This is the second in a series of post in which I reflect on some milestones of my own life.
At the moment of writing, I have no idea of how to structure all such “stories” – so, I must warn the reader that whatever is written here may be subject to change, and may even be incomprehensible if one is not familiar with my persona.
After having lived for 31 years, 3 months and 9 days, it is difficult to determine which decision I made had the greatest impact on my life. Yet, I find that going for a PhD was among the most significant ones. In what follows, I will attempt to summarize, contextualize and justify the reasons that made me opt for this path. [a] SPOILER: after reading many blogs of other renowned scientists and researchers, I can safely state that my reasons are much different from anyone else’s—and by a huge margin.
To this purpose, however, I must first provide some background on myself. In a previous post, I elucidated the major events that transpired during my BSc. Here, I will do the same—but for my MSc and, specifically, from December 2013 until April 2016.
I was extremely confused at the end of December 2013.
On the one hand, I was somewhat disappointed by myself: I was unable to obtain the “perfect” graduation mark that I had been longing for since I enrolled in my university—and I was dead-set to rectify this failure during my MSc. On the other hand, the recent events (above all, the death of my cat) deprived me of the motivation to focus on my studies.
I must stress that I was oblivious of such lack of motivation: if one were to approach me in December 2013 (or anytime during 2014), and asked “What’s your primary focus, now?” I would have answered “Getting my MSc. cum laude.” Yet, there was nothing that I did for the following 15 (fifteen!) months that could be used to support such an answer. Indeed, from December 2013 until February 2015, my entire life was (subconsciously) devoted to a single activity: video-gaming.
Now, I will dedicate a different post on the subject of videogames. What I will describe below are just the most essential elements for understanding the purpose of this article, i.e., my self-development during my MSc. degree, which coalesced into the decision to go for a Ph.D.
A Healthy Drug
Let me start from the end: from December 2013 (i.e., when I officially started my MSc.) until February 2015, I had only 15 CFU registered in my gradebook (out of 120), corresponding to just two courses. I did attempt others, but either I did not “complete” them (i.e., I only did some “parts/exam” of the whole course, some of which with unsatisfactory results) or I straight out failed the exams. Moreover, I barely attended any lesson at all. Put simply, during this timeframe, my days could be summarized as: wake up at 2PM, play Guild Wars 2 until 7AM, go to bed, rinse & repeat.
Guild Wars 2 was a (relatively) new game that I happened to like (in 2013) and which provided the right mixture of “competitive” and “casual” gameplay. These characteristics were crucial for my situation, as it fueled the so-called “instant gratification” that is typical of many addictive activities. Let me briefly explain. Games that are highly competitive have a playerbase who give their all to win; hence, either you are also willing to push yourself to the limit, or you will hardly win any match—which is the entire goal of competitive games. Conversely, games that lack any form of “Player versus Player” tend to become stale after a while—either because you simply finish the game (hence, why keep on playing?) or because the only opponent is an AI (which, once you learn how to beat, you will feel very little pleasure in doing so). Guild Wars 2 falls exactly in the middle of these two categories: it has a PvP component, but most of its players do not have a true competitive mindset. Hence, it takes little effort to become “above average”, thereby leading to a player “easily” beating a lot of other players—and doing this feels good.
Perfectionism. My story is simple: from being a complete casual, I decided – on a whim – to start putting more effort into this game. As a consequence, I started “to win” and – since that felt good – I kept on doing this over and over, thereby increasing my skill in the process. At the beginning, I learned the ropes mostly by lurking some forums and public boards; with time, however, I started to develop my own playstyle, which I kept on refining in any way I could. Whatever I was doing during a given day, I was thinking about “how to get better”, or “how to beat a certain opponent” or even “what I would do in a given situation”. I began recording the videos of my own gameplay and analyzed them; I wrote down math formulas and ran simulations; I began experimenting with different playstyles—sometimes against other player with the same mindset and purpose as mine. I became strong.
What about my studies?
We only live 24 hours per day, and we can hardly pursue different goals (with the same degree of success) at the same time. Hence, it is only logical that my dramatic improvement as a Guild Wars 2 player was accompanied by a complete lack of progress towards my “perfect” MSc. graduation goal. However, I was not aware of this until February 2015.
An imaginary slap. I still remember it today. It was a Monday, in late-February 2015. On the following day, I was supposed to have the “second” part [a]The grade was an average of the first and second part, which could be increased by up to +3 with an oral examination. I received a 27/30 in the first part—in June 2014! of an exam. It was 7AM, and my mother (who knew about the exam) came into my room[b]Until I moved to Austria in 2020 (to work at the University of Liechtenstein), I have always been living with my mother. and said something along the lines of “are you sure you’re going to pass tomorrow’s exam?” to which I instinctively replied “Yes, of course!”. She did not say anything more, but her question resonated in my head. The following day, I did the exam; and failed it.[c]Such failure led to the (arguably nice) score I got on June 2014 to disappear: I had to redo it from scratch. I decided that I had to change something.
Epiphany (and excuses). In just a few days, everything became clear to me. What I had been doing for the past 15 months was an activity with no relevance to my true goal, and which began due to excuses which I used to justify my lack of devotion to such a goal. Let me summarize such excuses:
- Since I started my MSc. in (late) December 2013, I had already missed all lectures held between September and December 2013. Hence, it “made sense” that I did not focus on such courses in the Jan./Feb. 2014 session.
- Since I did not do any exam in the Jan./Feb. 2014 session, it was likely that the subjects taught in the following semester would be hard to grasp for me. Hence, it “made sense” that I did not attend the lectures held during Mar.–Jun 2014.
- Essentially, in June 2014 I had attended no lesson at all, and also had no exam registered in my gradebook. I had to do “something”, so it made sense to focus on the easiest exams—which I did with some success: I passed one with 27/30, and the first part of another (i.e., the one mentioned above) also with 27/30.[c]In retrospect, such grades probably did more harm than good since they delayed me realizing the issue.
- During Sept.–Dec. 2014, I was at my peak in Guild Wars 2 and the (arguably) decent grades I got during the Summer exam session made me believe that “ultimately I do not really need to attend lectures!”; as a matter of fact, all courses had plenty of slides, so I could just study on them!
- In January 2015 I did one exam, which I passed with a 28/30. The reason why I did not get a 30 was because I was asked a question whose answer was not found in the slides. I blamed it to the TA, and not to my lack of diligence as a student.
- In February 2015, when I was (attempting to) exercise for the exam that I ultimately failed, I even went to the extent of thinking that “I can even accept an 18 here[d]18 is the lowest grade in Italy. Furthermore, to get a “cum laude”, one needed at weighted average grade of at least 28.5/30., after all.” Surely, such a score would not irremediably compromise my chances of getting a “perfect” graduation score, but if I began to put the bar so low, then what was the point in aiming for the top?
The “slap” I received from my mother made me realize how absurd my life was turning out to be.[e]In February 2015, I had over 5k hours of gameplay in Guild Wars 2. Given that (effectively) I started playing that game in June 2013, you can do the math.
Let me, once again, start from the end. In March 2015, I had 2 exams registered, for a total of 15credits (out of 120) and an average grade of 27.3. I graduated in July 2016 (meaning that in just 14 months I obtained 105credits), with an average grade of ~29, which allowed me to receive the “perfect” graduation mark (i.e., “cum laude”, the highest grade in Italy). What I did was simple: I changed my priorities. The time I originally dedicated to Guild Wars 2, I began dedicating to my studies—and, in particular, to programming.
Programming is fun. In the first part of this series of post, I acknowledged many times that my programming skills were far from exceptional at the end of my BSc. degree. Although I cannot claim that I am a genius software developer today, I can safely state that my understanding of programming (and of computer science as a whole) dramatically improved in the second part of my MSc. degree, as I began to spend a substantial amount of time in solving programming exercises, sometimes devising original solutions in “unique” programming languages [f]I’m talking about you, NetLogo!, trying out new frameworks[g]Such as Apache Spark, which I used for my MSc. thesis. while also paying much more attention to some theoretical aspects—such as data compression, which I found fascinating.
Lectures are still a no-no. Perhaps surprisingly, my stance on lectures did not change. In other words, I did not attend a single lecture even during the “second” part of my MSc. degree. This is because of two reasons:
- First, because most of the concepts pertaining to computer science can be learned online; hence, even if some parts are vague, I could simply perform a quick web-search to clear any of my doubts.
- Second, because I spent so much time in programming (or exercising autonomously) that I did not feel the need of attending such lectures—at least from a learning perspective (and my exam grades confirmed this fact).
However, there is a crucial remark I must make: students should not attend universities solely for “passing exams”; at the same time, a lecturer should not be just one who “delivers some knowledge” (as I stated above, obtaining such knowledge today can be done without a university—especially in subjects related to computer science). On the contrary, a lecturer should be a source of inspiration for the students, and the lectures should be a means to convey such inspiration. In my case, I can simply state that it was my own curiosity that inspired me to study the subjects of my MSc.
(end of part 2)
Lessons Learned (from my MSc., 7 years later)
My intention with this post was elucidating the two-sides of my MSc. It took me a total of 30 months to get my MSc. degree: the first half I did almost nothing, while in the second half I did everything. There are three lessons to be learned from this post:
- Our minds can trick us. I definitely did not want to “procrastinate” (i.e., engaging with Guild Wars 2) for so long; yet, I could not stop it once I began.
- We can always change. After the “slap” I received from my mother, I was the one who did the 180° that led to me achieving my goal in just 15 months.
- Motivation is everything. Even though I studied a lot, I did not “feel” studying as a burden. Nobody was forcing me to put in the amount of effort I put into studying, since I was doing everything out of my own volition.
Finally, I must also warn the reader that it’d be a significant mistake to conclude that the time I spent playing Guild Wars 2 was useless: I can safely state that most of the techniques I use today (as a researcher!) stem from what I learned as a competitive gamer—but this will be discussed in a dedicated post.
The next post will probably be the last of this series, and will focus on my MSc. thesis and will then attempt to completely answer the question of “why I opted for a PhD.”