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Aunt Pythia’s advice

July 20, 2013

Aunt Pythia is back and, since her family has finally been reunited, sleeping well. Thank goodness! Hallelujah!

I’m psyched to be getting some great questions from the math community. If you’re a math nerd, and even if you’re not, please:

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,

I’ve been thinking a lot about your remark from this previous post:

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 has really resonated with me. I am trying to make it as an academic, and I admit I am super boring because all I really care about is math and exercise, and I’m not really smart enough or care enough to have an informed opinion of much else.

Unfortunately this makes it hard to attract women, and the ones I have gone out on dates with said that I am not very engaging. On top of that most women want children, and I have read (and agree with) your post on why wanting children is ridiculous. I am also not located in a region where I have any colleagues or even graduate students working in my area of math to talk math with and so I feel pretty isolated in so many levels.

What does it take to become a math professor at an ivy league caliber institution (e.g. Harvard, MIT Columbia, Princeton)? Does one have to be working/thinking about math for much of one’s day? I presume you have an inside view.

Math is Titillating

Dear MiT,

First of all thanks for bringing up that previous answer. I have gotten a lot of people writing in saying I misinterpreted his description of taking extra time to finish his Ph.D.; most people generally think he only took one extra year whereas I read it as two extra years, which makes a big difference. Given this, I was probably too harsh on the guy, although I still think grad students should go to seminars.

As an aside, when did we start using “last year” to mean “this year” and “next year” to mean “next year” but stopped using “this year” to mean anything?

Now on to your question. Do you have to be thinking about math all the time to get a great job? Probably. There are exceptions but they’re rare, as you know.

Let’s face it, this wasn’t really a question for Aunt Pythia. I think you just identified with the description of being boring and only caring about getting a fancy math job, since that’s all you actually care about, as evidenced by your question.

But hey, I’m Aunt Pythia, so I’ve got advice for you anyway.

Don’t feel bad about it! It’s just how you’re programmed, it’s fine. You love math and not much else! Shout it loud from the rooftops and you might just find a girl nerd who’s psyched with your boring self. Just please don’t expect everyone else to be like you, especially your graduate students.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m a math professor in a bit of an ethical quandary.

There is a researcher in my field who is widely known (by those in the field) to be a Certified Asshole (CA). He cuts down other people and their work, often in underhanded and awful ways. The people in question are often women (but not always) and often young (grad students or postdocs). He is a tenured full prof at a Very Good School, though, so those who don’t know him respect the position and his publication record. They consider him to be a Serious Person instead of the CA that he is.

In our recent round of hiring, I read the packet of a very talented graduating student who is applying for postdocs. This student has a few publications already including one very, very nice result. He is also a current collaborator of mine, and I know him a bit personally.

The letter in the student’s application from CA (another collaborator of the student) is underhanded and sabotaging. It says nothing outright negative, of course, but has key phrases like “promising teaching career at a liberal arts school” or somesuch. It also manages to be self-aggrandizing about CA himself rather than praising the grad student and his work.

This student did not get any offers this year, and I know he will be on the market again this year. I can’t help thinking that this letter is hurting his chances for a research postdoc. CA is not his advisor. While it would help to have a good letter from a person in a position such as CA’s, I don’t think this particular letter is helping him.

I can’t figure out an ethical way to help the student. I can’t come out and tell him what’s in the letter. I can’t really say anything even alluding to that. Is there anything I can do to help him?

Better yet, is there anything I can do to hurt CA even though I am in a more junior position at a less well-respected school?

Math is Awesome, People Suck

Dear MAPS,

What a rich question! There are so many issues here, I do believe we could start an entire blog addressing just this ethical quandary, worked out in its entirety.

First of all, I agree that there is an ethical quandary, mostly because you read the CA letter.

If you’d told your friend not to get a letter from the CA beforehand, because he’s a known shitty letter writer, I think that would have been fine and not unethical. But given that you didn’t, and that your friend got that letter, and that you read the letter, it would now seem like spying to go back and tell your friend to get a new letter in the next round. After all, if you’d read the letter and it was great, then you wouldn’t be telling your friend to go get a new letter writer.

As an aside, it doesn’t make sense to me that, during the hiring process, people read the folders of their current collaborators – doesn’t that seem ripe for this kind of conflict of interest?

Now just a few words on “shitty letter writers” before we go on to actual advice. There are different kinds of shitty letter writers, which I’ll split into two broad categories: the tough letter writer, who has consistently high standards and doesn’t wax poetic about anyone ever, and the narcissistic letter writer, who is inconsistent with their praise, sometimes cold sometimes hot, depending on idiosyncratic things like whether they like the young person’s personality and whether they’ve seen enough citations to the narcissist’s own work.

In the large and relatively functional system that is recommendation letters for math jobs, the tough letter writer is a pretty familiar concept, and the system has adapted more or less to its existence. In other words, people who read a lot of letters in a lot of folders get to know the letter writers and they say stuff to themselves along the lines of, oh this guy never writes good letters, so given that, this letter is actually pretty good!

Of course that’s not to say that it’s a perfect system of adaptation to such tough letter writing biases: for sure there are hiring committees unfamiliar with those letter writers, and for those students who have those tough letters, they inevitably suffer in such situations.

On the other hand, if you tried to explicitly adjust this problem, you could be inviting other, even bigger problems. For example, if you had a public yet anonymous webpage which scored every letter writer on a scale of toughness, then the young people looking for jobs might feel like to compete, they’d need to only get letters from people who always write good letters (they exist), and then the entire system would fail because the letters would contain less and less information. That would be a problem.

OK, what about the narcissist letter writer? That’s harder, since they’re not consistently tough, but rather they’re tough on people they just don’t like for whatever reason. It’s much much harder for people on hiring committees to spot the narcissists, and thus those narcissists probably do lots of damage. Luckily they’re also less common then the tough letter writers, but of course they exist.

I’d like to respond to your last question, about wanting to hurt CA, who I’m guessing is a narcissist letter writer, and even though the question is posed strangely.

I don’t think it’s unethical, when you’re counseling any person in your field from now on, to explicitly suggest not using that guy, or for that matter any narcissist letter writer. Of course, this is before you’ve read the putative letter, and of course the person might think you’re wrong and might ignore your advice (and of course, you might be wrong).

My advice to you about the person who didn’t get a job this year (note usage of “this year”): make sure they’re aware of how much letters count, and how different writers are known for different styles, and tell them to consider getting new letters. Ask them to explicitly ask their letter writers whether their letters are good, and define “good”, something I always counsel people to do when they ask for letters.  I don’t think you can do much more than this.

But I’m eager to hear what Jason Starr thinks, he’s always very thoughtful!


Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

You write an amazing blog that

  • lets your readership get to know you as a person and
  • showcases your interests and expertise without
  • too much compartmentalizing.

Help a sister out with some advice for how to achieve similar results?

Bridging Lives Online Gets Gnarly Yo


My advice is to

  • Set aside time every day to write. Consistency is your friend.
  • Choose a (possibly imaginary) friend of yours each day to write to – your audience – that is on your side but will also ask clarifying questions, and explain something to them that you find interesting. That’s a blog post!
  • Also, explain one idea well, then stop. People can barely stand one idea before losing interest.

Good luck, I know you’re gonna rock it!!!


Auntie P


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

Categories: Aunt Pythia
  1. DS
    July 20, 2013 at 10:13 am

    Eh, I think MAPS should just directly advise the student not to ask CA for a letter again. In the scheme of things it’s a minor ethical transgression, especially measured relative to the impact that the shitty letter may be having on the student’s life.

    I don’t entirely agree that system has fully priced in the existence of “tough letter writers”. Issues can still arise if an area or sub-discipline is almost completely populated by tough letter writers. For instance, mathematicians in other areas can be misled about the overall strength and importance of the work happening in that area.


    • July 20, 2013 at 10:19 am

      Happy for MAPS to do so, but keep in mind that although MAPS may have been clear in his head in this particular instance that CA was a CA, it’s a grey area. What’s keeping people from reading their friends and collaborators’ letters and then deciding after the fact that a certain letter writer is shitty?

      Also, I didn’t say the system has fully priced in tough letter writers. In fact I said it hadn’t. It’s a good point about inter-disciplinary issues!

      And that’s why we (read: you) might want to start a new blog on this topic, DS.


  2. July 20, 2013 at 10:35 am

    I’d go further than DS: I don’t see any ethical transgression here at all. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying “I’ve seen your packet for this past round of job applications, and confidentially, I don’t think the letter from CA is doing you any good. He may be a strong researcher, but he’s also a jerk, and now is a good time to realize that. Spend this year cultivating better references.”


    • Allen K.
      July 20, 2013 at 11:20 am

      I have a personal interest in this question. I was relatively lucky, in that when a CA got me rejected everywhere except Caltech (where they knew me and knew to ignore him, I guess) and UCSC, it was to grad school, not for postdocs. Because I’d applied to Caltech from Caltech, I knew my recommenders had access to my file, and I pushed one of them into MAPS’ position. He read the file, said “Indeed, there is a negative letter, and I will say no more.” I swapped out the CA for someone else, reapplied the next year, and this time got into the then top-rated grad program. (Which I also left. But to return to the topic…)

      My opinion is that the ethical transgression is on the CA, who has been asked for a *recommendation* not an *evaluation* . I strongly agree with DS on the relative sizes of the impacts.

      Incidentally, I took this up with the CA, suggesting that if his opinions were so mismatched with other people’s then he might consider second-guessing himself before nuking people’s applications in the future. It was like talking to a wall. But I am living well, which is the best revenge.


    • DS
      July 20, 2013 at 11:57 am

      Okay, I think I agree. Delete the word ‘ethical’ from my comment. Saying something to the student may transgress the usual norms of rec letters*. But if it’s the right thing to do, it (by definition) can’t be unethical. (*I suppose it’s not even 100% clear that it would transgress the usual norms of rec letters, since I think warning someone about a problematic letter in their file is a not-uncommon practice.)

      By the way, another possible approach for MAPS would be to have a talk with the students’ advisor. The advisor might be able to suggest to the student that they drop CA’s letter in favor of someone else specific, without directly revealing the real reason why.


  3. FogOfWar
    July 20, 2013 at 1:52 pm

    Definitely tell the student to nuke CA’s letter from their applications. I think the far bigger ethical transgression is CA’s ethical transgression in agreeing to write a letter and then writing a letter than sabotaged student’s chances. I’ve been asked to write rec letters and if someone asks you and you don’t think you can give them full support, you politely decline. To do otherwise is, in fact, assholic.



  4. Bobito
    July 21, 2013 at 5:21 am

    In much of Europe the use of letters of recommendation is viewed as the worst sort of nepotistic corruption.


  5. RG
    July 24, 2013 at 11:52 pm

    I suppose it’s just me, then, but I don’t think I knew very many math-aholics. Profs did math a lot, and kept strange office hours, but even Andrew Wiles siphoned off a few hours/day to hang with his kids. If MiT is tenure-track at a remote public college (no one does any research? even at a nearby college? what about weekend conferences?), the chances of crawling out of obscurity into a top research university seems like a fairy tale.


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