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Your research explained in three minutes flat

Competition that forces grad students to quickly and clearly summarize their work gaining in popularity.

BY JINNA KIM | MAR 20 2013

Imagine trying to summarize years of dissertation work into a short three-minute presentation. That’s the idea behind the Three-Minute Thesis competition, or 3MT, which has taken Canada’s graduate studies departments by storm.

The concept is simple: participating graduate students are asked to do an oral presentation explaining their research in just three minutes in a language that’s accessible to a non-specialist audience and with the aide of just a single slide. Started at the University of Queensland in Australia in 2008, it first appeared in Canada at the University of British Columbia in 2011. A handful of other Canadian universities followed suit in 2012 and this year at least 20 were holding 3MT competitions from Vancouver to Halifax. There’s even an Ontario-wide finale where the winners from 17 Ontario universities will face off at Queen’s University on April 18.

“It’s a really wonderful opportunity to train students to promote themselves, to promote their research, and really to promote the graduate enterprise,” says Mary-Ellen Kelm, associate dean of graduate studies at Simon Fraser University, which held its first 3MT competition this year in early March. The public gets to see that the graduate students are doing important work, she says, while the students get to improve their presentation skills and learn to communicate more effectively.

After a successful competition last year, Concordia University will be holding its second 3MT this April. Many of last year’s participants have indicated that they’d like to participate again and have invited their friends to join as well, says Laurie Lamoureux Scholes, director of the graduate and professional skills program at Concordia. “Most graduate students dedicate a great deal of energy, passion and time into their research areas, and often in isolation, so it’s great for them to be able to share that passion with a broader audience,” she says.

The 3MT competitions are free and open to anyone who’d like to attend. Contestants are evaluated by three main criteria: communication style, comprehension and engagement. The competition is generally divided into two rounds and money prizes are awarded to top winners.

Carole El Ayoubi, who’s doing her PhD in engineering, was the “People’s Choice” winner at Concordia’s 3MT competition last year. For the event, her thesis title, “Film Cooling Optimization in Gas Turbine Engines,” became the snappier “Now Leaving at Gate 6!” The competition itself “was a little stressful,” she says, “but looking back at it now, it was fun because I got to see so many amazing stage performances.”

Many universities, including Concordia, hold training workshops prior to the competition, which Ms. El Ayoubi made sure to attend. “I learned how things like physical postures, movement, body language, as well as voice intonation, can be very important when trying to convey a message. I learned that, if I wanted to, I can be brave and go on stage in front of a lot of people.”

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  1. Victor Chisholm / March 20, 2013 at 11:11

    I am delighted to see that more and more people and places are embracing 3-minute talks about research. Here at McGill, the Office for Undergraduate Research in Science has been organizing 3-minute talks at since January 2006. At our event, called Soup and Science, which runs for one week every fall and winter semester, about 5 professors per day talk about their research to a room of undergraduates. The goal is to expose undergraduates to different areas of research, and to get them talking to professors about getting involved. The room is always at capacity, testifying to the popularity of the event.

  2. Ismet Ugursal / March 20, 2013 at 11:12

    I am also very excited about the 3MT competition. I congratulate all those who had the vision and leadership to establish and expand this competition, which surely has a great potential to increase the exposure of research conducted at universities, reflect the importance that is put on research by the universities, and reverse the recent trend of trivialization of research. Also, as pointed out in this article, it will help master’s and PhD students to develop much needed unique skills.

    In my excitement, I came up with another brilliant idea for another competition for universities to consider: a competition to tweet the thesis. The limitation to 140 characters will certainly further develop the unique skills that the graduate students will have started to develop in preparation for the 3MT competition. Furthermore, this “Tweet Your Thesis” competition would certainly expand the reach of university research into the society and increase their understanding of the importance as well as the caliber of research work conducted by graduate students.

  3. Colette Steer / March 24, 2013 at 18:08

    Queen’s has just completed its second 3MT competition and can’t wait for the Ontario 3MT competition coming to our doors on April 18th. Representatives from the Council of Ontario Universities will be there as 17 Ontario universities compete against each other. What a great way to see the depth of research in Ontario and across Canada.