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Aunt Pythia’s advice

September 28, 2013

Thanks guys, Aunt Pythia has been feeling some love this week, ever since I threatened to murder her. Nothing like a damsel in distress to get the ethical-dilemma juices flowing. Please keep the questions coming though, we don’t want her continually scared and exhausted, that’s no way to live.

In other words, enjoy today’s advice, but please: 

Don’t forget to ask a question at the bottom!!

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,

My partner needs to find a new job. I believe she needs to (at least partially) reinvent herself, although she’s not very adventurous.

You’ve reinvented yourself a few times, you probably know a great deal about what works in this process. I remember you once posted about creating a spreadsheet and recording what you like, what you don’t etc until you found your dream job.

I’m looking for this type of exercises that would challenge her to find a job she loves as opposed to the job she can easily land. Any other insights from your remodeling thought process? Any other resources/reference you would recommend?

Abelian Grape

Dear Abelian,

I don’t believe much in astrology, but I can dig the next closest thing, which is personality tests. I recently looked in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and discovered that I’m a so-called “ENTP”, which is to say extroverted (duh), intuitive, thinking, and perceptive. Who knows why, a test told me[1]. That means I’m:

Quick, ingenious, stimulating, alert, and outspoken. Resourceful in solving new and challenging problems. Adept at generating conceptual possibilities and then analyzing them strategically. Good at reading other people. Bored by routine, will seldom do the same thing the same way, apt to turn to one new interest after another.

Why do I mention this? First of all because everyone loves talking about personality tests – trust me – and second of all because it’s in my nature to reinvent myself. I don’t do it because I’m theoretically excited by reinvention, but because I’m bored and compelled to start something new.

So, two conclusions. First, your partner might just not be like that. Second, she might be like that in special circumstances, but in that case she’d need to get to the point of frustration and boredom that she’s the one writing to Aunt Pythia for advice on self-reinvention rather than you. Once that happens I will indeed point her to my tools of reinvention.

My advice is to be supportive of her but not to push her into “reinvention” if that’s not how she rolls. It just won’t work and it will feel to her like another thing she’s failing at. Wait for her, and if you’re not the kind of person that is patient, then that’s a problem in itself and I’ll expect to hear back from you, although given how impatient I am, the advice won’t be hopeful.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia

1. Actually, one test told me that, then another one said “ENFJ”, but “ENTP” helps me make my point better.


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I hope you’re feeling better. 

This is, I admit, a rather lame question, as I am sure I could’ve answered it myself when I was a student. But now I’m old and hence stupid.

I’ll phrase it as a “sock drawer” question. Suppose my drawer contained 44 black socks and 116 white ones, and I draw them out blindly in pairs. What are the chances of getting exactly 10 black pairs?

More generally, if I have b black and w white socks, what is the probability of getting exactly p pairs of black ones?

Thanks Pythia-babe!

Socks Maniac

Dear Socks,

Are the socks already rolled into pairs? Not clear from your question, but I’ll assume so. Otherwise the question is harder, so please do re-submit if I got it wrong. Also, are you blindly taking out exactly 10 pairs and looking to see if they’re all black? I’ll assume that too since you didn’t specify.

Assuming the above, we’re starting with 22 black pairs and 58 white pairs in a drawer, and we take out 10 pairs, and we’re wondering what the chances are that they’re all black. We just need to count the total ways they could be all black and then divide by the total ways we could have done the extraction.

Start with the “all black” count: there are 22 ways we could choose the first black pair, then 21 ways to choose the second black pair, etc., so we get 22*21* … *13 ways altogether to get 10 black pairs.

Next, count the “anything goes” possibilities: we have 22+58=80 pairs of socks altogether, which means we have 80 ways to choose the first pair, then 79 ways to choose the second pair, etc., giving us 80*79*78*…*71 ways to get all ten pairs. Some of them will be all black, but not many.

In fact if you take that ratio – google “22*21*20*19*18*17*16*15*14*13/(80*79*78*77*76*75*74*73*72*71)” – you will see that the answer is very small indeed: 4e-7. You know it’s small if you need scientific notation.

Auntie P


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’ve spent the last year and a half working as, effectively, project manager to get a fairly cool academic mobile app out the door. We’ve applied for a grant to renew the project, but if the grant fails, I’ll be asked to leave $reallyNiceCountry again. 

How do I manage the sense of powerlessness that stems from being a 30-year-old freshly minted Ph.D. either about to be deported again or offered a job that allows me a sufficient contract window to become a permanent resident?

A sense of loyalty (and major deadlines) mean that I don’t feel right trying to apply for other jobs in case the grant is passed.

Exhausted Academic

Dear Exhausted,

I’m glad you wrote. I really object to your sense of loyalty, and I see this all too often among freshly minted foreign-born Ph.D.’s.

Face it, you are a specialist in a bizarre system (the intersection of the academic system and the U.S. visa system) with ridiculously arbitrary and last-minute changes of plan. There is absolutely no reason for you not to develop other plans while you are waiting around for the grant to come through or not. In fact you’re a fool for not applying for other jobs, straight up. Deadlines are a short-term distraction from making your life in a country where you want to live. Your life plan is your priority, not someone else’s app deadline.

Here’s my advice, to you and to anyone else in a related situation. No wonder you’re feeling helpless, it’s because you’re acting passively and helplessly. Nobody is going to think strategically about your future except you. Never let this happen again, and get thee on the job market immediately. People with your education level and mad skillz will get great jobs if they go and look. But you gotta go and look. And if you need to learn other stuff to get a good job, then go learn that stuff. But don’t act like the stupid NSF is the voice of God.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Why is it that the students for whom you’ve made the most opportunity, and invested the most in, are the ones that ultimately screw you?

Pissed Off Professor

Dear POP,

Without more details, I’m going to have to use my imagination here.

I can understand what you might mean by making opportunities for your students – you help them with their work, you write them letters, you make calls and introductions on their behalf to help them land jobs. Granted, it can be a lot of work and you are staking your reputation on their work ethic and smarts. On the other hand, it is your job, and you get paid for it, and your reputation also grows with theirs.

But I’m getting a bit lost with the them-screwing-you part. If they simply aren’t very good at the jobs you help them get, then I don’t think that can be considered screwing you. It’s hard for me to imagine exactly what that could mean beyond that. Is the student spreading nasty rumors about your work? Are there internal politics in your field and your student isn’t in your camp? Has the student stolen your ideas?

Or is it something totally normal, like the student doesn’t express sufficient gratitude for your help? In this case I’d say, welcome to young people. Being an advisor is a lot like being a parent, and in this society we don’t get lots of gratitude as parents. Move to China if you want that stuff.

Or maybe I missed it altogether, which is why you’d need to say more when you write back.

Aunt Pytha


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

Categories: Aunt Pythia
  1. DJ
    September 28, 2013 at 8:24 am

    Sadly, maybe POP is pissed because his student got arrested for murder? 😦


    • September 28, 2013 at 9:59 am

      Am I missing something?


      • DJ
        September 28, 2013 at 10:12 am

        It’s not letting me post links for some reason. Anyway, search for “Yongfei Ci”


  2. michaelkleber
    September 28, 2013 at 12:27 pm

    I think Socks Maniac’s drawer contains lots of individual socks which get paired up blindfolded. That gives you X all-black pairs, Y all-white pairs, and Z mixed black-white ones, and the question is the probability that X is exactly 10.

    This can also be answered by counting, but it’s a little uglier. There are 160-choose-44 orders in which you can pull the socks out of the drawer, of course. To count the number of ways to get exactly X/Y/Z black/white/mixed pairs, you can think of lining up 80 slots and picking X of them to get two black socks, Y of the remaining 80-X to get two white ones — and then for the remaining Z slots you need to pick whether a black or a white sock was pulled out first, so that’s another 2^Z choices to worry about. So 80-choose-X * (80-X)-choose-Y * 2^Z.

    Since Sock Maniac told us X=10, that accounts for 20 of the 44 black socks, leaving 24 black socks paired with 24 white ones (so Z=24), and the other 92 white socks paired up into Y=46 all-white pairs. So the number of ways to get exactly 10 all-black pairs is (80 choose 10) * (70 choose 46) * 2^24. Dividing by the 160-choose-44 to pull socks out of the drawer in the first place, and Wolfram Alpha says you get around 0.01854, or a little under a 2% chance.

    Hmm, I see I can’t post links, or even mention the Wolfram Alpha web site by name, without sounding like spam. But anyway, it will happily evaluate

    ((80 choose 10) * (70 choose 46) * 2^24) / (160 choose 44)


  3. Journey Is the Goal
    September 28, 2013 at 12:48 pm

    But Aunt Pythia, my dilemma did not make this Saturday list. Did I falter in my supplication. Oh worry not, for I will pray to Liam Neeson. I did however find your first advice on reinventing oneself much useful to read through. I would say I feel the same about my partner, and I think this is partly an outcome of one person investing more energy in the process than the other. And this can lead to the other person feeling pushed to reinvent rather than having it come to them naturally. Now it may just be the perception, because one cannot get quantitative about the amount of energy being invested. For all you know the other person is probably investing much more energy than you are. You said, you’d rather have that person write to your advice column than AG. But that person may in fact be writing to one of the other Oracles at Delphi (a meta-oracle question – can the Oracle tell if other priestesses are being sought). However if there are no perceptible outcomes then that begs the question what exactly is the other person trying to do to reinvent themselves.

    My own worry is I may have convinced myself that my partner is much less desperate for herself than I am. And so each time, I give her a direction to discover herself, I start expecting an outcome and when that does not happen, it becomes much more difficult to invest any more energy. I cannot stop myself from doing the things I do, but at the same time I cannot keep lowering expectations for her.

    I guess my question is what is the right balance of saying you are awesome, but let that not make you complacent, you need to do this so we can get here. And how to do this without getting very attached to the outcome.


    • September 28, 2013 at 12:50 pm

      Aunt Pythia hasn’t replied to all the questions on her glamorous spreadsheet. Or so she tells me.


  4. Lucy
    September 29, 2013 at 4:27 am

    I’m so jealous of your Myers-Briggs type! I’m an INFP, or maybe an INTP (which is a bit better). When I read my description, the words translate in my head as ‘useless, useless, more useless, …’ which explains some things. I think I’d find the advice for reinvention really helpful if I could work up the nerve to add more contacts on my LinkedIn profile and apply for jobs I’m not completely confident about.


  5. Emmett
    September 29, 2013 at 2:32 pm

    Before getting too excited about Meyers-Briggs.
    I can generate two distinct sets of results, depending on whether I take it at work or at home.
    From this I conclude my work game-face is thoroughgoing.
    Second, none of us is or should be, exactly the same person at work and at home.
    Much like actors are not the same on and off stage.


  1. October 19, 2013 at 9:25 am
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