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Aunt Pythia’s advice

September 20, 2014

It was a long week! Very emotional!

And to top it all off, last night Aunt Pythia and her sweetie and some besties went to see – what else? – Ivo Van Hove’s adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage. Aunt Pythia’s review of this deeply felt, Swedish introspection and investigation into the darkest corners of marital communication, and lack thereof, can be summarized in three words:

more sex, please.

Sadly, that may be the exact review you will give Aunt Pythia’s column today, although keep in mind she’s done her best to foster sex-related questions, and moreover she generously doles out sex-related advice, even when it isn’t called for.

So please have pity on her, and of course don’t forget to:

please think of something (sexual) to ask Aunt Pythia at the bottom of the page!

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


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m applying to some math PhD programs this fall. Some of the applications ask me to specify faculty members at that university whom I would like to work with, and I’ve also been given the general advice to reach out to professors at various schools in order to get my name out there and increase my chances of admission. I have a couple of questions about this:

1) I feel like professors must be inundated with these emails from applicants, and that this would be a really annoying aspect of being a professor. How can I be minimally annoying?

2) I feel like professors must know that students (including myself) are angling for admission offers and not necessarily driven by the pure motive of academic interest. I’m not suggesting that I would lie to or try to manipulate someone whose work I wasn’t interested in, but the truth is I have never before gone around contacting mathematicians who have published interesting papers, so it feels disingenuous to do so only now that I hope to gain something. Is there any way to do this without feeling dishonest? Also, should I be explicit about my intention to name-drop them on the application, or should I pretend my motives are less self-serving?

3) Although I have some general ideas about areas of math that interest me (e.g. Representation Theory), I don’t have a really specific idea about the kind of research or thesis I will do– and because I’m just starting out, I don’t have the background to understand the papers and research on these professors’ CV’s. Should I just contact people in Algebra or whatever field I’m thinking about, or do I need to decide that “I want to contribute to your research on specific esoteric topic X” or whatever?

Although I think I have a reasonably solid application in terms of GPA, test scores, and letters of recommendation, I have essentially no research background or professional networking. So I really would like to do whatever I can to bolster my chances of getting into a program. Any advice you can give would be much appreciated. Even if that advice is simply to forget about sending annoying requests to strangers and just apply with what I have.

Getting Responses About Doctorate

Dear GRAD,

Here’s the thing, people like to take students. So if you express interest in working with them, they will like it, while they will of course also know it’s partly because you want to get into grad school, but that’s okay and normal. Of course there are some people that already have too many students, or actually don’t like taking students, so if you are ignored don’t take it personally. But in general it’s a flattering introduction, and people like to be flattered.

Plus, at the end of the day math is a community of people, and the sooner you start getting to know the people the better. So I’d suggest you really do reach out to people and take a look around at their papers and do your best to understand the gist of them. Ideally you would be able to meet them in person, say at a visit to the department or something, but barring that introducing yourself over email is fine, as long as it’s not a form letter.

Tell them about what you’ve read of their work, what interests you, and mention that you’re graduating now and applying to grad schools. Not offensive. And good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m currently a math postdoc planning to transition to data science/something similar. The decision to leave academia hasn’t been easy, and one thing making it hard is that I really enjoy teaching. I particularly like teaching probability/stats/data analysis and I think the data journalism program you’re running is really cool! I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on (i) is it possible to stay involved in education in some form as a non-academic mathematician and (ii) if so, what to do to create these opportunities? I don’t plan to spend time on this early in my industry career as I need to establish myself professionally, but I hope to have opportunities to share what I love with others at some point down the line.

Pursuing A New Direction Actually


The sign-offs are killing it today.

OK so I agree, the worst part about leaving academic math for industry is that you don’t get to teach, and teaching is super fun. I’ve made do with going to math camp every now and then to get a dose of teaching, and more recently I worked at the Lede Program in data journalism, which allowed me to teach as well.

Suggestion: tutoring? Taking a few weeks to work at summer programs? Signing up to teach night classes? Becoming an adjunct at a local university and teaching whatever? All these things are possible.

There are also quite a few data science training programs springing up around the country that you might be able to work at, so take a look at that as well. Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Aunt Pythia starts this recent column by saying “Aunt Pythia kind of blew her load, so to speak, on the sex questions last week”.

But on MY PC, there is no update between 9th and 30th August, so my question is “Where is the 23rd August sexfest?”

Seeks Titillating Internet Material

Dear STIM,

Here it is. I got there by going to the mathbabe.org front page and searching for “Aunt Pythia sex”. It’s really not that difficult, but I can understand why you might have been distracted. Plus, thank you for letting me link to that, it’s saving an otherwise sexless column.


Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I am a particle physics grad student who knows embarrassingly little about statistical analysis. For me, a significance of 5 sigma means a discovery, and 3 sigma stuff is ‘interesting’ (but almost always goes away with more data).

A while ago, I came upon this article. I am sure you heard/read about it. It basically says elite male-run labs hire female postdocs at 36%, while elite female-run labs hire female postdocs at 47% while the female postdocs are 39% of the pool. This is presented as “Male PIs don’t usually hire female postdocs”.

I was very confused when I read this, because to me male PIs were hiring at a level close to the average number of female postdocs available. As you can imagine, the female-run lab number is higher because there are ~20% female PIs in their data. So, that skews the numbers. They also give some significance (p-value) for their results, but how robust is the p-value? Or, what is the significant result here? Please give me a lecture on this!

Significance Is Greatly Mind Abusing


Physicists are kind of spoiled for data. They often just collect way more data than other people can, and their experiments don’t typically affect the results nearly as much, nor are they as messy, as you see in human experiments.

Anyway, a few points.

  1. I don’t understand your argument for why the female numbers are naturally skewed, unless you’re saying that there are so few data points that the averages tend to be far away from the expected average, which is true, but it could have just as well been below average, at least theoretically. Correct me if I’m mistaken.
  2. Not knowing more about this field, I don’t know the answer to a bunch of important questions I would ask. For example, do some fields expect you to work very long hours which would be tough for young mothers? Or are some fields for other reasons more friendly to women, for example if the hours were flexible, or if the wages were more transparent, or if the leaders of the field were more welcoming? All sorts of reasons that women might bunch together in certain fields and thus in certain labs.
  3. Most importantly, this paper seems to think there’s a natural experiment going on, but there almost never is. There are almost always confounding factors such as the above.
  4. So, if we really wanted to say men are less willing to hire women, we’d need to set up a randomized experiment and send a bunch of resumes that differ only in the gender of the applicant, and see what happens next.
  5. Having said all that, I didn’t actually read the paper, so I might be overly skeptical of the results. I have pancakes to make pretty quick so there’s a constraint in place here.
  6. In any case every time a randomized experiment has been performed, to my knowledge, there has been systemic sexism in place. So I wouldn’t be surprised if there is actual sexism at work here, even if I’m not convinced this is proof of it.
  7. Finally, you should take a look at t-tests, which you probably already know about, but here’s the reason: you can never get a 5-sigma results when your n is small. In other words, your test result, no matter what you do, is a function both of the amount of sexism that exists in a given lab and the number of labs you are evaluating, and you can’t do much about the latter even if the former is substantial.

I hope that helps!

Aunt Pythia


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

Categories: Aunt Pythia
  1. Min
    September 20, 2014 at 10:13 am

    @ GRAD

    If you think that you might possibly like to be someone’s student, there is nothing wrong with starting the process via email. I now have a collegial relationship with someone to whom I sent a short note with a comment on a lecture he gave. I also had a rewarding email exchange with someone who had written about the Unexpected Hanging, which I started by sending him some thoughts about a game theory approach. In neither case was I looking to study under them in grad school, but if I had been, I think that they would have welcomed that.

    Good luck!


  2. EJD
    September 21, 2014 at 11:58 am

    In re PANDA,

    Take hope, there are a lot of classes and not enough teachers or TAs.
    Several of our senior engineers teach undergrad classes on a moonlighting basis just to keep their hand in and their brains fresh.
    The universities and colleges like the cross-pollination with industry, and the students get some insight with the eternal question, “What do I do with this?”.


  3. Min
    September 22, 2014 at 11:03 am

    Just something that caught my eye. I thought that people here might enjoy it. 🙂



  4. September 24, 2014 at 4:30 am

    I think SIGMA meant that in a lab with a female PI, if there are 5 people, then at least 20% of them are women, so the numbers are artificially high. But earlier, it says the study is talking just about postdocs, so I don’t think that’s a correct assertion. (I didn’t read the study.)


  5. mr mcknuckles
    September 25, 2014 at 12:14 pm

    Perhaps you should only answer questions from grad students/PhD candidates/nerds etc, if they tack on a sex question at the end.

    Come on people, up your game!

    Ok, I’ll play along – “If you were to offer men one piece of sex advice (beyond the obvious good ones like talk, listen and be open) what would it be”. The more obscure, the better!


  6. PANDA
    September 25, 2014 at 8:23 pm

    @EJD – thanks for your thoughts!


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