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Aunt Pythia’s advice

October 18, 2015

Readers, for all sorts of silly and unreasonable reasons, Aunt Pythia’s schedule was too hectic yesterday for her usual advice column. However, she misses you so desperately that she decided to ignore multiple hungry children crying for crepes with nutella in order to write to you all today. (And actually, they seem to be just fine playing Minecraft for the time being.)

Before Aunt Pythia goes on, however, she has to delve into the theme of the week! Namely, celebrating getting old.

Readers, too often I come across the concept of becoming old as a form of disease, as if we are expected to pity people for the very act of aging. I say no! I say celebrate that time! I expect to be a crazy happy old person, and possibly a happy crazy one too. Heck, more than half of my problems stem from concerns I simply won’t have when I’m 75, and the other stuff will probably also seem dumb.

Part of why people are so afraid of getting old is the bizarre worshipping of youth and its beauty. I’m not arguing that young people aren’t beautiful, because they are, but I think we need to do better than just pretending we’re young when we’re not. And you might think this means letting go of vanity, but I’d argue it just means finding sagginess beautiful, which is much easier if you think about it, and something I’ve already accomplished. Give it a try!

Of course, other problems do come up, and it would suck to be in chronic pain, or to see your friends fall ill, but I would like to insist that we appreciate the freedom of thought and worry represented by the senior citizen of sound mind and body, which increasingly is reality. And that’s wonderful. Let’s focus on quality of life, people, and let’s keep our standards high!

She is awesome. I'm thinking I'm looking at my future self.

She is awesome. I’m thinking – hoping – I’m looking at my future self. I’ll be wearing something much more garish, of course.

Update. if you think I’m nuts, take a look at handy chart:

Screen Shot 2015-10-19 at 6.04.01 PM

I hope you all are feeling the elderly love together as you dive into the ridiculous and mostly irrelevant counseling that Aunt Pythia plans to dole out. Please enjoy! And afterwards, please:

ask Aunt Pythia any question at all 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,

What’s up with finance people being assholes to each other? I work as a quant at a buy-side firm where there are separate quant and fundamental teams. It’s a pretty small shop in terms of personnel, so when I first joined I tried getting to know the coworkers outside of my team. However, this kind of stuff is a two-way street, and the impression I get – especially from the fundamental research team – is that they want to have nothing to do with what they view as a quant geek. I guess in the elbow-chafing corners of finance, one must sport an Ivy League MBA, play golf, be a part of a country club, be a smooth talker, and watch football. Obviously I’m exaggerating… or am I? Anyway, I’ve given up trying to “fit in”, which results in a lot of awkward greetings – if at all – in the hallway. Company get-togethers are an absolute dread. Is this how life is supposed to be like on the buy side, and I thought only the sell side was like this?

Work at Office Really Kinda SUCKS


Yeah. The culture is really different outside of academia, and it’s not just in finance. I think, as a rule of thumb, you can count on the people that make the most money to feel less like being friends, and more like ignoring the “unimportant people.” Or, if the money in the two groups is somewhat similar, you can expect some weird, tribalistic competition thing to make it hard to be social in a natural way. Money is so weird.

Inside academia, it’s not super social either, but it’s less directly competitive except among really strange people. On the other hand, there is a strict hierarchy in academia that doesn’t exist outside it. The currency is professional status, not cash money, and since professional status is slightly harder to measure, it makes people slightly less focused on it. That’s my theory.

Also, about the MBA crowd: the lack of sociability might be coming more from fear of looking out of place than actual malice. Those people are highly socialized to care about external opinions and “in-crowd” status. If you actually want to be friends with them, I suggest directly approaching the most alpha of all of them – the head salesperson or equivalent – who is probably less afraid of what things look like, and also likely extremely charismatic. Once you’re buddies with that person, the others might be ok with you.

And really I’m just talking about being friendly. I’d focus on friends outside of work for stronger connections.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

You should be delighted your kids rooms are a mess. A super tidy room is a key indicator of teen mental illness, specifically food disorders. I used to joke around with my kids, hoping their rooms would be a mess.


Dear K,

I will try to keep that in mind. I am delighted with my kids in general.

Aunt Pythia


Hello Aunt Pythia,

I was just wondering when your Weapons of Math Destruction book will come out. How long will I have to wait? Enjoying your blog until then. Wishing you lots of luck with finding a good fulfilling job.

My first job was at a cooperative bank, which is owned by it’s members (thousands of them) with a one-vote-per-person-regardless-of-number-of-shares-owned system to elect the managing directors, etc. I really enjoyed working there and was proud of the work we did.

Maybe there are small nice banks (which can only pay you a fraction of what you’d make at the big ones) over there, too? Wishing you lots of luck, anyhow.


The Bored Bookworm

Dear TBB,

Thanks for the encouragement! Unfortunately, it’s not going to be until September 2016. I know, it makes me sad too. But that day will eventually be here.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I am a young woman who is a junior researcher in quantum physics. I am reasonably successful in my field and have been working with top names in Ivy Leagues throughout. I have been publishing first author work in top tier journals during my Ph.D. and postdoc, received multiple job offers/fellowships after my PhD and, was ‘top of my class’ whenever the idea of ‘class’ made sense!

Nonetheless, I not feel confident enough of my prospects in research any more. Recently, I have been thinking that a large part of my lack of confidence in my abilities stems from the constant lack of positive re-enforcement that probably everyone in academic (industrial?) research feels, in spite of evidence to the contrary. No one pats you on the back for a job well done etc., which is not entirely unexpected actually — we all do research for passion not accolades, right?

However, in my case, the situation is further exacerbated since I have felt shortchanged at various junctures throughout my research career. Be it my contributions being demeaned by treating me as an add-on afterthought on author list, or being overlooked for authorship credit altogether, to my ideas being criticized during discussions in not so pleasant and professional manner.

I try to be always professional in my dealings with my colleagues (listen to their viewpoint, never raise my voice, acknowledging their insights in the discussion etc.), but do not always find the same courtesy being extended to me especially in cases of disagreement. This, of course, happens mostly in instances where I am part of a collaborative team effort and not when I am driving the work almost completely by myself (i.e. when I am the first author).

I am an international scholar so navigating US academia was a bit of a cultural journey for me. Initially, I was the only woman on my entire floor, and when I did not see my other male colleagues struggling with the same issues — I figured that maybe it is the gender discrimination which I had only heard about till then. In a weird way, it was comforting to ascribe it to my gender, because somehow it felt so stupid and anachronistic in 21st century that it completely took away the feeling of my struggles being personal or specific to me as a person.

Gradually, however, a few more women trickled in (still the f/m ratio is 1:50), but they seemed to make it work better in terms of getting along with my male colleagues. This led me to think that it maybe something about me after all! [I am not sure how happy they were though, since I did not get to know them well enough. So it is possible that I am oblivious of their struggles!]

I have also heard from my husband and other friends, in different contexts though, that I come across as a strong personality and am not shy to voice my opinions, which in retrospect, may have proved to be a hurdle to working on teams and gelling along with everyone in the group. I have tried to ‘tone myself down’ in professional interactions keeping my opinions to myself even when I feel they may be relevant to the cause but it has only intensified my feelings of isolation. I have also been asked to be more ’empathetic’ though I am not sure what should I exactly change in my behavior professionally.

I fervently hope that I do not come across as a jerk.. 😦 I am thinking maybe I should try to get some independent money and move to a less high-nosed place than where I am currently. I have been advised against this by some who feel that given my trajectory this would look like a ‘step-down’ and a ‘failure on my part to work out an incredible opportunity’. The only other option is to leave Physics altogether at the risk of getting my heart broken initially, but I hope that I will be able to come to terms with the change, do well elsewhere and maybe be happier on the whole once the dust of this change has settled. What do you suggest?

Worried Over Misguided Antagonistic Nuisance


I’m glad you reached out. The first piece of advice I’d give you is to talk to more of your colleagues, not in your department necessarily but in your field. I think – no, I’m sure – you’ll find that the issues that you’re dealing with are pretty universal, both among women and men.

Let’s think about what that means, if you’d allow me to take it on faith. That means that absolutely everyone is jockeying for credit in your field. It is, possibly, exactly how power plays out, beyond the physics being done of course. It’s probably a good idea to take careful notes about what works and what doesn’t, what kind of conversations you might want to have with your collaborators before the authorship issue comes up, and so on. This is not going away, and believe me some of your colleagues think about this stuff more than they should. You don’t want to make it obsessive but you do want to give some order to the chaos, so at least you have a plan going in, and aren’t baffled every time by how things didn’t work for you or how they were surprisingly difficult.

And by the way, I’m giving you advice that I give myself. Think about things that involve power and make a plan. Not so that you take advantage of others, obviously, but so that you end up with what you think is fair. Having one-on-one conversations with people before a larger meeting gets you much closer to understanding what’s going to happen in the meeting.

The fact that you aren’t detecting frustration from your current colleagues isn’t saying much. People are good at hiding their emotions. Instead, make friends with people for real, and eventually you’ll know what’s going on with them.

Also, don’t worry about being blunt and opinionated. Whenever someone talks about how a woman is blunt and opinionated, I think about all the men who are even more completely blunt and opinionated and who never get flack for it, and I realize it works to their advantage, and that people are just trying to tame and sublimate us blunt opinionated women, and fuck that. It’s not something you can really change, anyway.

The only thing I’d suggest here is that you’re going to have a plan for these things (see above paragraph), and you don’t want to say anything that would deviate too badly from the plan. Stick to your own plan, and don’t try to change everything about yourself, just try to nail down what’s going on in these specific situations.

Finally, before you leave for another place, or leave physics altogether, I want you to think about how power plays happen everywhere, and sometimes they’re brutal, and ask yourself if you’re actually enjoying the physics you do. If you do, if you still love physics, and if you still get excited by your work, and if you can find consolation in knowing everyone is going through this stuff, not just you, and if you can imagine it getting better as you get better at managing it, then I’d say sit tight for now, talk to people around you, and devise a plan, and let it go through a few iterations before you reevaluate.

And if you simply can’t stand it, ignore me and go ahead and apply for jobs. I’m never going to tell a brilliant woman (or man) to stay in a miserable job on principle.

Good luck,

Aunt Pythia


Readers? Aunt Pythia loves you so much. She wants to hear from you – she needs to hear from you – and then tell you what for in a most indulgent way. Will you help her do that?

Please, pleeeeease ask her a question. She will take it seriously and answer it if she can.

Click here for a form for later or just do it now:

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. JMS
    October 18, 2015 at 9:02 am

    About the joys of getting old, I recommend this extremely touching article:
    The end should please Aunt Pythia.
    By the way, thanks for this blog, one of my favorites and a great way to waste time on sunday morning.


  2. mathematrucker
    October 18, 2015 at 11:15 am

    That first letter reminded me of a situation I once navigated. When I was was an actuarial student at Safeco Insurance in the late 1980s, evidently seeing a much different future for me than the one I was seeing, my boss pressured me to become more gregarious. This was my first real job, so I figured I better do what the boss says.

    Our (20th) floor was populated by dozens of commercial lines underwriters and about six or seven commercial lines actuaries/actuarial students. Shortly after being instructed to transform my inherent introversion to its opposite, during coffee break one morning (quick aside: with the exception of a few floors leased to dentists and such, the whole 22-story building took a 15-minute coffee break every morning at the same time, signaled by Muzak playing through speakers in the ceiling and coffee carts being wheeled out. Even though it was the late 1980s, white shirts were still required. A rebel on our floor routinely tested the boundaries by wearing white shirts with glossy white stripes…), I ventured over to the vacant cubicle where a dozen or so underwriters hung out every morning. (quicker aside: my physical build is very similar to that of Howard Stern, who is 6′ 5″, and I am equally shy in social situations, so for those who are familiar with Stern, imagine him traipsing into a den of insurance underwriters…)

    Just like when E. F. Hutton talks or Fonzie tells the crickets to stop chirping, the din of conversation instantly went silent the moment I arrived. After a few seconds it resumed. Everyone ignored me. Eventually I asked the guy right next to me a direct question when some sort of opportunity seemed to present itself. At first he kept staring straight ahead, as if to be weighing the pros and cons of responding. He finally uttered a very brief reply before directing his attention back to the others.

    I kept going back day after day and eventually became semi-accepted by several of the regulars there, but after maybe six weeks or so of this (or perhaps two that seemed like six…), I decided it just wasn’t worth the trouble and stopped going—the underwriters didn’t really like the actuaries, and that was that. This wasn’t symmetric by the way…we didn’t have much if anything against them, but they definitely weren’t enamored with us. Quant-types (actuaries included) may have two strikes against them: the usual inter-departmental rivalry, plus the general dislike non-nerds have for nerds.


    • WORKS
      October 19, 2015 at 6:49 pm

      So were you able to live up to your boss’s demands or was that pretty much the end of it?


      • mathematrucker
        October 19, 2015 at 11:09 pm

        Actually when my boss found out I’d been venturing over into the underwriters’ coffee clique, he cautioned that it was beyond what he hand in mind. As he put it, “That’s like being thrown to the lions.”

        If your question only refers to my time at Safeco, then no, I didn’t live up to my boss Jim’s “demands” to become more gregarious (the word “pressure” seems more accurate…it was somewhere between “encourage” and “demand”, and a little closer to the former). After hanging with the underwriters for a few weeks and going to one Toastmasters meeting—which I was impressed by, but didn’t quite feel drawn enough to return to—he never brought it up again.

        As for the present, one of the great things about aging is lots of things get a lot easier with experience. For me this has included social situations in general, and office environments in particular.

        The Safeco story has an epilogue:

        Being in Jim’s doghouse had a huge upside. It meant you got to be banished three floors down to the controller’s department, which had some sort of deal worked out with the CLA department that kept one actuarial student parked there.

        So while my first nine months at Safeco were spent in a small inside cubicle on the 20th, my last nine were in a medium-sized window cubicle on the WSW side of the 17th that had a spectacular view to the SW of the ship canal, Space Needle, and downtown. Insubordination sometimes has its perks…


  3. October 18, 2015 at 1:39 pm

    Dear WOMAN,

    Do not go to a less high nosed place!!!!! You will not be treated better there. There will be more people annoyed by your successes. I speak as someone who is aggressive and has a career very similar to yours at the start and have landed at a second teir institution thinking that would be all nice and fine after having similar experiences as you have had at top teir postdoc positions. But now, as a Full Professor, when I visit top teir research institutions for a semester, it is completely clear to me that it is better to be permanently affiliated with one.

    A high nosed place is top teir because the institution both attracts the smartest people and then also supports their research. Even if individual colleagues are jerks, the base standards of the institution are set to support your research. The office facilities are better. The computer facilities are better. Salaries are often better. Referees of papers and grant proposals will give you that extra mark up for your affiliation. If you are coauthoring with five people who dump your name on the bottom, at least the coauthors doing this to you are brilliant and relatively well known.

    At a lower tier institution you may hope to be the big fish heading up your own team all the time. But that is easier to do at a top teir place. At second teir institutions there is less support for your grant: less tech support, less space, less accounting… While you can negotiate salary and space when hired, it is very hard to alter the grant support structure. Trying to be a big fish at a second teir institution means constantly having to argue that you are better than your colleages and deserve more (just to meet what was minimum support at a top teir institution). Things like whether your postdocs hired on your grant will have office space or how many courses you are expected to teach without graders becomes something you need to fight for at a second teir institution and is something everyone is given without a fight at a first teir institution.

    So please, stay at high nosed places, make a point of meeting your women colleagues and support each other, work with the guys who give you proper credit, lead as many projects as you can since you are doing well with this, and fight to make it a better environment. And vent and do complain, but don’t leave!


  4. noneya
    October 19, 2015 at 12:23 pm

    Fuck getting old, and fuck treating it as if it’s a good thing. It’s not – your body is gonna suck, your brain is gonna suck, and you’re going to suck. You might feel better by convincing yourself that black is white and old is great, since you expect to get old and don’t want to feel bad about it when you do, but it’s no different from becoming happy by means of a brain injury.


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