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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.

It's always easier to clean up after parties than it seems. Or at least finger crossed about that.

It’s always easier to clean up after parties than it seems. Or at least fingers crossed about that.

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!

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.


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”?

Thank you,

Uncertain about Academics


Dear Uncertain,

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!

Aunt Pythia


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

Good Scientist,

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.

Aunt Pythia


Aunt Pythia,

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)?


Dear TTFL,

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!

Aunt Pythia


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Dear (something),

HAHAHAHA I’ll take #7.


Aunt Pythia


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

Dear JLY,

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.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


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.

Click here for a form or just do it now:

Categories: Aunt Pythia
  1. May 9, 2015 at 8:29 am

    To Uncertain about Academia: The issue you discuss is universal, but it might be more pronounced in your department. If you have the opportunity, I recommend that you try to do an REU, or some similar activity. For me, REUs were a much better indicator of professional mathematics than coursework. Also, I met many other students from a spectrum of departments. It helped me a lot to get some perspective on mathematics.


  2. DJ
    May 9, 2015 at 9:23 am

    Many elite math departments admit outstanding students under the expectation that some number of them will get NSF on average, and budget accordingly. That’s why they can’t really accommodate requests for extra funding. They’ve already budgeted for (not doing) that. Sure, on the one hand, it seems unfair to the star students who get NSF. But on the other hand, if you look at it from an equality standpoint, the argument is that all students should have roughly equal funding, NSF or not, so it makes sense for the rich to subsidize the poor. Or something. The equality argument makes a lot more sense if you accept the fact that NSF funding is due in large part to blind luck.

    Teaching money comes out of an entirely different budget so that’s why the entire equation changes if you teach. I’ve never heard of a school offering an additional stipend for holding an off-campus summer job, but I can totally understand this for on-campus summer jobs such as summer teaching positions.

    I’d say you just have to suck it up and either teach for more money, or take what you have. By my calculation you’re still getting 34k, which is more than the 25k you would have gotten without NSF.


  3. Christina Sormani
    May 9, 2015 at 12:13 pm

    Dear TTFL,

    I also got an NSF Grad Fellowship. It was three years of funding back then. I had also
    a reward letter with a three year teaching fellowship from my university. I used both in alternating years: NSF first because it is easier
    to get past quals without teaching, then teaching fellow, and so on. I finished in five years but had funding set for six if I had needed it. To be honest I recommend staying the extra year or two in grad school if you have funding and writing more papers before graduation. It can cut down on the number of postdocs you need to do later becore landing a tenure track job. I also recommend using the summers for research rather than teaching but note that summer research funding can often be obtained from a professor with a grant.


  4. Christina Sormani
    May 9, 2015 at 12:26 pm

    Dear Uncertain,

    I’ve taught at top, middle and low ranked universities and, at all three, half the outspoken confident students are actually C students. I’ve had students come to me intimidated by these overconfident C students because they have no idea where they get their ideas from. I don’t know where they get their ideas from either. Their ideas are wrong.

    Many of the A students are very quiet and yet would make better homework partners. I try to rectify this by handing back A exams to students publicly before returning the rest of the exams. But even doing this, the overconfident C students always gain a team of followers who are incredibly impressed by their mysterious genius.

    Ultimately these students do quite well in life: they pull off interviews and land jobs that prefer charisma to a strong GPA (and jobs rarely know a student was a B vs a C student just that they were not a 3.87+ GPA). So the idea is not to change these students but to learn to see past them. They will be around you for the rest of your lives whether of not you end up in a scientific career.


    • May 9, 2015 at 12:42 pm

      ^ Now that is awesome advice, listen to this.


  5. May 9, 2015 at 12:27 pm

    Dear TTFL,

    We’re hiring a full time temporary lecturer for next year for about the same amount as your NSF stipend. We’ll probably hire someone who has already earned a PhD.

    Our grad students make less than half your NSF stipend.

    I know the NSF was hoping that higher NSF stipends would inspire universities to better fund other students as well, but it hasn’t happened because higher education is dead flat broke, and, at least for public universities, the budget cuts keep coming.

    Quit your whining(*), and remember that being underpaid is the lot of almost all academics. If you care about money, go work for Google.

    Also, vote for legislators who believe that universities should have enough money to pay better than Walmart.

    (*) Unless you’re at a well-endowed private university in an expensive city, in which case, go ahead.


  6. May 10, 2015 at 5:02 am

    That’s weird, i get almost that same spam message weekly from the two major political parties! Of course, their choice of words is a little different…


  7. Ralph Hartley
    May 11, 2015 at 9:43 am

    Uncertain about Academics, you should also be aware that there will *always* be people who are smarter than you, no matter how smart you are.

    If you are not being exposed to at least some of those people, you are probably studying in the wrong place.


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