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Aunt Pythia’s advice

April 4, 2015

Holy shit people we’ve got an awesome column today. Aunt Pythia shall not disappoint, and when she says that, she really means that you wonderful readers have not disappointed Aunt Pythia – your questions are surprising and rich and thoughtful as always. It brings a sweet lightness to Aunt Pythia’s otherwise heavy, snuffly head.

For you see, Aunt Pythia is suffering from a springtime cold, so nothing too terrible, but it probably didn’t help that Aunt Pythia refused to acknowledge the rain yesterday – because it was 61 degrees! – and insisted on biking everywhere.

Not my actual bike, nor the actual spot I was biking yesterday. But close enough for Aunt Pythia.

Not my actual bike, nor the actual spot I was biking yesterday. But close enough for Aunt Pythia.

After you all enjoy this marvelous column chock full of ridiculous advice, please 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.


Hello dearest Auntie P,

I just wanted to bring your attention to this calendar – sorry that it’s a buzzfeed article – and wish you the best with sexy pin-up men with various knitted objects.

I suppose I don’t really have a question, other than maybe other ideas you have for good calendar pages relating to men posing with sexy yarn?

But I hope you have a good day looking at this anyway!

Much love,

Casting-on Relishly Adorable Fellows To Sex


Oh. My. God. Did you know my dear hubby is Dutch? Did you know I sometimes go to Amsterdam? This is seriously the best thing I’ve ever learned about that place, I’m not much of a smoker.

The name “Club Geluk” can be translated as “Club Happiness,” which seems pretty appropriate given this calendar. Here’s my favorite:

Is he holding a kiwi?

Is he holding a kiwi?

Also, it reminds me of my (previously) favorite calendar, which I buy each year and hand out to some baffled friends and visitors, namely the NYC Taxi Calendar:

You can never have too many calendars.

You can never have too many calendars.

Readers, please do send me awesome calendars, I’m officially – as of now – a collector.

Love always,

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Heads-up: I’m going to try to steer this away from the classic millenial-trying-to-find-purpose-in-life story, but it could go there.

I’m a 22-year old trying to decide whether to do a Ph.D. in pure math (topology/geometry). I’m currently taking grad classes in a non-degree program and my thoughts bounce around from “What’s the point of this?” to “Omigoodness my brain is in love” to “I’mstupid-Ihatethis-I’mstupid-Ihatethis”. It’s the sort of thing where I’ll decide ‘definitively’ not to go to grad school, and then immediately solve a hard problem and get into my reach school.

Amidst all that, I’ve been looking at alternatives to Ph.D. programs – things that are still intellectually rigorous/analytical but seem more relevant to the world. I’ve even considered switching to (shhhh) applied math. So my first question is this: what options/careers would you suggest to mathematicians who want to be able to “be useful”?

My second question comes from the fact that one of the main alternatives to math that I’ve considered is journalism. I enjoy writing and loved the journalism classes I took in undergrad. I was lucky enough to go to a talk you gave recently in which you mentioned data journalism. I’m thoroughly intrigued, but I have no idea how to look into it. How does someone ‘get into’ data journalism?

Moral of the story, I’m pretty confused. I love math (and have advisers pushing me towards grad school), but I’m not sure if I like it enough for a Ph.D. (or that I like who I am when I’m doing math). Any/all thoughts you have to offer on this silly mid-life-crisis business would be wonderful.

Thank you so much!

Does \exists \phi: Me \rightarrow Career, \phi isomorphic?

Dear Does,

I hear you, it’s tough. Personally I did a better job, when I was your age, at ignoring any possibility besides going to math grad school. I was laser focused. It’s good and bad to be that way, though, because it means you don’t hesitate to make bad choices.

Also, I don’t think I’d ever suggest not getting a degree in math. It comes in handy in all sorts of ways even if you end up doing something else. Even if it just trains you to be humble about your abilities, and know how to admit when you’re wrong, two basic and critical take-aways.

As for journalism, that’s such a tough field, and you’d find yourself hanging out with people who write articles like this (which is to say they won’t understand math enough to realize that describing Cuomo’s changes in education as a “victory” is not supported by fact). Not saying everyone in journalism is like that – in general I like the skepticism I encounter there – but there’s also real ignorance in some corners, and very few great jobs. But again, also a super rewarding job sometimes and for some people. I wouldn’t tell you not to pursue this if you’re truly interested.

The way to get into it – my best guess, not from experience – is to start doing it and posting your pieces on a blog – yours or your friends – or Huffington Post, so you can develop a portfolio that you can show people when you apply. That and work with journalists on their stuff.

I guess my overall advice is to get the education you think you want, and realize it’s flexible and can be used in lots of ways. It’s not something math professors tell you, mostly because they don’t know this, but math Ph.D.’s or masters degrees impress people in the outside world.

In the meantime take programming classes, keep in touch with applied math people and data journalism projects, and dip your toe into some of those waters when you can; do some projects. Don’t worry too much that the nerds around you are laser-focused, they might have changed completely in a few years, and it’s really not a competition. And good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m a female undergraduate at a very good math department about to enter grad school for mathematics. I have a few stereotypically female qualities which I have found to have negatively impacted my time in undergrad. I don’t want to change who I am, but I’m also sick of the sexism in mathematics.

Just a quick background of what I’m talking about: Most of my side interests are stereotypically feminine: kids, baking, volunteering. I want to be a serious mathematician, but I also enjoy volunteering in local schools and do so quite frequently.

I also am pretty feminine in dress/in personality. I’m not that assertive, and I prefer to not answer in class, despite knowing the answer. Most of the males in my classes are much more assertive, aggressive in answering, and authoritative (even if they have no idea if they are right).

I feel that I’m taken less seriously by my peers and taken advantage of because I’m female, but I’m quite shy and quiet and speaking up is very unnatural for me. I perform at the top of my classes and have been successful in my research experiences, but my classmates don’t respect me (probably because I don’t talk about my success or assert my knowledge). I’m fine with my quiet personality, but I don’t know how to deal with my peers.


  • Peers assume that I’m going to be a high school math teacher, and are surprised I’m going to grad school.
  • Many people applied to REUs from my school, but most didn’t get in anywhere and I got into most of the ones I applied to. Two male students complained in the hallway that I only got in because I’m female (which is not true at all – I’ve taken much more math than them and have published before). They only knew I had gotten in because my professors had told them. They don’t know that I heard them.
  • I TA for Analysis II and Algebra II and students often “bully” me for the answers. When I say “no,” they don’t respect that and just ask again. I’ve tried being more assertive and authoritative. The students don’t pressure my fellow male TAs for answers and don’t ignore their refusals to give more help after many hints have been given.
  • I’ve been told by my peers that I have a better chance at the grad schools I applied to because I’m female. These are just a few examples – I’m treated differently and feel alone in my undergrad department.

I’m just generally lost! I want to be stronger in grad school and I want people to respect my mathematical abilities, but I don’t know how to be assertive without being arrogant or over-confident. I want peers to stop assuming that I know less. Do you have any advice about how I can change in grad school?

Sorry for the super long question!

Wants To Change For Grad School

Dear Wants To Change,

First of all, congratulations. Sounds like you’re killing it. Seriously, and I’m so glad that your talent is being acknowledged and welcomed by the people who admit you and recruit you to REU’s and grad schools. It tells me that you are in a better place than you let yourself think. Spend a few minutes just gloating.

Second of all, fuck those assholes. Seriously. Fuck them. I know what you’re going through because I went through that stuff too, even though I wasn’t at all shy. The worst kind of person is the arrogant young man, they are unbelievably insufferable. I knew more than my share of such men, and let me tell you, they drove me nuts, and they also drove nice men nuts, as well as all the professors. They are universally despised and tolerated only because sometimes they turn out to be human by the time they get older and humbled (see above letter).

Third, some advice:

  1. Stick with it, everyone gets better when they are a bit older and less insecure. The truly insecure people often self-select out of the math scene altogether because they’re afraid they can’t cut it. For the horrible ones that stay, they become less and less relevant as they are isolated and everyone hates them.
  2. Never bake anything for math people. Seriously, there’s something about the act of baking in a department that brings out sexism. Stick with your baking for high school kids who will simply love you for it.
  3. Just ignore students who ask for answers. Yes, they are bullying you because they are completely unthreatened by you. But when they learn you don’t do that, they will stop.
  4. I would suggest you challenge yourself to answer questions in class, especially if you are taking a class from someone you hope to work with. It is a great habit to have.
  5. I would never suggest you change anything else about yourself, except for experimentation’s sake and if you are comfortable doing so. You might find people take you more seriously in certain outfits, and I’d never tell you not to wear them, but in this day and age the idea that you have to conform to other people’s standards of what a “serious” mathematician looks like is fucked.
  6. Most important, remember that you’re there to be educated, and it’s all about you, not them. Their egos are crying out in pain because they are threatened, and sometimes the noise is deafening, but learn to put on a set of ego headphones.
  7. Also, feed yourself. You might sometimes have problems with your own ego, and you should also be able to seek support, even though it won’t come at the expense of others. Think about how you can get it. I’m imagining that volunteering is a source of that for you, in which case please think of it as an alternative to therapy, and don’t ever ever give it up.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

You’re (still) my favorite blogger, but I feel like you may have erred in your response to “Gossiped About And Hurt Humongously”.

You accuse him of claiming women are “discriminated in favor of”, which he did not. He said, “I was arguing that gender plays a role in fellowship/scholarship selection and college admissions”, which does not indicate in who’s favor that bias might be directed.

I think in this case you’ve unfairly put word in his mouth that were not there. Am I missing something here?

Sad And Disappointed

Dear SAD,

Yeah, maybe. I mean, I agree that I read into it a bit, but I’m not sure what I did was unfair. Let’s go back to what he said about the actual conversation:

I’m a guy and a grad student and I was talking to a fellow grad student, Z, about gender issues in academia. Specifically, I was arguing that gender plays a role in fellowship/scholarship selection and college admissions, and she claimed that no, an applicant’s sex does not have any detectable influence on such decisions. We started talking about affirmative action and before we had time to even discuss the implications of affirmative action, she had to go to class and I thought that was the end of it.

I took from this description that he was arguing that there existed affirmative action in admissions, and that this would promote women. I don’t think that was a crazy jump, since I’ve never heard of affirmative action that promotes men.

Readers, what do you think? The full question and answer are here.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

OK, I fucked up. He does say later in the article, that he did make the pro female bias contention. As my girlfriend just pointed out to me. I still don’t think that is by default sexist, but I have to admit I read right over that without even seeing it, which may be.

Sad And Dissapointed


Oh, what? Let me take another look. Oh right, he goes on to say, “being female sometimes helps in getting scholarships and in college admissions”.

Thanks for writing back!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

After some years of “screw it, I’m not even bothering to date,” I met someone I like a lot. He is very smart, interesting, etc, etc. I made him wait ages to spend the night at my house, and last night he finally stayed over.

So anyway, the making out was awesome. We hit the bedroom, and all the clothes come off. Then, four minutes into giving him a blowjob, he just comes. No warning, but I’m ok with that, and I apparently give pretty good ones. What I’m not ok with was that we were now done. Excuse me, what the fuck?

This guy isn’t a selfish jerk at all, and I get that maybe the mood dies for him a bit after he’s gotten his. I also seem to have an effect on some men that makes them a bit “quick.” Given all that, what the hell do I do now? I will give him another shot, but if the same thing happens, he might be getting dumped. On the other hand, he’s practically the only man I have really been interested in for a long time (like, years).

I am not interested in having a discussion about it, and I especially don’t want to make this guy feel bad if he has some medical/PE type issue. However, I also can’t let him think this is acceptable.

Anyway, what would you do? (Actually, I know you, and you’d probably just grab his head and put it between your legs. Any other thoughts for the less assertive among us?)

My Enjoyment The Optional Orgasm


Alternative, less aggressive, no-talk option: start masturbating. What’s he going to do, watch? I mean, maybe. Or maybe he will help you out. He sounds like it’s worth a try.

Although, to be very honest, that’s what I’d start doing first, before the blowjob, when you get him into bed the next time. He’s already shown you that he goes second.

Good luck!

Auntie P


Congratulations, you’ve wasted yet another Saturday morning with Aunt Pythia! I hope you’re satisfied, you could have made progress on that project instead.

But as long as you’re already here, please ask me a question. And don’t forget to make an amazing sign-off, they make me very very happy.

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Categories: Aunt Pythia
  1. JSE
    April 4, 2015 at 9:26 am

    To the person who loves math and likes journalism: I have a lot of experience writing math-inflected journalism, and what I would say is that you should definitely do the math degree. Editors are starving for people who are qualified to write knowledgably and authoritatively about mathy topics. But how do they know who’s qualified, when (with a few exceptions) they are not themselves trained in these subjects? If you have a Ph.D., you can go for a career in research math (if you still feel like you want that) and at the same time be among the most qualified people (just by virtue of knowing math and caring about writing) to jump into quantitative journalism.


  2. April 4, 2015 at 1:11 pm

    I want to second the advice for Wants to Change. You sound awesome, and your classmates sound like jerks. Don’t change at all — except, as Aunt Pythia suggested, it is probably a good idea to work on speaking up more often in class. It’s good training for asking questions during seminars and conferences, which is really beneficial to the speaker, to the audience, to yourself, to everyone.

    If you wouldn’t mind writing me in confidence (eriehl@math.harvard.edu), I’m curious to hear where you studying. Often faculty aren’t fully aware that the undergraduate math environment at their institution is particularly toxic for women; for instance, in the past few months I’ve learned a lot about the climate for women at Harvard. If your male peers don’t respect you (shame on them!) they might at least respect us, and if so, we’d love to help.

    In the long run, I think the most effective solution is to have more women in math. I was a PhD student in Chicago at a time when the proportion of female graduate students increased dramatically. (There weren’t yet any senior female faculty, though there are now.) I have to say, it was awesome. My the time I graduated, there was a huge diversity among the women in the department – straight, gay, feminine, not, sociable, shy – a bunch of whom wrote really excellent theses and have now gone on to prestigious postdocs. That sort of environment has huge impact on the men in the program as well.

    When you get to grad school, find the people you like in your cohort and let them know if shitty/sexist things continue happening. The worst outcome from this sort of bullying would be if you end up socially isolated. You don’t have to try and be friends with jerks, but not everyone will be jerks. Also, it’s nice to work in groups on the problem sets. It’s much easier to stay sane that way. Plus, your collaborators will get to appreciate how smart you all. Good luck!


  3. kpedro88
    April 4, 2015 at 1:51 pm

    Re: METOO:

    It might be worth considering that this is not the most productive attitude:
    “I am not interested in having a discussion about it”


    • April 4, 2015 at 2:16 pm

      Honestly nobody should have to say this stuff out loud.


    • April 4, 2015 at 2:16 pm

      I mean they should if they want. But they should not have to.


      • kpedro88
        April 4, 2015 at 3:42 pm

        The best way to make sure someone knows what you’re thinking is to tell them. Simple pragmatism. The state of sex education and mores in our society is not nearly advanced enough to expect universal understanding of sexual courtesy.


  4. Min
    April 4, 2015 at 2:25 pm

    Dear Wants to Change,

    Just to add to the excellent advice, you might consider getting assertiveness training. Assertiveness training is a mature field, and you can learn how to put yourself forward in a good way. Not that you will necessarily overcome your shyness. A surprising number of prominent people are actually shy. Walt Disney was one. Every morning he told himself, “Now go out and act like hell.”

    Best of luck1 🙂


  5. Min
    April 4, 2015 at 2:35 pm

    @ METOO

    Aunt Pythia said, “He’s already shown you that he goes second.”

    Words of wisdom. 🙂


  6. cat
    April 5, 2015 at 4:57 pm

    I don’t know if this is universal, but my experience has been the sex is much better if the female partner orgasms first in a heterosexual couple.


  7. alex
    April 5, 2015 at 5:50 pm

    To Wants to Change for Grad School:

    I just want to second what the previous commentators and Aunt Pythia have said. You seem to being doing awesome. The only thing you should change is that if you know the answer, definitely say it in class, if not 100% of the time, at least 60%. (I am someone who never (or maybe once) spoke up in any college class due to a combination of shyness/humility, and my shyness has definitely hurt my career.) You aren’t doing anyone any favors by staying silent – the professor would be thrilled to see that you (or anyone) are following the material being taught so that he or she can get on with the rest of the lecture. Also, if you do so, one of the things he/she can write in letters of recommendation is that you seemed to follow lectures and answer questions. Also, five years from now students aren’t going to be thinking about who answered what, wore what, sat where, etc (this was something I learned in a social anxiety disorder clinic to deal with negative self-talk that can go through one’s mind) Also, as emily above pointed out, it is good preparation for the future – speaking up is beneficial to everyone at conferences and seminars; at least half of the audience will be somewhat lost by the end and anything you ask will likely clarify some things.

    I just finished reading an article in the nydailynews, and it was a reminder to me that it is essential to have a thick skin – for example, like “who cares what others think of attitude” and that there are jerks in every occupation and walk of life.


    here’s the relevant excerpt:
    Since having a baby last year, Clarkson has been the topic of cruel comments.

    “Jesus, what happened to Kelly Clarkson? Did she eat all her backing singers? Happily I have a wide-screen,” British personality Katie Hopkins commented on Twitter after seeing her on “The Gram Norton Show” earlier this year.

    The singer recently responded to Hopkins’ Twitter attack about her weight.

    “She’s tweeted something nasty about me? That’s because she doesn’t know me. I’m awesome!” Clarkson explained. “It doesn’t bother me. It’s a free world. Say what you will. I’ve just never cared what people think. It’s more if I’m happy and I’m confident and feeling good, that’s always been my thing. And more so now, since having a family — I don’t seek out any other acceptance.”

    You could also google image search for “who cares what others think” (or similar) and thereby peruse some nice motivational posters.


  8. K
    April 6, 2015 at 3:34 pm

    Dear Wants To Change For Grad School,

    My experience isn’t completely relevant, since I am a man and haven’t faced anything like what you describe, but it may still be partly relevant. I am very shy in seminars, and almost never ask a question. I was also very shy in many of the classes I took when I was a student — the feeling of being unable to say anything even when I know the answer is very familiar. I am much better one-on-one (at least with some people…), and that’s how I have had all of my most fruitful mathematical interactions. You can impress someone plenty in a one-on-one conversation, and I have been fortunate to be able to find mentors I clicked well with who appreciated my strengths.

    This is all to say that you don’t have to be confident and assertive in all situations — it can be enough to do it in a few key situations, with a few key people. The fact that you have had so much success so far with REUs suggests you are on the right track. Getting into grad school, succeeding in grad school, getting a good postdoc, etc. is mostly about impressing a few key people (and of course all the hard work and mathematical accomplishment that goes with that). Looking at the professors you have met you can probably already see what a range of personalities and mathematical styles can be successful, and as you progress in your career if you pay attention you will see even more of a range. Watch how people play to their strengths, and try to play to yours.

    Finally, I agree that ignoring stupid peers as much as possible is the best thing. They are not among the people you have to impress to be successful, and you will have to deal with this kind of asshole less and less as time goes on.

    Good luck!


  9. Fred Dashiell
    April 7, 2015 at 4:15 pm

    Dear Wants to Change … I am a male mathematician but I can still find your situation compelling. I hope you stay in mathematics. We need you!! Look for women mathematicians who have become professors, and go talk to them. They can all help you survive and provide some perspective. Remember a woman won the Fields medal last year. More articles in the best journals have female authors.

    I was dismayed when my daughter was in college at a top school with the highest reputation in mathematics, and she wanted to take a class but was intimidated out of it by the male students. I took her to a conference at IAS for a lecture by Andrew Wiles. She looked around the auditorium and asked me “Where are the women?” They were effectively invisible, perhaps 4 pr 5 out of an audience of over 150. She said she did not feel comfortable in that milieu. So she never took a math class there, what a shame. Please don’t give up!


  1. April 11, 2015 at 11:17 am
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