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In my opinion

In defence of the three-minute thesis

Making us proud to be part of academia.


Hot on the heels of tedx talks and Pecha Kucha nights, there’s a new knowledge mobilization craze sweeping the world of higher education: the Three-Minute Thesis (3MT) competition. It started in Australia and in 2011 reached Canadian shores at the University of British Columbia. 3MT has been spreading ever since, making it to the East Coast and my university, Dalhousie, in 2013.

The idea is that graduate students present their research in three minutes flat, using only a single static slide as a visual aid – no props, extra audio or video allowed. Presentations are judged by professors and other experts, such as university communications staff, on criteria of comprehension, engagement and communication. A 3MT contest can involve several heats, with winners from each heat going to the next round. Ontario and Quebec have run provincial competitions, so a pan-Canadian one might be next.

Despite lots of positive buzz, 3MT has attracted sharp criticism, some of it on University Affairs’ website. Some say it dumbs down complex research and panders to ever-decreasing attention spans. Others claim it favours research in sciences over the humanities, which are supposedly more conceptually difficult. Some worry that it excludes shy or unsophisticated speakers or, conversely, that it rewards convincing performances instead of scholarly merit.

I was a faculty judge of two of the six heats of Dalhousie University’s first 3MT competition in March, organized by Katelynn Northam in our faculty of graduate studies. It was hands down the most enjoyable service activity I did all term. I believe that the knowledge mobilization skills students develop by participating in this kind of activity are valuable – and our faculty of graduate studies ran presentation workshops beforehand for students, so the shy ones were not just thrown into the ring without help.

I think we all need to be able to explain our research at different levels of complexity, in three minutes, in 13 minutes, in 30 minutes, in three hours, or over 30 or 300 pages. But to my mind, the benefits of 3MT go beyond individual skill-sets and elevator pitches.

I am an anthropologist in a department of sociology and social anthropology, in a faculty of arts and social sciences. Most of my own work is interdisciplinary, and I’m pretty well aware of what research is under way in my faculty (and to a certain extent, social-science-type research in other faculties, because I sit on one of the university’s research ethics boards). But that still leaves me ignorant of the huge range of research going on in agriculture, medicine, engineering, health professions, computer and materials sciences, natural sciences and elsewhere. I would love to keep abreast of what my colleagues and their students are doing in these areas, but because of the way universities are structured, there is barely any contact with them, and I certainly don’t have the time or the expertise to attend their specialized seminars or PhD defences.

Dalhousie’s 3MT competition gave anyone who was there a glimpse of the sheer breadth – and depth– of research going on across the whole university. Seventy graduate students took part, and they came from all of the university’s faculties except dentistry, which has only a small graduate cohort. Students had to be registered in a thesis-based program and, contrary to criticism raised on the UA website, the arts and social sciences were well represented, with 11 participants, compared to 11 in medicine and 16 in sciences.

I got to listen to graduate students working in kinesiology, agriculture, materials engineering, oceanography, computer science … and yes, social anthropology, English and classics, too. For me, the experience was not only useful and informative but awe-inspiring. As an anthropo-logist, I am more given to deconstructing flag-waving than joining in, but the 3MT competition really made me proud to be part of Dalhousie University and the academic world as a whole.

3MT competitions give people a chance to grasp what is going on right across a university – an opportunity that is actually shockingly rare. Yes, you can critique it as a “game show” that adds yet another layer of competitiveness to the neoliberal university, where we are all chasing after scarce resources. Or, you can see is as a fantastic opportunity to create solidarity within the university and reach out beyond it, to explain and celebrate what it is we actually do. In this age when the government is closing down research facilities and Prime Minister Harper is warning that “this is not a time to commit sociology,” such outreach is more important than ever. I’ll be telling everyone about next year’s competition for sure – in three minutes flat.

Martha Radice is assistant professor in the department of sociology and social anthropology at Dalhousie University.


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  1. Trakl_ / June 1, 2013 at 15:16

    Thanks for this inflamed response, Martha, and since you think that the hidden layers of signification of fostering an event like this throughout academia is a mere matter of choice, I’d like to inform you and the readers of UA what my choice is.

    Yes, I still choose to see it as a game show that fosters competitiveness and has absolutely nothing to do with the improvement of knowledge, the real value of education.

    It is a pitiful event in which the winners are never the students: the real winners are the neoliberal institutions that exploit the students’ image and research erroneously.