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!

Change VS. Make America Great Again

Trump and Obama

Trump and Obama: Source:

“Trump and Obama are doing essentially the same thing.”

My 90-year-old landlord is convinced I should write my dissertation about Donald Trump. He says it would be “more interesting”. Fair enough.

Instead I’m “stuck” with Obama’s Middle Eastern policy. How he tried to extend his slogan of “Change” into that troubled region by promoting a “New Beginning”.

I marvel at questions like  these:
Why was there a new beginning needed?
How did the ‘new’ look like in the eyes of the charismatic 44th President of the United States?
And what on earth did he refer to as ‘old’? Bush? Clinton? Cold War diplomacy? The New Deal? Slavery?

Then it struck me, sipping my tea at the window and watching my landlord bring the trash bins to the street.

Trump is essentially doing the same thing!

Let that sink in.

The beloved champion of the free world that seduced Europe in his 2008 speech at the Brandenburg Gate.

And then what many on this side of the Atlantic consider an erratic Twitter lunatic on the who starts fires everywhere, and whose ego might as-well bring the end of humanity as we know it.

They are doing the same thing.

Making an un-great America great again or changing America for the better. Where is the difference? For Trump, the past is bad, of course. And for Obama? If everything was alright, there would be no need for change.

Two Presidents. Is this a pattern? Let’s have a look at some past slogans:

John Kerry (2004): Let America be America Again

George W. Bush (2000): Reformer With Results

Walter Mondale (1984) America Needs a Change

Jimmy Carter (1976) A Leader, For a Change

Gerald Ford (1976): He’s Making us Proud Again

Warren G. Harding (1920): Return to Normalcy

James Blaine (1884): Ma, Ma, Where’s my Pa, Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha

Alright the last one is an honorary mention, though it seems like politics were more fun back in the 19th century.
(Have a look:

The others all promote change in one way or the other. Promising their voters a departure from the current status quo, which of course is undesirable, seemed to be a common thing.

Just like Trump.

Just like Obama.

Like pretty much every other politician. They rarely promote the status quo.

Or would you vote for “Same old thing with Nils”?


Change sells.

The present is never perfect, and future promises are easily made.

Politicians get votes and voters are inevitably disappointed.

But it wins elections.

Just like Trump.

Just like Obama.

The devil, of course, lies in the details.

Hitler’s Car Accident – Why Historians Don’t Engage in Counterfactual History and You Shouldn’t Either


Hitler in a car (but no accident), 1940.

“What if Adolf Hitler was killed in a car accident in 1933?”

Chances are that at one point of your school or college formation you came across a question that sounded something like this. With me it came up in a high school history class. Little was I aware how superfluous the question was.

The direction which this question is trying to aim is obvious: If Hitler was killed in 1933, would there be a World War II. Would 6 Million Jews have been murdered in concentration camps? All of a sudden, everybody in the classroom had an opinion on the issue. As one Ancient History professor once said: “Discussion without factual base is an easy exercise.”

However, the question is nonsense.

Firstly, Hitler quite obviously did not die in a car accident in 1933, World War II happened and 6 Million Jews were murdered in the Nazi’s death camps.

Secondly, historians struggle to determine the significance of different factors for a certain outcome — even with events that actually happened.

Thirdly, there is an infinitive number of alternative scenarios if we venture into the realm of the possible. History might have played out the same minus the personal life of Hitler. We might have world peace today and settled on Mars. The United States and the Soviet Union might have entered in a low scale conventional war without the common German enemy, eventually developed nuclear weapons, escalated the war, and annihilated humanity. For what we know, elephants might have enslaved mankind in some wicked turn of events. What is the point?

Finally, the uncertainty factor exponentially increases with time. Most likely, Hitler’s friends and relatives would have buried the would be dictator after his fatal accident in 1933. This was common practice then as it is now. A funeral would be held. In other parts of the world history might not have been affected immediately. In 1933, the New Deal would still have been advanced and prohibition would have ended in the United States, Paraguay would still have declared war on Bolivia, and Choudhry Rahmat Ali would probably also have published the Pakistan Declaration. But what about January 3rd, 2018? Would I even write this post?

History happened. What historians do is reconstruct plausible scenarios based on the information (sources) they find. Look at different factors that led to events and developments. If there are no sources and only assumed factors, the exercise is pointless.

How does this translate to one’s personal life?

Ever doubted a decision you made? What if i took/didn’t take this job offer? What if I married/broke up with that man or woman? Recently our house burned down. We are now looking for the reason. Maybe if had called the night the fire broke out, someone would have had to go look for the phone, seen the fire a little earlier, and could have put it out before it was too late. But I didn’t. The house burned down. This is history now.

Whenever I look back on a decision therefore I assume it was the right one. Why? Firstly, I am still here reflecting the consequences. In a worst case scenario this wouldn’t be the case. Secondly, my loved ones are still around too. It can’t be that bad.

So why spending energy on alternative outcomes.

Do it like the historians. Don’t engage in counterfactual history.

PS: Unless you are a language teacher and are giving your students an exercise on how the use conditional clauses.