, because of the competitive nature of that industry. But there are plenty of jobs where being a thoughtful, hard-working person who isn’t a jerk is welcomed.

Aunt Pythia

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Dear Aunt Pythia,

I have a PhD in math and have been interested in getting a job as a data scientist. I have been following your blog, following a few classes online, and talking to people from my program about other resources. I have been applying for jobs in California for over a month now, and since I have no established experience with analyzing big data sets, I have not received any requests for interviews. I would appreciate any advice you can offer! 

Searching in California

Dear Searching,

I wish I had a better answer, because it kind of drives me nuts how hard it is for people like you to get a good job. But first I’d examine your reasoning: how do you know it’s because of a lack of experience analyzing big data sets that you haven’t gotten an interview? I’m not saying that’s not relevant, but I’m pretty sure it will be a combination of factors – including connections. Plus, what is your “program”? Are you still a student? Are you in an academic institution? Possible things you might try:

  • finding a class that will give you mad skillz working with big data sets
  • reading “Mostly Harmless Econometrics
  • networking with other Ph.D.’s you know who already have a job in industry
  • going to data conferences or tech meetups and introducing yourself to a bunch of people
  • finding out about internship possibilities
  • going to data hackathons and working alongside someone who knows the ropes

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia

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Please please please submit questions, thanks!

 

Categories: Aunt Pythia
  1. Darren
    March 2, 2013 at 9:42 am

    Every time someone mentions “PhD in Math” and “difficulty finding work” in the same sentence my stomach knots up a bit. Is that the case in general? For ‘Pure’ Math PhD’s as opposed to Applied? Is it just a matter of not building the necessary skills or connections outside of academia? Are the jobs just not there?

    Like

  2. NY
    March 6, 2013 at 11:40 pm

    Cathy, what do you think of the book “Mostly Harmless Econometrics”? How does it compare to other econometrics books, such as Wooldridge’s?

    Like

    • March 7, 2013 at 5:38 am

      I really haven’t read any others. I’m very much enjoying this one though.

      Like

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