Home > Uncategorized > Aunt Pythia’s advice

Aunt Pythia’s advice

January 24, 2015

Time passes quickly, my friends. It seems like only yesterday that Aunt Pythia was answering really long questions, and today her questions seem to be extra short. Last week it was cold outside – freezing! – but this week it is warm and snowy (but not for long!). Last week she was knitting a cowl, this week a colorful scarf. Crazy changes, in other words.

Indeed the only thing that hasn’t changed is an absolute willingness, on the part of Aunt Pythia, to offer up irrelevant and terrible advice to you earnest people. Many apologies, you definitely deserve better, but this is just something Aunt Pythia was born with, there’s nothing for it.

My suggestion for you is to just turn away and stop reading. I mean, how many obscene images must one be subjected to??

This is a liqueur filled sperm-shaped bottle. I know it really exists because I bought one in San Antonio last week, no shit. I haven't opened it yet.

This is a liqueur filled sperm-shaped bottle. I know it really exists because I bought one at a liquor store in San Antonio a couple of weeks ago, no shit. No, I haven’t opened it yet.

Wait, you’re still here? Really? Well, in that case, come on in, enjoy the warmth, get under a hand-knitted blanket, and don’t forget to:

ask Aunt Pythia a question 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 AP,

is it worth saving, or should we just burn it all down and start again?

Sick of Bull Systems

Dear Sick,

I’m going to assume you’re talking about the financial system. I’m tempted to say “burn it” but there would actually be severe short-term problems caused by there being no financial system. Moreover, it isn’t clear that a new one would be built better than the existing one. I know that sounds disappointingly unrevolutionary, but there it is.

If you are feeling desperate, may I suggest ignoring it and starting a new one. If I had time I would be more active in the public bank movement in this country, which seems like a better alternative to ours and can exist in parallel.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Have you seen the Celtic Oracle designs? I made a deck but would like additional divination material.

Oracular Designs

Dear Oracular,

Nice! And flattering to oracles such as myself! Can I make a wee request? More naked people, especially men? Thanks.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I would like to start watching Dr. Who but I’m intimidated by 50+ years of shows. How do you get started?

Dr. Who Ignoramus

Dear DWI,

Common problem, I sympathize. The truth is, it doesn’t matter much. Let me give you a cheat sheet which should be more than adequate:

  1. Dr. Who is always a man who talks fast and is incredible smug, although usually in a lovable way.
  2. He sometimes has a dog named K-9 with him. If he does, you’re watching an earlier show.
  3. He almost always has a “companion” with him, who is almost always female, mostly young, and sometimes a love interest, although not in earlier shows.
  4. Sometimes his companion has other companions, who are often there as comedic relief.

That’s about it! Oh, and they travel through time solving problems on earth and on alien planets. So there, now you have no excuse not to watch.

Aunt Pythia


Hello Aunt Pythia,

Not a question, but a thank you for your answer to my previous question. It was helpful, and you are right! College towns are still towns, and as such the occupants must take the usual precautions when going out. I knew this, from personal experience walking home many a late night during grad school. But somehow the father in me did not want to admit it.

After I first wrote, a talk with my daughter segued into a talk about college, academics, academic pressure, and campus safety, and I was once again surprised by how grown up my daughter is. She and her friends are well aware of the risks, and do watch out for each other. And now that she has been accepted at Cornell (we found out last night), we’ll no doubt have these talks again, at which time I will mention Aunt Pythia’s advice.

Thank you once again,

Worried In Academia

Dear Worried,

Wow, wonderful! I almost never know if my advice actually helps, so this is amazing feedback, thank you for giving it to me!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m in my first year in a Phd program in math. I’ve always been academically successful, especially in math, and this semester is no exception. Although I know it will be difficult and take a lot of hard work, I’m moderately confident that I have the ability to get through my qualifying exams. After all, my aptitude for high stakes testing is what’s gotten me this far.

It’s what comes next that concerns me. Specifically, I’m not at all confident that I have what it takes to actually do research in math. I generally have a good memory (especially in the short term); I’m good at reproducing proofs I’ve seen before and at applying techniques in ways I’m familiar with, but I worry that I’m not an especially creative thinker and also that I coast by via collaborating with others. (I realize that the second concern can be irrational, at least from a coursework perspective, since I do comparably well on exams as on homework, but it’s still in the back of my head.)

(It’s probably also be pertinent to mention that I’m male, and haven’t ever felt invalidated either institutionally or on an individual level with respect to my ability–these concerns are entirely my own.)

I’ve had only two research experiences up until this point. The first I don’t put much weight on, since it was in another field that I quickly realized I was not that interested in (which contributed to my decision a few years ago to focus more on math). The second was a project I worked on with a faculty advisor throughout my last year and a half of undergrad. It was in an area that I was interested in and my advisor was great. However, I often would become consumed with anxiety and overwhelmed to the point that I was unable to get anything done.

Part of it was adjusting to working independently and in an unstructured environment, but even when I was given a list of moderately specific things to do it didn’t necessarily help. Despite having plenty of time available to devote to the project, I would put off working persistently, often getting to the point where I would stay up later and later the hour before my next meeting, becoming more and more panicked but for some reason still incapable of working. By the time I’d snap out of it, it would be so late that I would be too exhausted to really do my best work, and it definitely showed. It was stressful for me, frustrating for my advisor, and (clearly) not really productive mathematically. And yet I couldn’t bring myself to change, week after week!

I felt especially bad for being a disappointment for someone who has done a lot for me and who inspired me to seriously pursue math in the first place. Especially, since to anyone not in my head this all came across as purely poor work habits/laziness–my advisor told me shortly before graduation that I have everything it takes to succeed in grad school, as long as I work hard enough, which was simultaneously affirming and distressing. Part of me also thinks that this was all just garden variety laziness and that if I just had worked harder and focused better it wouldn’t have been an issue.

So I guess my question is, where do I go from here? What can I do to keep this from happening in the future? Do I really have a problem, or is it just a combination of laziness and lack of self-confidence?

Uneasy New Scholar, Upbraiding or Reassurance Essential


First off, amazing sign off. Much appreciated.

Next, thank you so much for asking this question. And, given that you are a highly successful and encouraged male, the issue is nicely isolated: how does doing well on highly structured undergrad work and standardized tests relate to being a good researcher?

The answer is unclear, actually, in general. I mean, I don’t want to panic you, because I actually think math research is a skill you can pick up if you are smart and work hard, but on the other hand, it might not be that easy, especially for you.

Let me put it this way. Theoretically, we want to attract to math research a bunch of people who:

  1. love math,
  2. work hard and don’t mind being wrong and can live with not knowing whether they are, and
  3. are “good at math”, where I’m going to ignore what exactly that means, partly because I don’t want to get drawn into the genius myth discussion and partly because I actually think the first two qualifications are dominant.

But here’s the thing. Instead, we attract to math research, via our post-college applications selection method, people who:

  1. may love math but may just have been told they’re “good at math” and may not know the difference,
  2. know how to master a well-defined skill where they get continuous feedback from tests and other people that they are making progress, and
  3. are probably plenty “good at math.”

So you see, there is likely a mismatch between the first two points.

I’m going to hope, for your sake, that you love math. Because you’ll need it, believe me.

Assuming you do, then you’ll need to spend time on #2, which means you (ironically) need to stop caring about outside measures of progress so you can lose yourself in your work and make progress. Get it? It’s confusing when you first encounter it, and unintuitive, and it might be extra hard for someone who is addicted to external evaluations and encouragement, which honestly it sounds like you are to some extent. Just as an example, you don’t owe your advisor anything except your gratitude. You are doing math for yourself from here on in.

The good news is, it often sucks at first, so don’t think you’ve already failed. You just need to develop new skills. It’s kind of like a muscle you didn’t know you had that you need to make super strong.

I suggest trying it out in short bursts. Find yourself a few hours of time, where you are not urgently needed by some classwork or something, and lose yourself in thought around some mathematical object, with no specific need of a milestone. Play with the math, see what you find, and don’t feel like you’ve wasted your time at the end, even if you feel like you have. It was your time to waste, after all.

Anyhoo, that’s the muscle you will need to develop. Once you get good at it, you can lose yourself for days or weeks at a time and then every now and then stumble on actual progress. You can do it! Start small!

At least that’s how it has always worked for me. Other mathematicians, feel free to chime in if you disagree.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Well, you’ve wasted yet another Saturday morning with Aunt Pythia! I hope you’re satisfied! If you could, please ask me a question. And don’t forget to make an amazing sign-off, they make me very very happy.

Click here for a form or just do it now:

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Deane
    January 24, 2015 at 10:30 am

    Regarding the last letter about knowing whether you’re cut out for research or not, my answer is: You don’t know until you’ve tried it. You do have to be willing to try it and keep trying it no matter how many times you fail. And, as Aunt Pythia says, that seems possible only if you love doing math (in the sense of struggling through solving problems and doing proofs) than almost everything else.

    There do seem to be people who know early on that they can do research, but it certainly wasn’t true for me. In fact, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be that good at it, so I always had a Plan B. Even after I got tenure (as the son of a professor, I had seen at an early age too many miserable tenured professors). But now suddenly it’s been over 30 years since I got my Ph.D. and, to my great surprise, I’m still at it.

    I don’t have any illusion about being a great mathematician. I certainly would have liked to have been one (of course, I would liked even more to be a successful rock musician or star athlete), but it turns out it’s enough to just like doing it and feeling the exhilaration when you figure out something new and previously undiscovered.

    And the transition from just learning mathematics and solving problems whose answers are already known to doing research can be surprisingly smooth. My start came from trying to study definitions and proofs I wanted to learn, not understanding any of it, and saying to myself, “There’s got to be an easier way than this!” The other thing is to not focus too hard on a specific question to answer. Allow your goals to evolve as you dig deeper and deeper. The challenge of research is finding a way to adjust both your goals and your tools to meet somewhere.

    It helps a lot if you can find a professor or two and a few like-minded students you can hang out with for hours and hours trying to figure things out. You really don’t want to do this alone.

    Anyway, my advice is to just try it but have a Plan B just in case.


  2. Barry
    January 24, 2015 at 12:19 pm

    Let me also point UNSURE to your excellent advice from a few weeks ago, which is especially important for those “addicted to external evaluations and encouragement”:

    “…being a graduate student in math, whether your advisor is a man or a woman, is a period where you constantly feel like an idiot. Constantly.”

    It’s probably a huge help to know going in that everyone feels this way in grad school. Not everyone admits it, but everyone feels it.


  3. ShyLynx
    January 24, 2015 at 12:33 pm

    My two cents for UNSURE. I agree with Auntie’s advice, but there is another component. Paradoxically, teaching actually helps with research. You don’t often get to teach a topics course as a grad student, but you can find relevant bits in undergrad classes. You can also get a group going: reading articles together with a few people can get your creative juices going.


  4. January 26, 2015 at 8:59 am

    > Find yourself a few hours of time, where you are not urgently needed by some classwork or something, and lose yourself in thought around some mathematical object, with no specific need of a milestone. Play with the math, see what you find, and don’t feel like you’ve wasted your time at the end, even if you feel like you have. It was your time to waste, after all.

    I think that this is absolutely correct advice, but if I were in the the asker’s shoes, I honestly wouldn’t know HOW to do this. It was something I had no clue about when I started research and only picked up after spending lots of time reading math books and talking to other mathematicians.


    • January 26, 2015 at 9:04 am

      Well, nobody knew how to masturbate either until they tried.

      On Mon, Jan 26, 2015 at 8:59 AM, mathbabe wrote:



      • January 27, 2015 at 11:26 am

        Reminds me of your comment after hearing a particularly non-understandable visiting lecturer present their work . . .


  5. Auros
    January 26, 2015 at 3:06 pm

    I would recommend that Dr Who newbies look up the episode “Blink”, which works very well as a stand-alone introduction to what the Whoniverse is like, and if they enjoy that, start from the beginning of the 2005 reboot.

    You only need to go back to Classic Who if you find yourself absolutely in love with the modern show, and want to see more of what inspired it.

    If you did want to go to the old show, the Fourth and Fifth Doctors are pretty clearly the best. The Ark in Space, Pyramids of Mars, The Seeds of Doom, Genesis of the Daleks, the Deadly Assassin, and City of Death, and the whole Key to Time arc come to mind as good ones for Tom Baker. For Peter Davison, his swan song, The Caves of Androzani, is very good.

    The Seventh Doctor was also pretty good. I think


    • Auros
      January 26, 2015 at 3:11 pm

      Ack, stupid thing posted before I was done. 😛

      I was saying: I think The Curse of Fenric and Happiness Patrol are probably the two best for Sylvester McCoy.

      I was also going to edit in a few more for Davison after thinking about it. Castrovalva, for sure. Mawdryn Undead (and the rest of the Black Guardian trilogy) are pretty good. The Five Doctors is… not exactly good, but fun if you’re already obsessed with the show, and fills in some interesting bits of Time Lord lore. Oh! And Earthshock; how did I not think of that one first? Classic.

      Also, I’d add State of Decay for Tom Baker.

      Once you get past all of those, you could also fill in some Jon Pertwee, like The Curse of Peladon…

      (I’ve seen almost every single episode from Pertwee forward, and a handful of Hartnell and Troughton. You have to be a little bit crazy to force yourself to sit through the first two.)


    • Auros
      January 26, 2015 at 3:20 pm

      PPS: Blink.


  6. January 27, 2015 at 11:29 am

    Also, since you get so many of these “am I good enough to be a/get a” questions, maybe this i useful: Should I get a PhD interviews?


  7. KT
    January 27, 2015 at 4:12 pm

    People have very nice advice about doing math for UNSURE, but the vibe I got was about anxiety/perfectionism/procrastination/fear, with math as a focus because it is a loved topic.

    UNSURE, figure out what’s fun for you. Have some fun. Learn some techniques for coping with anxiety. Learn some ways to listen to your body (weird for a mathematician, but seriously!). Remember how you felt physically when you were panicking and putting off the work? That shallow breathing, the tightness in your chest, the change in your pulse when you thought about certain things? That’s not about the math. That’s about the feelings you are putting on the math, the feelings about yourself, the feeling you might not be good enough, you might be a fraud, you might be wasting your time and that of others. Are those feelings really supported by the evidence? Why are you feeling them? What’s the real problem? Trust that you’ll get to the truth.

    Your body is a carefully calibrated barometer for issues in your life that you can ignore in your mind. Take care of it and listen. Sometimes small tweaks are enough: when I was having anxiety attacks while working on my thesis, I realized that they corresponded with caffeine and sugar. Switch to green tea and nuts from coffee and a pastry and suddenly my fears were manageable. (I was still afraid of my thesis writing but I could deal with it!)


  1. No trackbacks yet.
Comments are closed.
%d bloggers like this: