Aunt Pythia’s advice
My friends, good morning. Go ahead and let yourself in, there’s hot tea in the pot over there. Somewhat stale cookies as well, somewhere. Come sit on the couch with me when you’ve collected yourself.
Friend, please don’t expect too much from Aunt Pythia this morning, and pretty please: keep it down to a whisper.
Here’s the thing. The TomTown Ramblers, my bluegrass band, had a gig last night. And it wasn’t at some random place, no. It was at Aunt Pythia’s house. And yes, we killed it. It might have helped that we invited a bunch of people who love us and who knew it was their job to tell us how great we were, but still.
Killed. It. It’s dead. Just like the kitchen.
Aunt Pythia mentions this because you should all know that, instead of cleaning up the immense amount of empties and stale Doritos, she is stepping carefully over it all to sit on the couch and dole out the advice. But she’s pretty sure she’s off her game, so please add comments to correct her many mistakes below.
Be vigilant, people! Help a sister out in her hour of hangover need! And while you’re at it, please:
ask Aunt Pythia a made-up sex question at the bottom of the page!
Hi Aunt Pythia,
I’m a university student studying science. I find I struggle a lot more than some of my friends in my program, who grasp the concepts faster and more comprehensively than I do. A lot of these people are gifted in the sense that they were segregated during high school for achieving high scores on aptitude tests. I, on the other, scored in the average range on such tests. When I compare myself to my friends, I often feel hopelessly inadequate. It’s like I’m struggling to catch up while everyone around me is moving relentlessly forward. It makes me question whether I should remain in my program and whether I can achieve my ambition of eventually doing research in my field as PhD.
Do you think this is all in my head? Is natural intelligence a significant factor? Do you believe it’s innate or can be built up? Do you think the IQ test (or other aptitude tests for that matter) accurate reflect a person’s talent or “potential”?
Uncertain about Academics
I don’t know the answer to your questions, but here are a few things I do know which might help.
First of all, you don’t have to be a certified genius to be a scientist. There are plenty of people who become scientists wondering how they got the job, because they’re surrounded by people that “seem like geniuses” and they feel mortal in Comparison. But here’s the thing, they are my favorite people, because they’re doing what they love in spite of feeling out of place. They feel lucky to be there.
Second of all, there’s no reason to think you’re not a genius. People in those partitioned and accelerated programs often get a big jump on college-level classes and sophistication. Moreover, they get a decidedly huge jump on the ability to act as if they already know stuff when they don’t. So if you interpret their casual remarks on face value, they might seem lightyears ahead of you, but who knows. The main point is that a couple of semesters of college is worth an entire high school career, so sit tight and see how things shape up in a few months.
Third of all, and most importantly, do what you love. Yes, there are a bunch of tests to see “how smart you are” and then there are tests in your classes to see “how well you know something,” but all of that should be ignored when you think about who you actually are and what you actually want to do. I’m not saying you’ll never compromise, or that you’ll ignore your professors if they tell you to modify your expectations, but I do want to emphasize that this is your life, and you get to control it, and nobody – and especially no test – has the ability to determine whether you are well-suited to a given topic. That’s up to you to decide.
Finally, my husband thinks that intelligence is something you do, not something you are. I think that it might be more complicated, but it’s a good first approximation. In other words, if you focus on good habits of mind, including being skeptical, disciplined, curious, and earnest (with a good dose of humility), then you will be far more prepared for a lifetime of science than by being anxious, competitive, or even cocky.
I hope that’s helpful!
Dear Aunt Pythia,
I think you blew it in your answer to “too sad for acronym” in this Aunt Pythia post from a few weeks ago. I’ve been monogamous for going on 45 years, so you can take my opinion for what it’s worth BUT:
The key point is mathematicians are people, too. It’s fine to talk math with a lovely stranger, but at some point you have to say “Hmm, that’s all interesting. How did you come to be interested in that problem? Where did you do your undergraduate work?” and then, “Oh, that’s interesting, where are you from originally?” followed by “Ah, yes, I’ve been there. Have you been to Chez XYZ? Yes, that’s a great restaurant.” After a while, you’ll get to, “Do you have a family? What do they do for a living? Ah, very interesting. Mine are pretty colorful, too…” And pretty soon you aren’t talking math any more, and you can say “do you want to go grab a drink/coffee/dessert?”
And after that it’s up to you. But you need to stop feeling sorry for yourself; otherwise none of this will work.
Good Scientist Trying to be a Good Human
It’s great advice, to be sure. However, I think you’re missing half the context if you start with the conversation already happening. Mostly what I was trying to counter with “too sad for acronym” was the idea that you could initiate a conversation with someone on the assumption that you’re interested in (their) math, and then use the opportunity to hit on her.
In other words, if you just happen to be having dinner with someone, your advice above is great. But if you got her to have dinner with you by saying, “I’d love to discuss your paper!” then not so great. In fact it will seem to the person like a bait and switch.
Basically all I was hoping to achieve with my advice was a way to avoid that, by deliberately creating a bunch of opportunities where you would eventually “happen” to have dinner with someone. After which you could follow the advice above.
I am a first year PhD student in math and just got awarded an NSF graduate research fellowship. Prior to receiving this fellowship, my department guaranteed 25k for three years, part of which is a small summer stipend (about $6000). When I told my department I got an NSF, I asked if I could combine the summer stipend with NSF and they said that I would not be able to do this and that they were rewriting/changing my funding letter that they gave to me last year.
I was bummed out when I heard about that, but not too upset. But then I heard (aka not 100% sure) that an incoming grad student next year got an NSF but he wanted to teach (which you can’t do while taking NSF money), so the department said they would give him $7000 extra his first year (so 32k total) so he can defer his fellowship and teach. Also, because the department doesn’t care or it’s just something they have overlooked, I think (again not 100% sure) if you get a job over the summer, you can still get the summer stipend, which doesn’t seem fair to me since they won’t give it to someone who has a fellowship and staying at school yet they’ll give it to someone who is working for someone else.
I know money isn’t everything and it’s a small amount of money and I should just be grateful for having the NSF in the first place, but I just feel jipped especially since I am now saving the department/school a significant amount of money for the next 3 years (NSF pays a 34k stipend + 12k tuition for 3 years)!
How much room do students have to push/negotiate with departments? I know some schools give out bonuses for bringing in outside money. Clearly, mine is not one of those schools. I *definitely* do not want to get on someone’s bad side or look that money hungry. Am I being way too whiny and should I just suck it up? Or should I say something? I don’t want to throw anyone under the bus, so how would I even go about doing this (especially since I am *so* timid and shy)?
Gosh, I have no idea. I mean, beyond offering to teach, so your situation would be more analogous. I mean, as of now, unless my head is still drunk, you don’t actually have a conflicting story.
But I don’t know what the standard practice is, and the only person in this household who does is currently snoring. That means it’s an awesome question for a hangover column, because I’m betting some of my readers will have opinions about this.
In any case, it is indeed fantastic that you got that NSF! Congratulations!
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Dear Aunt Pythia,
Not too long ago I graduated from a good school, landed a great job, and came out as gay and somewhat naively thought that with all of this things would “get better”.
I’ve never really been on a date before and still feel like I’m making up for awkward middle/high school development most folks around my age have gone through (super shy around guys, does he “like me like me”…etc.).
One thing that I didn’t account for and never really thought would be an issue is race. I happen to also be black, and find that there seem to be a looooot of people who either feel that they simply don’t find black guys attractive, creepily fetishize it (lots of chocolate references and expectations that I’m super aggressive), or don’t even consider a date possible because they don’t tend to think it’s possible for black people to share their interests.
It doesn’t seem unique to white people either. I noticed this before when people thought I was straight but it seems really prominent/visible on the gay side of things and the data available suggests this (see this for example).
I respect people’s preferences and totally understand I’m not the center of the universe…but what am I supposed to do now? It almost doesn’t really feel as though coming out was worth it anymore (and frankly all this hurts more than I thought) especially if I’m just hoping to find mutual attraction for minorities within a minority group. What’s worse is I’m wondering if things only “get better” for certain people. Any tips, or words of wisdom are welcome. Until then I’ll just keep telling people that I too “love to laugh”, listen to NPR, and judge Kardashians.
Just Like You
First of all, congratulations on all your accomplishments! Sounds like you are awesome and crush-worthy.
If it helps, I have cute white friends who leave what I think of as large American progressive cities because they are gay and the scene is too small. So you’re not alone in finding this difficult.
If you needed more evidence, I just googled “good scene for black gay men” and I came up with an article entitled, Are All Single Black Gay Men Bitter?.
Here’s the thing, I know nothing about being a black gay man. But I do know statistics, and I suggest you play the numbers. That would mean spending time in New York or San Francisco whenever you can to meet people in a larger dating pool. I have no idea where you live normally, but make it a point to visit whenever you can, on vacations or even weekend trips. Keep meeting people, and get used to hanging out in a social and fun way, and eventually work your way into a date.
I wouldn’t suggest telling anyone that you’ve never been on a date before: fake it til you make it on that score. And anyway, that’s not important, because being on a date is just like hanging out and talking with someone. The only real difference is, if it goes well, you can get all crushed out on them and not feel weird about it.
Congratulations, you’ve wasted yet another Saturday morning with Aunt Pythia! I hope you’re satisfied, you could have lazed about in your pajamas for longer. Oh wait, you’re still in your pajamas, I take it all back. Well done.
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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