Game Theory: The Rules of the Game in Academia

chessLooking back on the stages if my education that I’ve gone through so far — from kindergarten to my current PhD position — it feels like the average hours I studied/worked per day peaked somewhere around the second year of high school.

I was about 16 at the time.

Somehow that made me wonder. Isn’t it supposed to intensify as you grow older?

Why did I spend most time at a desk during my teenage years, when I probably should have been working on my social skills?

Make no mistakes, the output of my working time increased since and I still encounter intensive long hour working days over an extended time period (usually deadline related).

But it has noticeably decreased.

High school started 7:20am and ended around 5 or 6pm. Then homework and sports.

Undergraduate meant two or three lectures a day, with the exception of Friday, which professors tended to avoid and student happily took as a regular three-day weekend.

Graduate studies: Two maximum and a couple of “free days” a week.

And as a doctoral student? I’m lucky if I can attend my supervisor’s seminar and get a language course in. I found out I’m not even supposed to enrol in classes anymore.

The rest happens at my own desk.

Here is another thing. My performance, at least the one measured in grades, went up.

I achieved a solid high school diploma which I had to put in a tremendous amount of work in for (oh French you…).

My B.A. diploma reads “good”, which is mainly due to some strategic blunders at the beginning of my academic career (taking classes that sounded interesting but were graduate level already).

By the time I stared my master’s, I had figured out the rules of the game. The “very good”-predicate is built less on hard work than at figuring out what buttons I had to push for good grades.

It worked. I got 1s and 1,3s showing that I understood some basic methodological principles of my field and showed some independent thinking.

Sure, I spent my time in the library, did my research, prepared my presentations. But it was in no relation.

I learned half “The Little Prince” by heart for my first book presentation when I was 13 and the week in advance was spent being nervous.

When I held my presentation on Soviet mega-projects during the first semester of my Bachelor’s, I compiled it entirely from primary sources. I started coughing uncontrollably about 20 minutes in.

Talking about the Suez Crisis during my Master’s involved getting some books out that have been lying in my shelf since from my undergraduate time, making a nice presentation, and enjoying the discussion with my peers and professors.

There was no plowing through 300-page readers on the train and late at night anymore, only to find out the the relevant information for the exam or term paper had to be found elsewhere.

For my high school graduation paper I worked day and night, shedding tears when dad’s printer went on a strike on the night of the deadline (I just read it again. Read your old work. Trust me.)

The B.A. thesis was three months of jogging 7am, working at 8am and closing the books at 10pm.

For writing up my M.A. thesis, I spent a summer at the desk, too, but there was the occasional going out or sleeping in. And the project involved traveling to a foreign country and doing field research.

There is an interesting pattern showing here. Whenever there was a new “phase” in my education, I would struggle first. Put in a lot of work for mediocre results. And only slowly learning the rules of the game.

The principle of putting 20% effort to achieve 80% of the work.

Sad actually.

Education should be aimed at learning out of curiosity, not figuring out a way to get good grades.

But hey, we all want that diploma in the end.

But there is an advantage to this whole concept, which is also the reason I’m writing this at the moment.

At every new step, you have to learn the rules of the game anew.

To me this is the scariest period, but also the most exciting!

And this time, it takes exceptionally long.

Getting thrown into cold water.

Do I know how to write a PhD? In theory, yes, in practice, no.

Do I know how to write a fellowship application? Do I know what the committee wants to hear? Nope, no idea. Seven rejections and counting; and they never give a feedback.

Do I know how to teach an undergraduate class? I could probably do that if I knew how to get such a position in the first place.
Asking everyone around and writing to every possible department in the University’s administrative apparatus got me close, but no cigar.

Do I know how to write a publishable article? Do I know what reviewers want to see? Hell no!

Do I know how to position myself within the academic community? Strategically chose papers where to publish to get a head start for post-doc positions or tenures? How to present at a scientific conference? How to know the right people?

And what not to do?

All no’s.

So can I put in 20% of work for a comfortable 80% result. You wish!

So, the working hours have being going up again recently. And the qualitative output down.

Gotta do it from scratch again…

Learn the rules again.

It has been two years…



My humble advice:

If you have figured the rules of the game, enjoy it a while.

Then try something new!


The 21st Century Bottleneck


Atomic Fission and Fusion: A built-in mechanism to filter intelligent life?

“Where is everybody?”  Enrico Fermi famously asked in 1950, addressing the paradox of basically indefinite possibilities for intelligent life in our universe and yet so far zero encounters with alien life-forms.

There are countless theories on why this might be the case. (Here a condensed animated break down

We are alone.

There is no technology for interstellar travel yet.

We are too far apart, even with the technology.

Be patient, they are on their way (it just takes some millions of years).

We are the first and therefore most technologically advanced, so we have to make the move.

We are looking at the wrong scale (too small or to big).

We didn’t notice (“they” communicate on different levels).

We are not encounter-worthy.

We are overlooked (think an anthill on the side of a six-lane highway).

“They” don’t want to be revealed, for whatever reason.

There is one theory, however, that has lately caught my mind:

It’s sometimes referred to as the “Bottleneck” or the “Great Filter”.

Basically it says that under the physical laws that govern our universe, life develops in a why that once we speak of intelligent life, technological progress quickly outpaces the development of social capabilities.

Bottom line, all intelligent life will first acquire the technological means for a collective suicide before maturing enough as a species to control this technological edge.

The main hypothesis: All life carries the seeds of its on destruction.

We are currently in a time-period, which some theorists have fittingly called the “21st century bottleneck”.

Somewhen in the 1960s, the United States and the Soviet Union, both investing heavily in their respective nuclear programs in an upward spiral known to political scientists as “security dilemma”, acquitted the capacity of  “mutual assured destruction”, cynically known as “MAD”.

Although the Cold War ended and we lived — sometimes more due to luck than brains — through its most precarious episodes, these capacities have since developed.

At the same time, the explosion of earth population has intensified the competition for resources, which, historically, leads to more violent conflict.

Although the there is no infamous “big red button” on the U.S. president’s desk (see Donald Trump vs. Kim Jong Un), we retain the capability to end life on earth in a matter of hours.

Let that sink in.

3.5 billion years of evolutionary history.



Did this happen to other intelligent life forms in our galaxy?


In the universe.


In this case, they didn’t make it through their bottleneck.

There was no time for social maturity to catch up with technological progress.

Now, how is humanity doing in this regard?

Honestly, I don’t know, but it might be interesting and well worth it to take a look at it.

Since the end of World War I, we are trying to build an international system that to some extent contain our destructive capacities.

Actually, since the end of the Thirty-Years War and the Westphalian Treaty…

Actually, when I think of it, we have always been trying to do this in one way or the other.

So is it working?

Are we pulling ourselves together, or have we just been lucky?

I will keep you posted from a historian’s point of view.

Any insight from your field?

Will we make it through the bottleneck?

Or is it more like a tightly screwed cork?