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Aunt Pythia: alive and well!

July 6, 2013

Aunt Pythia is just bursting with love and admiration for the courageous and articulate readers that sent in their thought-provoking and/or heart-rending questions in the last week which got her off life support and back into fighting shape.

On the one hand, Aunt Pythia did’t want to be a histrionic burden to you all, but on the other hand clearly histrionics work, so there it is. Thank you thank you thank you for allowing histrionics to work.

That’s not to say you should rest on your laurels, readers! First of all, Aunt Pythia always needs new questions (you don’t want her to get sick again, right?), and secondly, I’ve heard laurels can be quite prickly.

In other words,

Submit your question for Aunt Pythia at the bottom of this page!

By the way, if you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, go here for past advice columns and here for an explanation of the name Pythia.


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Isn’t the distribution thing kind of REALLY IMPORTANT for how we think of the sexual partner thing? If fifty women are getting it on with one man, while the other 49 men are, uh, monks, or vice versa, depending on the universe you live in, that certainly influences how you think about stereotypes.

Ms. Hold On A Second

Dear HOAS,

Yes it is, but the average should take care of that as long as the sample size is large enough to have that one lucky man represented, as well as the 49 unlucky men, in the correct proportions.

Let’s go with this a bit. How fat-tailed would sexual practice have to be to make this a problem? After all, there are distributions that defy basic intuition around this – look at the Cauchy Distribution, which has no defined mean or variance, for example. Maybe that’s what’s going on?

Hold on one cotton-picking second! We have a finite number of people in the world, so obviously this is not what’s going on – the average number of sexual partners exists, even if it’s a pain in the ass to compute!

But I’m willing to believe that there’s a sampling bias at work here. Maybe female prostitutes are excluded from surveys, for example. And if men always included their visits to prostitutes, that would introduce a bias.

I’ll go on record saying I doubt that explains the discrepancy, although to be mathematical about it I’d need to have an estimate of how much prostitute sex happens and with how many men. I don’t have that data but maybe someone does.

And of course it’s probably not just one thing. Some combination of the surveys being for college students, and fewer prostitutes being at college, and some actual lying. But my money’s on the lying every time.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m not sure this is the correct forum for this question, but here it goes: I come from an economics/econometrics background, where the statistical modeling tool of choice is Stata. I now work at an organization in a capacity that is heavy on statistical modeling, in some cases (but not always) working with “Big Data”.

There is some freedom in terms of the tools we can use, but nobody uses Stata, to my knowledge. As somebody who is just starting out in this industry, I’m trying to get a pulse on which tool I should invest the time into learning, SAS or R. Do you have an opinion either way?

Lonely in Missouri

Dear Lonely,

Always go with the open source option. R, or even better, python. What with pandas and other recent packages, python is just fabulous.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m a graduate student in math at a large state research school in the midwest, finishing in 2014. My question is about my advisor and my job plans.

First, here’s what I’m planning to do next year. My wife is a student in the same department as I am, and she’s also finishing next year. We both want to move to a big city. We’d settle for a Philadelphia or Seattle or really anywhere we can live without a car, but by “big city” I really mean New York. We’ve both lived there before and we like it better than anywhere else.

My wife wants a non-academic job. I’m going to apply for research postdocs. I should be a fairly strong candidate, but I’m no superstar and I definitely don’t think it’s assured that I’ll get one, especially with the limited set of places we’re willing to live. And that’s fine! I like the idea of being a professor, but there’s lots of other jobs that I think I’d like too. I know that I wouldn’t like living apart from my wife, or living somewhere that we hate.

My advisor has done a good job of making me into a researcher. The problem is that he’s just a difficult person. Less charitably, he’s an asshole (at least to me). He’s arrogant, rude, and demanding. The one time I ever told him he wasn’t treating me fairly (which I did politely, but in an email), he completely flipped out (in a series of emails) and told me that as his student, I had no right to talk to him that way.

I don’t want to make him sound like a complete monster: he’s from a culture that puts a lot of weight on respect and hierarchy, and I’ve seen him be empathetic and kind. But he absolutely cannot handle it if I disagree with him or don’t do what he says.

In all conversations we’ve had about my future, he seems to have no interest in what I actually want to do. I could have graduated last year, but my department had no problem letting me stay on so that I could finish at the same time as my wife. My advisor was really unhappy about this. His attitude was that a year wasn’t much time to spend away from a spouse (after all, he spent three!), and I should have at least applied for a few prestigious postdocs to maximize my chances of getting one.

Recently, my advisor emailed me just to tell me how disappointed he is in me: I have a bad attitude, I don’t always go to seminars even when he tells me I should, and that I make decisions about my future on my own, instead of in consultation with him. I responded politely (and distantly) to this.

So, here’s the question: should I do anything about all of this? I don’t work with my advisor mathematically anymore, and I’ve been much happier since we stopped. I have other projects to work on and other collaborators to work with, and I think other people in the department would be happy to give me problems or work with me on them. I don’t think my advisor is going to change in any way, and I’m the kind of person who can’t stand to be treated like an underling or told what to do. My advisor has said that he’s still happy to write me a recommendation. What things should I do? I’m hoping your answer is nothing, so that I can continue having as little contact as possible with my advisor.

Feeling Refreshed at the End of an Era

Dear FREE,

Here’s the thing. I have sympathy with some of your story but not with all of it. First I’ll tackle the negative stuff, then I’ll get to the sympathy.

If I understand correctly, you could have graduated last year but instead you’re graduating next year. So you’re staying an extra two years on the department’s dime. Doesn’t that seem a bit strange? How about if you finish and get a job in town as an actuary or something to see if non-academic work suits you? Are you preventing someone from entering the department by being there so long?

Also, you mention that you don’t go to seminars. I don’t think I always went to seminars as a young graduate student, but as I got more senior I appreciated how much language development there is in seminars – even when I didn’t understand the results I learned about how people think and talk about their work by going to seminars. I don’t think it was a waste of my time even though I ultimately left academics. I don’t think it would waste your time to go to seminars.

In other words, you sound like an entitled lazy graduate student, and I’m not so surprised your advisor is fed up with you. And I’m pretty sure your non-academic boss would be even less sympathetic to someone spending an extra two years doing not much.

Now here’s where I do my best to sound nice.

Sounds like your advisor doesn’t get you, possibly because he’s fed up with the above-mentioned issues. Like a lot of academics, he understands ambition in one narrow field, and doesn’t even relate to not wanting to be successful in this realm. That’s probably not going to change, and there’s no reason to take advice from him about how you want to live your life and the decisions you’re making for your family.

So yes, ignore him. But don’t ignore me, and I’m here to say: stop being an entitled lazy-ass.

Aunt Pythia


Ok I’ve never heard of Aunt Pythia, and I know this is too easy for her, but I can’t let her die.

Aunt Pythia,

If each woman I date is an independent trial, and the probability of marrying a woman I date is 0.1, how many women do I have to date before I can be at least 90% sure of getting married? (You can substitute “having sex” for “getting married” if you like.)


Dear Anonymous,

Aunt Pythia appreciates the sentiment, and the question.

Let’s sex up the question just a wee bit and change it from “getting married” to “having sex” as you suggested, and also raise your chances a bit to 17%, out of pure human compassion.

Let’s establish some notation: each time you date some woman we will record it either as a “G” for “got laid” or as a “D” for “dry.” So for example, after 4 women you might have a record like:


which would mean you got laid with the fourth woman but with no other women.

Are we good on notation?

OK now let’s answer the question. How long do we wait for a G?

The trick is to turn it around and ask it another way: how likely is a reeeeeeally long string of D’s?

Chances of one D are good: (100-17)% = 83%.

Chances of two D’s in a row are less good: 0.83*0.83 = 0.67 = 67%.

Chances of three D’s in a row are even less good: 0.83^3 = 55\%.

If you keep going you’ll notice that chances of 11 D’s in a row is 11% but chances of 12 D’s in a row are only 9%. that means that, by dating 12 women or more, your chances of getting laid are better than 90%. If you think it’s really a 10% chance every time, you’ll have to date 22 women for such odds. I’d suggest you invest in a membership on OK Cupid or some such.

Good luck!

Auntie P


Please submit your well-specified, fun-loving, cleverly-abbreviated question to Aunt Pythia!

Categories: Aunt Pythia
  1. Jason Starr
    July 7, 2013 at 5:22 pm

    I have one piece of advice for FREE: speak with your department’s graduate chair (or possibly the department chair). If your advisor is the graduate chair or department chair, find out if your university has an ombudsperson for graduate students (my university does). Many students have a misconception that talking to a chair / ombudsperson should be a last resort, only after things have gotten so bad that drastic action is needed (i.e., reassignment of advisors). This is wrong. Most advisor / advisee problems are best addressed early, before drastic action is needed. In the (happily few) cases that I know of, the graduate chair was happy to give a nudge early. Since you say that your advisor cares very much about hierarchy, he may respond better if a colleague approaches him about this situation.

    You don’t say it, but I am guessing that you are worried about the letter. This is indeed a serious consideration. Of the (happily few) similar situations I have known about, the academic cultures that produce autocrats also sometimes produce “bad letter-writers”. By “bad” I mean letters that do more harm than good (rather than poorly-written). To agree to write a letter when you intend to say negative things — this borders on professional misconduct. There is little you can do directly if you have this concern: you cannot ask your letter-writer if he is going to write a “bad” letter. However, you can raise this issue with your graduate chair. In fact, there is little that he or she can do either. However, he or she can probably get a better read on the situation (especially if he or she is a frequent letter-writer as well).


  2. RG
    July 7, 2013 at 7:00 pm

    Hopefully the OP will write back to clarify, but I read the letter so differently! First, since we’re between school years, I read his story to mean “last year” as in May 2013 and “next year” to mean May 2014. That also fits with his saying he delayed one year not two. Second, it’s not Harvard, by which I mean he’s probably doing some teaching to pay his way. Older graduate students can usually handle a class that post-doc/ young faculty would teach otherwise, and grad students are cheaper. I doubt anyone is being denied a spot because of him. Third, he says he’ll continue to do research with local faculty, which does not fit my understanding of the phrase “do nothing”.

    I also don’t understand the advice to get an actuarial job for the incoming year. First, I don’t think it’s as trivial as walking down to the local insurance company and filling out an application. The entry-level job market is tight, and at the least he’d have to pass a few exams and cast a wide net location-wise. Second, non-academics basically regard the PhD as pointless whether you spend 4 years or 5. Also, how would the actuarial job reflect on his post-doc applications? Then, if he does get the post-doc, how will actuarial jobs consider him later if he does a year now, and leaves? Recruiters I’ve worked with have cautioned against taking a job that I’d want to leave in anything less than two years, and that’s even within the same profession.


  3. Moeen
    July 7, 2013 at 10:42 pm

    I have to concur with RG on reading the letter very differently. I read it meaning he only has to take an extra year, not two. Teaching can slow down research, but more than that, plenty of faculty I have talked to encourage staying on longer if you can. For one thing, departments don’t care how long you took to get your PhD, just how many papers you have published since then, so it doesn’t matter if you took 4 years or 7; it’s the same to them. Secondly, the fact that it doesn’t matter how long it took to get the PhD means if you stay on longer it gives you time to do more research and have some preprints (or even publications if you’re lucky) under your belt by the time you graduate and have a much better chance at doing well on the academic job market, which is pretty crappy. It seems like a no brainer to stay on as long as you can. The only downside I can think of is that you’re not making much money as a grad student. I also concur with RG that it doesn’t seem like FREE is just lazing about for a year or two, even if he’s not attending every seminar his adviser wants him to.


  1. July 20, 2013 at 9:33 am
  2. August 4, 2013 at 11:06 am
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