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    Another pretty borderline question. While I sympathize with the questioner's desire to help his friend, I'm not sure we're the right people to ask, or that this is the right place to do it.


    I think I'll give a bit of advice. Forgive me all please if it sounds even a bit offensive -- it shouldn't.

    [lecture mode on]

    @Ben, your idea to start a discussion on Meta is perfect, but I think one should also always post this in comments. Otherwise, it's easy to miss the fact.

    @Anweshi, you really should have done your homework on why some questions are met with downvotes and discussion. Simply put, you should have spent a bit more time reading previous questions and meta threads. Then you would do the same thing -- post the question -- but you would know to (1) make it concise and provide background (2) make it Community Wiki (3) find the previous question and provide a link to it (4) meet downotes stoically and take all discussion to meta.

    If you did that, you post would have a high chance of success. Some people might think it's not appropriate, but many people, me included, won't. In fact, put correctly, it's a wondeful question which could relate to many people.

    (update for those who read after a while: I think this question indeed has evolved over time into a form where it benefits everyone)

    @Qiaochu Yuan -- it's really a good idea to provide more info why you think question is not appropriate when the person is a newbie, especially in the case like this where a person has clearly read the FAQ but understands it differently.

    @Harry -- please, let's not make jokes as a comment. If you post it as an answer, you can be up/downvoted, the discussion about your joke can continue there, and the valuable real estate below the post can be used for more important purposes.

    @everyone -- Well, I personally think our FAQ should be improved. I gave some examples why I think it is confusing in this meta post. Whatever policies we currently have, it's better to reflect them correctly in the only document many people see.

    [lecture mode off]. Hope everybody's ok with this.

    Obviously career-advice questions are important, and some of them are even "of interest to mathematicians." As such, I don't think they should be disallowed completely. But neither do we want every frustrated grad student asking about how to survive grad school.

    I don't think there's an easy solution to this problem, but I do have one recommendation: Link Terry Tao's excellent career advice page from the FAQ.
    • CommentAuthorAnweshi
    • CommentTimeJan 1st 2010
    @Ilya. So you are saying that one should spend some time on pursuing others questions and what they had to do, before posting a question. If this is the case, it will be nice to include this in the FAQ.

    I am unable to provide more background, without revealing details that should really kept private within my own school. I would really have liked to; but I am helpless. This is a public forum.

    @Harrison Brown. You could have added it as an answer to the post, rather than a comment in this meta.
    • CommentAuthorAnweshi
    • CommentTimeJan 1st 2010
    @Harrison Brown. I mean your reference to Terry's FAQ.
    • CommentAuthorHarry Gindi
    • CommentTimeJan 1st 2010 edited
    Anweshi, there is an edit button on meta. It's in the top right of each post.

    @Ilya, which joke are you talking about? The one about "smooth models"?


    "Imagine doing something else and then realize how terrible you'd be at it." - whether it's a joke or not (it sounds like a half-answer half-joke), I don't see why it should be in the comments. But it would fit answers list well.

    • CommentAuthorHarry Gindi
    • CommentTimeJan 1st 2010 edited
    That was absolutely a serious answer, again a reference to "A Mathematician's Apology".

    "I may add that they are particularly unlikely to present themselves to a mathematician. It is usual to exaggerate rather grossly the differences between the mental processes of mathematicians and other people, but it is undeniable that a gift for mathematics is one of the most specialized talents, and that mathematicians as a class are not particularly distinguished for general ability or versatility. If a man is in any sense a real mathematician, then it is a hundred to one that his mathematics will be far better than anything else he can do, and that he would be silly if he surrendered any decent opportunity of exercising his one talent in order to do undistinguished work in other fields. Such a sacrifice could be justified only by economic necessity or age."

    Then is absolutely belongs to answers! Indeed, now as I remember the reference, I'd gladly upvote it were it in the answers list :)

    @Anweshi (and everyone, I suppose, since I realize now that it was ambiguous): I meant that I think it should be a link from the MathOverflow FAQ, although it could be a useful answer to the question.
    • CommentAuthorAnweshi
    • CommentTimeJan 1st 2010
    @Harrison. Then please add it as an answer. Please soothe my soul at least with the sight of many answers to the question.
    @Anweshi: Please don't take this discussion personally. The community consensus on what constitutes an acceptable question for MO is constantly shifting as we learn more about what works and what doesn't - that's why we have meta to discuss these issues. Although many soft questions have been allowed in the past, I think the trend since then has been to be a little stricter on how far questions can stray from purely mathematical concerns, and as has been said already, your question is on the borderline.

    So much for general comments. As for my own personal opinion, I think this question deserves a different kind of attention than MO can give it. Any given answer to this question should be evaluated for its relevance to the particular situation your friend finds him/herself in, and ideally there should be a lot of discussion back and forth. This is not what MO is for. That kind of discussion would work better in the blog or forum format, or perhaps (if you really have serious concerns about your friend) in private communication with a trusted advisor.

    You mentioned something about allowing other math education questions. I do not think this is a math education question; abstractly, the same kind of problem might be faced by students in a wide variety of fields, and concretely, this is about your friend's life path, not about his education. In other words, I think this question is either too general or too specific (depending on how you phrase it) to be appropriate for MO.
    • CommentAuthorAnweshi
    • CommentTimeJan 1st 2010
    @Yuan. I am convinced and I no longer feel the need to attach myself particularly to this question. Of course I am not going to meddle into policy formations, and I will keep asking/answering math questions.
    Your input is welcome. I think the only staff member who has posted thusfar is Ben Webster.

    Sorry I'm so late to the party. I need to go to bed, and I feel like I can't string words together very well right now, so I'll just rattle off whatever thoughts I have right now.

    I feel like the question should stay open, partially because there isn't a better place for it and it's not too bad for MO, and partially because it's received such an enthusiastic response. But I don't think there should be something in the FAQ that dictates it. It's genuinely borderline and such questions are a rare enough occurrence that it would be foolish to make policy about it. If something falls outside of policy, it may mean that it needs special attention, not that there needs to be more policy to handle it, and I feel like this is such a situation. I do like the idea of linking to other career advice pages in the FAQ, so that career advice questions appear on MO if there really isn't a better place for them. If I don't do it soon, please remind me to.

    The question was made CW pretty quickly and a thread was opened here. It could have gone more smoothly if the question was CW from the get-go and written to provide a sharper question (I realize this is hard to do without revealing private information), but I'm very happy about how it was handled. I hit the post with the wiki hammer (converting all existing answers to wiki).

    • CommentAuthorAnweshi
    • CommentTimeJan 2nd 2010 edited
    @Anton. Indeed, I received a "nice question" badge for my very first question. I should have been given a softer welcome by commentators!
    • CommentAuthorHarry Gindi
    • CommentTimeJan 2nd 2010 edited
    That's not really what you should have gotten from this whole situation. The lesson is that your question _was_ borderline,but there was a discussion about whether or not it was appropriate. The conclusion was that the question was acceptable, but with reservations.
    • CommentAuthorAnweshi
    • CommentTimeJan 4th 2010
    Actually what happened was the following. I had really felt the lack of a place for having math questions/answers. Then in some blog I saw an announcement of this website. Usually one does not take such things too seriously as blogs can give all sorts of things. But one day I did visit this place. Then I saw that it is indeed really cool, and really useful, and that I should really be a regular here.

    So, what do I do? Let me ask a question .. The notice on the top says, new here? Red the FAQ. So I read the FAQ. And there is this question of my poor friend undergoing a bad situation, which had been uppermost in my mind for some time. I think, it passes the the criterion "Is this of interest to mathematicians", given there in bold letters. So I ask. And I end in a quagmire. I am suddenly pressed on by so many people, and I defend myself like the devil, bewildered about what on earth happened, what did I do wrong. .

    Now after 2-3 days of keeping around here, I understand more of this site .. And people's desire to see good quality questions. And I understand that I sidetracked. And I understand why I got criticized. All this would not have happened if I had first spent some 2 or 3 days in this website. But I jumped the gun and asked the first question which came to my mind. Indeed, I asked quite a few questions on the following day, and got banned for the same. Thus I learned, I must think over and ask only really essential questions.

    Is that right? Have I understood correctly?
    Sounds about right!

    That sounds about right to me. I'm not sure that "ask only the really essential questions" is exactly the guideline we had in mind; it could be worth asking a pretty minor question if it's answer is hard to find anywhere else. A lot of it is just making sure you only ask questions you've thought carefully about, and writing them in such a way that it is clear you've thought carefully.

    The other thing to keep in mind is that this is a young site. We're still having an ongoing discussion about what kind of questions are right for the site. Every time somebody tries a new kind of question (which you did), we have to have a internal discussion about whether it's right for the site. It probably seems a little raucous if you're not used to the site, but don't take it too personally.


    @Ansari, maybe somebody should have said it: welcome to the community! Now, as you see, we're not some evil monsters from a distant galaxy who just want to hurt feelings of others, but, rather, real people who try to balance different interests, sometimes rather impolitely and not always consistently.

    I must say, I'm not sure what "essential" means: to my knowledge, no loss of life or property would result from not asking 99.99% math questions. Still, there is the idea that you're supposed to do enough work before posting to make question as good as you can. And if you're posting a lot of questions, people will not be tolerating minor mistakes or vague formulations that they would be happy to correct if you take it one at a time.

    By the way, how would you improve the FAQ so that it reflects correctly whatever is current policy?

    • CommentAuthorAnweshi
    • CommentTimeJan 4th 2010 edited
    Improving the FAQ? Writing somewhere that "we want only serious mathematics questions" will be helpful. This would pre-empt the magic tricks kind of questions. You could also say that this is not out of any harshness, but merely out of the desire to get serious mathematicians involved with this site on a regular basis.

    This is after all the truth, right? This is for struggling graduate students looking for clarification, senior mathematicians to find a broader audience for sharing their expertise, and in general various people trying to get their confusions cleared, in their day-to-day work. In other words, this site is for serious research, and is no joke. This restriction could be reflected in the FAQ, and the people who want a broader forum might be redirected to sci.math. research ...

    Of course, I am a newbie, so I should be the last person to make suggestions on FAQ improvement. I just spoke on the basis of the "warm welcome" I was given here.. :) ..
    • CommentAuthorAnweshi
    • CommentTimeJan 4th 2010 edited
    @Ilya. How do u write something in bold?

    I should be the last person to make suggestions on FAQ improvement

    Actually, since your conception of MO was just few days ago based only on the FAQ, this makes you one of the few people competent to make suggestions to the document.

    How do u write something in bold?

    I just looked the FAQ and, indeed, it's not there (you see, I was completely sure it's there, another good example of how a person who spent a lot time on the site perceives documentation). Anyway, the formatting reference appears on the side when you edit question or answer. Not all will work on meta, though.

    • CommentAuthorAnweshi
    • CommentTimeJan 4th 2010
    Another suggestion: Even if the "how to write a good question" is in beta, it should be prominently mentioned in FAQ without any further delay. That document, I notice, now has some formatting suggestions.

    Also mention that there are people called moderators, and even other members here, who might question the purity of the post. And that moderators are busy people with a life of their own; and indeed they are serious researchers who are taking time away from their main work to moderate here, and you should try to make their life easier with only serious questions.