This year RMIT is taking part in the three minute thesis competition – the first time it’s gone national. The idea originated at the University of Queensland, at whose website you can see some past winners.

The rules are pretty simple – explain what you are researching, how you are doing the research and why it is important in three minutes for an intelligent, but non disciplinary audience. Oh – and you only get a single powerpoint slide. And it is not allowed to move – or make noise.
This is a challenge for many students who have never thought about how to explain their thesis to their grandmother.

It fell to my lot to promote the competition amongst academics and students at my university. There was a level of skepticism and fear about the competition. One staff member asked: “If a student can tell you about their thesis in 3 minutes why bother writing one?’ Clearly I had my work cut out for me…

I decided to use education as my primary means of persuasion.  I ran some workshops to help students compose their three minute pitch. It surprised me how popular this workshop was and how many requests I have got to run it again, purely from word of mouth amongst students. It seems to be filling a need that was largely unrecognised before.

We complemented this with a ‘3MT clinic’ to give students a chance to do a practice run under competition conditions and get feedback. Our clinic judging panel was comprised of research students, academics and general staff. The panel really enjoyed listening to all the great work that is happening around RMIT.

The 3MT is such a simple idea, but has so many great side benefits – here are just some of the comments from the evaluation sheets from the workshops:

“This workshop was really useful and helped me think about my thesis topic in a totally different way”
“The exercise has helped me be more concise – which is a problem I know I have”
“It’s just so useful to communicate with others about your research in this way – they give you new ideas”
“Encouraged deep thinking about my topic – surprising!”
“Students need to be forced to think critically on their own work and research. This session provides a safe, useful and critical place to accomplish this task”
“I met some possible research collaborators by doing this – thank you!”

This got me thinking how important this skill of translating our research into ‘everyday speak’ really is.

For one thing I think we would all feel better knowing that the people spending the tax dollars we give to research are doing really interesting and important work. The 3MT is the perfect way to do this because it’s about the length of time you can stand to listen to a PhD student talk about their work – especially if it is done badly!

The tight time line and inability to fall back into a shared language forces the students to concentrate on making a case for the importance and value of their research in non disciplinary terms. In other words, to explicitly relate their research to some bigger trends in world affairs than they otherwise might: climate change, over population, political unrest, terrorism, cultural awareness. Many are surprised when I suggest that perhaps these broader issues have a place in the introduction of their thesis.

Some have remarked that they feel a renewed sense of purpose when they can make others interested in their work. Given that PhD students are often dismissed as self indulgent, self important windbags sucking on the government teat (even by our own dear Prime Minister) we need assert the value  of taking the time to think about a topic with obsessive thoroughness. One way we can do this is making it interesting to the ‘outside’ – whoever that might be.

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