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Aunt Pythia’s advice

July 27, 2013

It’s a speed advice column today, folks, because I’m blogging whilst sitting at the PyData 2013 conference [Aside: I believe in Travis Oliphant, the nerd Santa Claus, do you?]. I’ll try to keep it to the point yet amusing slash provocative.

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.

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


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m having a baby soon, and I’m planning to be the primary caregiver for a few months (from 3 months onward). I’m hoping that I’ll be able to get some research done at the same time, but I’m not sure how practical that is. What should I expect? Do you have any tips for juggling baby care and math research? (assuming no teaching and minimal responsibilities around the department.)

Baffled About Birth Year

Dear BABY,

Other people are gonna tell you encouraging things like, “oh you can do it!” or “If anybody can do it, it’s you!” but not me.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not telling you you can’t do it, but by acting like it’s just a matter of proper planning, I’d be underselling how much work you’re signing up for, and how fucking hard it really is going to be.

So here’s the real deal: it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do (hopefully). You know how grad school was hard? This is like having to write a thesis once a year while living 24/7 with someone who’s only goal is for you to not get that done.

Which is to say: be incredibly proud of yourself every day you survive this period, and don’t add an ounce of guilt to yourself that you can avoid. Guilt doesn’t help. And also, the system is set up badly for you, to be sure, but don’t dwell on it too much, that also doesn’t help while you’re in it.

In terms of very practical advice: pay through the nose for good babysitting and daycare, it’s worth the investment so that you don’t have to worry your kid is getting love and attention. Go into debt, borrow money, or whatever, but get it set up so that you actually feel jealous of your kid, and specifically so you know your kid is better off with that situation for the next few hours than being with you.

Finally, when you feel crazy and insane and underproductive, know that it’ll get better, for sure, by the time the kids can wipe their own asses, and that you won’t regret having those beautiful children nor trying to get something else done too. Never apologize for needing to cry and vent about how hard this period is, and if you’re around people who don’t get it, find new people.

Good luck!



Aunt Pythia,

How do I dress to make people think I am an adult? I’m a 25-year-old woman, and I’m getting a bit tired of people asking me if I’m a student.

I think they ask me this because I only wear jeans and nerdy t-shirts. I basically only own jeans and nerdy t-shirts, plus some cardigans. I am not at all interested in skirts or girly things, but I’m open to wearing slightly nicer clothes. Like more cardigans? Messenger bags that aren’t falling apart? Urk.

People on the internet claim that I need to pluck my eyebrows to be taken seriously, but fuck that shit.

Shopping Is Hard! Let’s Do Math

Dear Sihldm,

First, I gotta say I was expecting a bit more from that sign-off. I really don’t see what “Sihldm” is supposed to mean, but maybe I’m just out of the loop.

Second, I’m gonna say something kind of controversial. Namely, I think the single attribute that makes people take me seriously is the fact that I’m overweight (and that, nowadays, I have grey hair, which also helps).

I think people just stop thinking “girl” and start thinking “woman” when confronted with me, and that totally works to my advantage. Controversial because, according to the social contract, I’m supposed to feel consistently bad about my weight, but here’s an example where I’m like, wow I’ve never been underestimated as a “girl”.

So, my advice to you is: pack on like 100 pounds.

Just kidding, probably not a great plan, nor possible.

Here’s another try: whenever you’re giving a talk or starting a class, wear wool slacks and a sweater. For whatever reason people take you super seriously when you do, even if you’re not fat, and even if you’re short. If it’s summer, go for summer slacks and silk shirts, although not the kind of silk that shows sweat stains easily, those are embarrassing.

And if it’s not a special event like a talk or the first day of class, then fuck it, be yourself.

Good luck!



Dear Aunt Pythia,

My husband stays home with the children, but in spite of a graduate degree in engineering and graduate work in mathematics, seems incapable of maintaining a clean house.

My question is, if 95% of the time he doesn’t sort the mail, 75% of the time he doesn’t vacuum, 50% of the time he doesn’t wash the dishes, and 80% of the time he doesn’t wipe the kitchen counters, what is the probability that he doesn’t actually see dirt? (He is color blind.)

Buried in junk mail

Dear Bijm,

Bijm? Really?

Are the kids healthy? Happy? Do they get fed non-dorito-like food? I’d say be grateful. If and when you can afford it get housekeeping, but don’t make the mistake I see so much of allowing resentment to build up over chores.

Also, keep in mind that the kids will be able to help with the chores soon. And by “soon” I mean “probably already”. Buy cute toy-like vacuum cleaners and make up a game about getting all the dirt. Make it part of the dessert ritual that the counters need to be clean first. Move your bills to online payments.

And enjoy your sexy househusband!! [Important aside: is he willing to wear an apron and nothing else when he cooks? Please answer privately, preferably with jpeg-formatted evidence.]

Aunt Pythia


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

Categories: Aunt Pythia
  1. damigiana
    July 27, 2013 at 10:37 am

    BABY: not all kids are equal. I did write one of the most cited papers of my career when firstborn was nine months old – and I was also teaching! It was possible because firstborn was the easiest baby ever, eating and sleeping and rarely sick. It wasn’t until I met her siblings that I realized how special she was.

    On the other hand, I had a nanny a few hours each day. It helped keep me sane to have those precious, firstborn-free hours. Please give yourself some free time, it’s well invested money.

    SIHLDM: my suggestion is to have a sex change :(.


    • Allen K.
      July 27, 2013 at 1:52 pm

      To isolate some variables: I am thin, wear nerdy T-shirts, and am still asked whether I’m a student, but unlike SIHLDM I am 43 and male. So while Aunt Pythia’s body mod might work, damigiana’s won’t, in my experience.


      • Damigiana
        July 28, 2013 at 11:10 am

        I was called “girl” and “mrs” (as opposed to professor like everyone else) while over 40, in an official meeting, by the Dean. None of my colleagues had the same problem, not even the younger ones.


  2. Bobito
    July 27, 2013 at 12:42 pm

    I had several children in a few years. During those years I did a lot of math but published 0 papers. My advice is that it is hard to be a good parent and to write math papers at the same time.


  3. DS
    July 27, 2013 at 1:24 pm

    Dear SIHLDM,

    The issue affects not only girls. Here’s a relevant quote from a lecture by Richard Hamming, quoted in Team Geek (an excellent little book):

    “John Tukey almost always dressed very casually. He would go into an important office and it would take a long time before the other fellow realized that this is a first-class man and he had better listen. For a long time John has had to overcome this kind of hostility. It’s wasted effort! I didn’t say you should conform; I said, ‘The appearance of conforming gets you a long way.’ If you chose to assert your ego in any number of ways, ‘I am going to do it my way,’ you pay a small steady price throughout the whole of your professional career. And this, over a whole lifetime, adds up to an enormous amount of needless trouble. […] By realizing you have to use the system and studying how to get the system to do your work, you learn how to adapt the system to your desires. Or you can fight it steadily, as a small, undeclared war, for the whole of your life.”


    • July 27, 2013 at 4:49 pm

      > “It’s wasted effort!”

      The excerpt contains references to “system” and “fight” and “war”. All I’m getting out of it is Hamming’s platitudinous take on dressing. I’m not seeing Tukey, the more interesting of the two, and why he does what he does.


  4. anon
    July 27, 2013 at 3:40 pm

    SIHLDM – I’m in your boat and 28 😦 I have refused to give up my jeans, but I’ve traded out the nerdy shirts for blouses. I wear ballet flats, and if the shirt doesn’t have a collar, a long dangly necklace. Seems to work decently so far. Now that I live someplace colder I will probably add nice boots and a scarf for the winter. Good luck finding what works for you!


  5. kt
    July 27, 2013 at 5:52 pm

    Aunty Pythia may have a point about weight, but I think it’s her chic black dresses that really confirm non-studenthood — and her nice necklaces. If you trade nerdy t for blouse & put on a necklace then you’re going to be out of the student demographic. Gray hair helps too and can be faked.

    Another easy hack (esp for winter) that doesn’t require leaving behind the nerdshirts: find a comfortable blazer and wear it over your nerdy t. Look for a knit blazer or a corduroy blazer. Elbow patches give an ironic +1.

    I realized the people on the internet are probably right about the eyebrows. However, in math I just figure I’m cultivating the eastern European look if I grow bushy unkempt eyebrows like my dad. What’s more serious and respectable than an eastern European mathematician?


    • Damigiana
      July 28, 2013 at 11:14 am

      Seconded about the blazer (you can buy it at H&M, cheap and goes in the washing machine). Very thick unkept eyebrows like-my-dad are no help.


      • July 28, 2013 at 11:20 am

        Wtf with the eyebrows? I don’t get it.


        • kt
          July 29, 2013 at 12:36 pm

          Story: I have two collaborators on one paper/project. One’s a grad student, one’s my age (although in a tenure-track position, unlike me). At an AMS sectional dinner there seemed to be a vote on who the “adult” was in our collaboration. It was the friend in the tenure-track position. Now, the position definitely helps — but I thought about other issues of presentation and she consistently wears nice knit blazers even when not teaching (since I stopped teaching I’ve defaulted to yoga skirts) and she has nicely shaped eyebrows!

          I asked my husband to do some data collection via observation. He is non-academic. Women who wear not-too-tight blazers and have shaped eyebrows (not overboard, but visibly groomed) look on average more professional, more corporate, or more “grown-up.” Women who wear blazers but don’t have shaped eyebrows (like me) look, at best, academic. And we all know academics don’t all look like grown-ups (\cite{Allen K}). Correlation? Causation? Try the experiment yourself. Discard outliers who have removed most of the eyebrow entirely.

          “Shopping is hard!” brought it up in her letter and she’s right about what people on the internet think and what we should do about it 🙂


  6. seinkonnen1
    July 28, 2013 at 3:19 am

    What do you think of the Anglo-Irish Recordings – – was the type of behavior and thinking revealed by these execs going on in the US, too?


    Le 27 juil. 2013 16:24, mathbabe a crit :

    > >


  7. Darren
    July 28, 2013 at 8:07 am

    I think “SIH!LDM” is a meme reference; rather, it’s an inverted meme. You may remember some years back there was a Barbie doll that would say some random phrases. I’m not sure if the doll actually said, “Math is hard! Let’s go shopping!” but folks started using “______ is hard! Let’s go shopping!” as a meme.


  8. Irene S
    July 29, 2013 at 5:36 am

    I’m a statistician in a hospital – so need to look as much like one of the senioir medics as possible to be taken seriously so wear a jacket wit smart skirts or trousers or sometimes a dress – in fact have now got 4 dresses, all plain, and matching jewelry… never thought I would end up like this but at BMJ Christmas party was asked what I did – “Statistician” “Oh but you can’t be, they don’t usually dress as well as you” !
    Workinf with small baby – went back to work with 6 week old and we kept her in a filing box under the bench – wrote some abstracts and then took her to ARVO (US eye conference) when she was 6 months old. She must have absorbed some of it as now studying to be an engineer and her top marks are in maths….


    • kt
      July 29, 2013 at 12:38 pm

      That’s the woman in math/stats catch-22 — dress too nicely and people will think you are the secretary 😛

      I like the filing box anecdote & will keep it in mind.


  9. Dan L
    July 31, 2013 at 11:02 am

    BABY: Are you going to be on leave? If you are off the “clock” then there’s certainly no harm in trying, but I wouldn’t expect much. Are there people who can do research while taking care of a baby? Yeah, there are always a few outliers, but for most ordinary humans it is impossible. You should absolutely not *depend* on your ability to get research done during that time. You probably think that having a baby is going to be hard, but it’s harder than you think. On the bright side, it’s also pretty awesome, so congratulations!

    SIHLDM: I think that many readers of this blog either have PhDs or are in the process of getting them, and for this crowd, there is nothing weird at all about a 25yo being mistaken for a student. Did you mean undergraduate student?


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