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Tia Pythia’s advice

March 22, 2014

Aunt Pythia is coming to you from Costa Rica, where she’s been on vacation all week and is officially 100% sunburnt, relaxed, and happy, except for the occasional digestive issue.

To commemorate the occasion and location she’s temporarily changed her name to “Tia Pythia”, but don’t worry, you can expect consistent obnoxious and over-the-top advice coming from her. She hasn’t lost her edge, even in 95 degree heat!

After you enjoy her column (and the copious fruity drinks!) today please don’t forget to:

think of something to ask Tia Pythia at the bottom of the page!

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


Dear Tia Pythia,

I am a graduate student still early in my career, at a university that I am quite happy with (people, subject areas good; geography tolerable for 5 years). However, my (would-be, as-of-yet-unofficial) adviser is moving to a more prestigious, if less outwardly friendly, math department (the way it was described to me is, my current institution is solidly “tier n” while they are considering moving to a “tier n-1” school). They have offered to bring me with them, but I am nervous about a)whether I could cut it at a more competitive place and b)even if I could, whether 3-4 years of relative misery is worth a “more prestigious” degree.

I’m very excited about the research that my adviser is doing and the field in general, and the prospect of more favorable geography along with a higher “payoff” (in terms of where my degree is from) is attractive, but I’m still seeking sage advice in case I haven’t thought of it in a certain way.

Also, a more direct question: could you have done everything you’ve done since getting your phd if it hadn’t been from Harvard, but from some middle-of-the-road school?

With love,

Future Anxiety Revealed, Troubling Situation


Nice sign-off, and it kind of makes up for a super long letter.

As I’ve written about recently, not all graduate school experiences are the same. Even so, Harvard wasn’t known as the most friendly department and I made it work for me, partly because of the location and the fact that I could make friends outside math. It helped that I grew up in the area and knew people like Nancy from Fair Foods and crucial information like where the best yarn stores were.

I’d suggest visiting the place and seeing if it can work. And importantly, try to make it work. Having an exciting advisor you trust is crucial to the graduate school experience, so I would definitely do my best if I were you to stick with him or her.

In terms of prestige, I definitely think it helps me personally, but I’m never sure how much of that is because I’m a woman – it definitely still seems true that you have to be top-notch to impress people if you’re female whereas men often get the benefit of the doubt.

Also it depends on whether you’re talking to someone inside math or outside math, because outsiders don’t have a definite sense of ranking and also don’t usually care too much. So it also depends on what you want to do with your life after school.

Good luck!

Tia Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’ve never had a girlfriend. I’ve worked for a long time (years) to get one. It hasn’t been a complete waste of time from a social skills and self-improvement point of view, but I haven’t gotten anywhere, and the lack of success has taken its toll.

Logically, I tell myself that it has no bearing on my worth as a human being (compare Isaac Newton and Charlie Sheen for example), that I should enjoy being young and single, and I don’t get as depressed about it as I once did, but we all know that logic isn’t everything. And to clarify, I know I don’t need or am entitled to a girlfriend (I know a lot of guys in my situation do), and my life is satisfying – or getting there – on my own.

I fear that when I’m older, I’ll look back on these years-my most sexually fertile, as well as my most “fun” ones, and see barrenness, when others see great memories with lovers. And I’ll be constantly reminded that they do. I just feel so… tired, or deadened sometimes when thinking about it. What can I do about this?

Draußen vor der Tür

Dear Draußen,

Pardon me for cutting about 85% of your letter, it was just too long. I’m in a short question – short answer kind of mood this morning. Something about the last day of a vacation. And I didn’t cut out the part about Charlie Sheen, because honestly I don’t get it and I’m wondering if readers do and could comment on a possible interpretation.

Look, I have sympathy for your situation. As a guy in physics (part of what I cut), I’m sure you spend most of your time around other guys. It must be tough to meet nice women.

But at the same time, I guess I’m wondering what it is you’ve been doing to try to meet women, and importantly how you’ve talked to them when you’ve met them. From the 85% of your letter that I cut, I can tell you spend a lot of time thinking about yourself and what you should do with your life.

But to be honest, unless someone is already your friend, they probably don’t care about that stuff. At all. If I meet someone who starts talking about that stuff, I find a quick reason to depart.

You need to make sure you have opinions about other things besides yourself. Like, do you read the paper? What do you think about Ukraine? Or the new SAT? Make sure you are not too self-involved and that you have truly interesting opinions and things to say before you meet women. Even better: have ideals. Have plans to fix problems. That’s interesting! That’s possibly even sexy!

Another idea: try reading How Not to Be a Dick: An Everyday Etiquette Guide (hat tip Becky Jaffe). And I’m not saying that because I think you’re a dick (although I’m also not saying you aren’t a dick!) but because it has lots of great points about communication and making sure you’re coming across well. I know I learned something reading it!

One last thing: it doesn’t have to be work. Find something you like doing that lots of women also like doing, and go enjoy yourself. Joy is extremely catchy. Worst case you make some new friends.

Good luck,

Tia Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

What do nerdy women talk about at lunch?

I’m a woman who recently started working in an office after a few years of working at home. It’s an educational technology company, and I’m in the unique and fortunate position of being both an educator and a software tester in training.

Most days when I go to the communal kitchen to heat my lunch, many of the women from the education team are engaging in loud discussions about their kids. I’ve started noticing that most of the men educators and people from other departments bury themselves in a book or take their food back to their desks. As a non-parent, I’m sometimes curious about life on the other side, but there’s such a thing as too much information. Today after yet another round of hearing about children’s eating habits, sleep habits, etc, I took my plate and headed for the tech zone for more stimulating conversation.

Any suggestions on things I can ask my coworkers with kids to steer the topic in another direction? I would like to get to know them better and pick their brains on their career paths and aspirations. Or am I better off spending more time with the mostly male tech geeks and absorbing their lingo?

Lunch Uncomfortable Need Conversation Help


First, congrats on the new job, it sounds cool.

Second, to be honest I have never encountered this problem personally because I’m such a freaking loudmouth. I pretty much just barge into conversations and change the topic if I’m bored. I often even tell people they’re really boring and need to spice up their conversation, preferably with sex. Nobody ever seems to complain that they want to talk more about their sleeping or non-sleeping kids. Not sure they like me, but whatevs.

I mean, I don’t literally interrupt the conversation, because I’m not totally rude. But I’ll wait for a good moment and just jump in with something off-topic like the new SAT or Putin or whether House of Cards is too cynical or not cynical enough.

My advice: come prepared with a short list of 4 non-parenting but general topics and see how they fly. I’m guessing they are themselves just bored and talking about that stuff out of habit and will welcome new blood.

Also, engage the men as well, especially if you go with sex.

Good luck!

Tia Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

An acquaintance has started sending emails urging his “friends” to call upon their political leaders to oppose immigration reform. The first time, I assumed his message was spam and deleted it. I replied to the second message saying that I thought his account had been hacked. He replied that he had indeed sent it, explaining his position. After another message, which he forgot to BCC, one of the recipients replied with a well-reasoned rebuttal. The spammer’s response was to remove that person from his contact list.

Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I was initially confused because:
1. I met this person through an organization that celebrates cultural diversity.
2. His wife and stepson are immigrants.

His reasons for opposing immigration reform:
1. He was forced into early retirement because his employer went out of business.
2. Big business is profiting off cheap illegal labor, taking better paying jobs from Americans.
3. “Those people” are migrating northward, taking over, etc. (His wife is from a country bordering Europe, and the immigrants he opposes come from other places.)

So, the question is, should I ignore the emails, ask him to stop, or attempt to find common ground? I would generally ignore such spam, but I consider his wife a good friend. What kinds of holes can I point out in his argument, like the many forms of corporate greed?

Stop Propagating Antagonizing Messages

Dear SPAM,

Awesome sign-off. Both topical and sensical. Seriously, you should hold a master class in these motherfuckers.

In terms of your quandary, I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d ask him politely to take you off the email list, and I’d never discuss it again with him. I’d continue to be friends with his wife.

Here’s why. He’s gotten it into his head that he lost his job for an abstract political reason. In doing so, he’s made it incredibly personal, and no amount of factual evidence is going to change his stance. You are not going to change it either.

Maybe at some point something will change it, but it will be emotional and deeply personal to him, not something you can effect.

Better yet, just build a filter to send his emails to trash and never think about it again.

Tia Pythia


Dear Tia Pythia,

From your remark of blowing off steam at a conference I remembered this article. Have you read it? It’s very informative and fun.

If conferences like JMM were to have bowls of condoms at the end of the tables where you pick up your badge do you think people would get the idea and pocket a hand full, then use them?

Open Relationships Rock

Dear ORR,

Wait, what article? That’s super unfair.

Tia Pythia


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

Categories: Aunt Pythia
  1. March 22, 2014 at 1:21 pm

    Charlie Sheen has had girlfriends, whereas Isaac Newton thanked God on his deathbed that he had died a virgin. (Newton’s deathbed, that is.) But your abbreviated writer would prefer to be Newton.

    Possibly ORR was referring to an article about the Olympics, like this one. Ah, to be a world record holder again…


  2. Kevin
    March 22, 2014 at 3:00 pm

    “something you like doing that lots of women also like doing”

    Looks like a Jeopardy answer. What are… novel definitions of the empty set?


    • March 22, 2014 at 9:36 pm

      You need to expand your interests son.


    • ionf
      March 22, 2014 at 9:54 pm

      Take up sailing. There’s a lot of physics you could think about if you choose to, and chick’s


      • ionf
        March 22, 2014 at 9:54 pm

        like lying on deck.


    • Wogglebug
      March 26, 2014 at 9:01 pm

      You could take up knitting, or join a book club. And if your immediate response is a spiel about how you aren’t into knitting, or it’s too unmanly … how much do you want a girlfriend, again?

      Knitting in particular tends to attract geek girls with analytical minds.

      The Society for Creative Anachronism also tends to attract a high proportion of programmers and other STEM types, so you could try that.


  1. April 19, 2014 at 7:43 am
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