As a recent master’s student at Carleton University, I was mystified by an email that popped up in my inbox this winter advertising the three-minute thesis competition, an event that is sweeping Canadian universities. The idea is that master’s and doctoral students compete for prize money to explain their often-complex research to judges and an audience – in three minutes or less.
I couldn’t help think that this upstart competition, dubbed the 3MT, was in fact the antithesis of a thesis – a game-show type of exercise that could reduce big thoughts and academic research into mush. For me, the 3MT certainly prompted the question of whether academic researchers should be in the business of embracing an era of short attention spans, a world in which you should be able to say something succinctly or not at all.
As a longtime news reporter, I found my return to university two years ago was a refreshing change from my world of quick hits. Was this contest not reducing the Ivory Tower to the Ivory Cellar? Was it not encouraging “sell jobs” over substance? Would victors be able to claim their wins as academic credentials?
Skeptical, to say the least, I decided to look into the origins of the competition. The contest got its start in Australia in 2008, and three years later the University of British Columbia became the first North American university to adopt the concept. The competition has caught on across Canada: dozens of universities held 3MT contests this spring. Ontario and Quebec have come up with the idea of provincials, and in the next year or so there could well be nationals.
The idea, according to universities, is to hone communication skills, boil down ideas so that they are understandable to the layperson, and help research see the light of day by bringing academia into the real world. Laudable goals, for sure, since academe has been long accused of being out of touch. But still.
My next stop was to watch this year’s 3MT competition at Carleton in late March to see whether I could warm up to the idea of a thesis bake-off.
I walked away with two thoughts. One, the contest lacked sophistication. Many of the competing researchers were nervous and novice public speakers, and few were able to do their thesis justice. Second, and more significantly, almost all the finalists were from the sciences rather than the humanities. As Globe and Mail columnist Russell Smith pointed out, the vast majority are science students “because current advanced studies in the humanities can be more difficult to explain than science, no matter how complex the science.” Indeed, the winner at the Carleton competition, whom I must say pulled off a fine performance, was a grad student in engineering whose topic was “Evaporation in Oil Sand Thickened Tailings: The Path to Reclamation.”
The 3MT is not alone in a trend of lightening up academic research. There is an event that is catching on in the United States and Europe called a “Physics Slam,” where physicists take the stage to explain complex scientific thought. The victor is the one who receives the most audience applause. There’s also a popular blog called “Dissertation Haiku” and an online “Dance your PhD” competition with a prize of $1,000 to the doctoral student who does the best job of turning his or her dissertation into a dance video. According to the contest’s Facebook page, the event has been sponsored in the last couple of years by TEDx Brussels, an organizer of Ted-Talks events.
The 3MT, the longest running event in the trend to elevator pitch academic research, has spawned preparatory workshops and how-to guides. These include tips on posture, body language, intonation, remedies for croaky throats, how to look your best and how to avoid coming across as an academic (!). University of Melbourne, for instance, coaches would-be contestants to stay away from academic words like “discourse” because it has “virtually no place in the non-academic world.” Or take this offering, from the University of Queensland: “Forget everything you know about giving scientific presentations . . . by all means explain what you’re doing but leave out the detail, thanks!”
Where is this all going, I wonder? A University Affairs reader recently suggested a tweet-your-thesis competition, cramming your research into 140 characters or less and posting it on Twitter. Maybe I should just mellow out and embrace the idea of trying to simplify university research in an era when short reigns supreme. I’ll start by christening a Twitter contest with a snappy name. The Tweesis.