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The Black Hole

Reality TV invading university – Thumbs down to the three minute thesis


Maybe I’m getting old, but after reflecting on the recent uprising of Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competitions across the world and the accompanying bravado, I feel that we are drifting far away from the core components of academic training.

Started in 2006 at the University of Queensland, the 3MT idea is very simple.  You get up and explain your research in three minutes and you get judged on communication style, audience comprehension, and engagement. Yes, that’s right, there is no criterion based on what you are actually researching nor the quality of it. These competitions trivialize the research and demean the researcher rather than celebrating the excellent work that can be produced at our universities independent of stage performance.

I feel this way for several reasons that I will try to outline here:

Trivializing, not simplifying

Just as X-Factor and American Idol have been criticised for killing music, the 3MT competition trivializes the research in favour of the presentation style. It doesn’t stop here, as it seems that many facets of academia are headed in this direction including the perfection of grantsmanship vs. actually doing difficult research.

Moreover, Russell Smith wrote a great column on 3MT in the Globe and Mail last year entitled “Complex ideas can’t always be made simple” which highlights the lack of humanities and social science presentations making it to the final. I have to agree, further noting that science-based presentations will often have a wow factor (big machine, small robots, etc) that unfairly push them ahead.

Also, it seems from watching a few of the winning presentations (e.g. UBC’s recent competition) that much of the content is derived from the lab group’s research (often spanning decades) rather than the contribution of the individual making the presentation. This is a direct function of not having sufficient time to introduce a topic and show how your own research advanced things – it makes me wonder if the same could not be achieved by hiring a PR specialist for a lab, but at the salary of a PhD student.

Communication vs. Performance
Of course there is an argument to be made for better communication of scientific concepts to the public – I am a longtime supporter and contributor to such efforts – but is a reality TV-like setting the best way to achieve this? Do we really need to give PhD students yet another distraction from their research projects?

Recognition in academia has long been gained through publications in peer-reviewed journals or books as this requires people with expert knowledge to judge the quality of the research. My personal bias of how best to communicate science to the public therefore leans much more strongly toward RSAnimate (which takes excellent academic lectures and enriches them with illustrations) or TED talks (which gives the stage to already established leaders in the field).

Let’s not simply hunt for the best performers and then find some science for them to do.

My research is really great – just believe me 
One of the best ways of convincing someone is to really believe what you’re saying by speaking with conviction. However, if you were to ask me to name the best qualities of an academic, at the top of my list would be their reluctance to believe, i.e.: their skepticism. “Believing” in your results – rather than definitively proving them – is the starting point for cutting corners and propping up work that is based on faulty assumptions.

The big worry that I have about 3MT is that it encourages the best performers rather than the best researchers to continue their careers. I’ll be very interested to follow the careers of this first round of winners – how many will stay in academia? how many will get ahead based on their prize? Only time will tell… for now I remain deeply suspect, and will go take a nap in my rocking chair.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. David Wrate / May 28, 2012 at 19:48

    Like you, I’ve watched this trend grow and find it completely absurd. I’ve not done doctoral work but I recall a grad school international business class where our presentations were graded on how well we presented and not on the content. We could have talked about virtually anything so long as the presentation was polished and no one put their hands in their pockets.

    I surely hope that the credentials are not granted solely on the basis of this ridiculous charade.

    • David Kent / May 29, 2012 at 10:18

      Hi David – thanks for your comment. It is very interesting to here that the same happens in business schools, though I would say there is some justification if it’s done in the context of sales/marketing where you arguably would depend on presentation skills in your career. The trend in scientific research is very real though with presentation skills and ability to market your research comprising a greater proportion of the total package.

      Again – communication of research is a necessary skill, but we should be really careful not to prop up the careers of good presenters with shaky research over those who cannot present well but have stellar research.

  2. Mike / May 30, 2012 at 00:15

    Not to mention the obvious bias toward extroverts!

  3. SB / June 1, 2012 at 01:10

    I should probably preface the rest of what I say with a disclaimer: one of my friends is a winner of one of the competitions, so there is obvious potential for bias there.

    – I’m not sure I see how the 3MT is qualitatively different from things like RSAnimate or TED Talks (which are already simplified past the point of having any utility beyond light entertainment)
    – The reality TV comparison is lost on me – the 3MT aims to take a significant intellectual contribution and distill it into a very short presentation, whereas the aims of reality TV are exactly the opposite
    – I do agree that the “wow” factor associated with science, and particularly biomedical science, gives this field an unfair advantage in terms of securing public support
    – I don’t understand why the 3MT would push people to “believe” in their research any more than any other competition (scholarship, grant) would – if anything, the stakes are too low to incentivize any kind of serious unethical behaviour.
    – As for pushing the public to believe things without question – I think this is going to be a caveat of any talk given to a general audience, i.e. the vast majority of science communication efforts.
    – My bet is that results of the 3MT competition will never bear any weight within sectors where the quality of one’s research matters (academia, industry etc). They might give an advantage to a small number of people applying for jobs in areas related to communication, where presentation/performance skills are important, in which case I think this is actually a fair criterion.

    Also, I lol’ed pretty hard at the quip of this giving PhD students yet another distraction from their research. See, I know this postdoc who spent most of his grad student days distracted by various public outreach and student society efforts… people in our department still talk about his amazing efficiency and ability to produce top-notch results with a minimum investment of time. And I would bet you cookies that the winners will have an increased likelihood of success at their chosen career compared to the average grad student… not necessarily because the 3MT helped them directly, but because the population partaking in things like this is likely to be enriched in type-A go-getters who tend be highly motivated and ambitious (and rewarded) when it comes to research, networking, job-hunting etc.

    (sorry about the super long comment!)

    • David Kent / June 1, 2012 at 05:26

      Hi SB,

      First – thank you for your comments, and yes, I grimaced a little writing in the distraction comment as well, but let me explain why I left it in along with responses to your other comments:

      1) I concede the point on TED talks, they are more TV fodder and “wow” material… but RSAnimate is taking a regular (sometimes lengthy) talk and illustrating the points to bring major concepts across – thereby adding value to it.

      2) The reality TV comparison is one I will argue for though… you say that 3MT aims to “take a significant intellectual contribution and distil it into a very short presentation”, but I don’t see any evidence of contestants being required to have any particular level of contribution and the judging panel is far too broad to be able to determine where these contributions fit. If departments nominated the top X% of PHD students (by academic merit) to be able to compete, I could be convinced. But as it stands, you could have no (or minimal) intellectual contribution, but be gifted with excellent presentation skills and this competition embraces the latter at the expense of the former.

      3) I don’t think 3MT pushes researchers to believe, I simply think that those who believe strongly in their research will perform better – just imagine if you were talking about the success of a drug in an animal model… what works better from a presentation perspective: “All the animals were cured of their disease – all due to our super drug!” or “We’ve had some success in animal models, but some normal cells are killed, and we observe some side effects like ___,___, and ____” – I want the latter person doing the medical research, but they don’t have a hope of winning 3MT.

      4) I will take your bet on on success in 3MT not bearing weight within academia and industry – I think exactly the opposite will happen. People who have a proven track record of excellent communication skills will move forward faster (and to a certain extent they should, as communicating one’s research is a key component of the whole process). This is exactly what worries me… the 3MT “performer” stands to gain a lot which is wonderful if their science is good (they will and should be very successful), but I’ll bet you your cookie back that some of them will not be good scientists and will be artificially pushed forward by success in things like 3MT. Science is not just about the research, communication skills are a key component… but good science must still the priority.

      Finally, in response to the distraction comment, let me comment briefly:
      I think science outreach (in schools, at science centres, in the public, etc) is great. I think student societies that build capacity and infrastructure for future generations of trainees are great too (if run properly, and that is likely a whole other kettle of fish). But what does a set of entries into the 3MT produce? Lots of hard work goes into making most presentations that don’t result in very much (i.e.: the first round entries) and those entrants fall back into oblivion (like failed X-factor contestants) and the few that do make it to the finalist stage are a mix of talent + performance or performance alone…

      In my opinion, bringing science to the public is much more effectively done when scientists understand how to communicate their research but teaching scientists how to communicate is best done through courses and workshops, not a celebrity judged competition – just as the best music is typically made with hard work and training without monetary reward. Just my two cents though.

      Thanks again for the comments! Will look forward to more on our future posts.

  4. Dr.Doinglittle / June 1, 2012 at 17:34

    I’m all for 3MT and the like. Having the capability to present complex information in a succinct and compelling manner is a valuable skill, especially those who want to become teachers. Otherwise, you might as well read out your thesis in an emply field since it’ll have as much resonance with your audience.

    Furthermore, why resist something that is going to additionally benefit the majority of graduates who aren’t going to land that prized TT job. I’d counter this post and suggest that this is exactly the kind of thing that graduate students should be encouraged to do more of. Most do not end up on the tenure track and face big challenges trying to land non-academic jobs precisely because they come out their programs lacking basic workplace skills. Merely putting “able to write a precis” on a resume means diddly to an employer – they want something quantifiable, and having placed in a competition of this sort does exactly that. Besides, if you can’t explain your work in a concise way that cultivates interest in others, it probably isn’t worth the time to read.

    And I too fail to see what this has to do with reality TV.

    • David Kent / June 1, 2012 at 18:03

      Hi Dr D.

      Thanks for your comment.

      I agree that communicating science is valuable – I have no argument there at all. As I’ve said before, I am a long time supporter of programs that broaden the skill set of graduate students. What I don’t see however is how 3MT improves communication skills… I think that teaching communication skills is important, but again fail to see how 3MT improves this. It is simply a forum for identifying those who have good communication skills. Workshops and courses in communication of science are far more effective – maybe we’d agree that such programs might be mandatory for grad students(?).

      As for reality TV – while I’m not wedded to the analogy, I think there are strong comparisons … Performance trumps talent. Why should record deals go to American Idol winners instead of the talented groups that have been slaving away for their shot?

      In the end, I think we agree that communicating science is a necessary skill and we differ on how this should be best achieved. I look forward to hearing more from you as the site progresses.