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In my opinion

How not to lighten up your research

The three-minute thesis competition isn’t the best way to learn to communicate.

BY JANICE TIBBETTS | APR 24 2013

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.

 

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  1. postgrad / April 24, 2013 at 11:30

    yes. you should just mellow out 😉

    As long as the 3MT does not replace a defense, it’s a good think. Think of it as an elevator speech. You are at a bar, a potential funder asks you to tell him/her what you are doing. go. (no, he’s not in the same field). Without boring people to tears, tell them. In fact, I think that’s a really important skill to have.

  2. Ben / April 24, 2013 at 12:15

    This is an interesting critique. But it is worth noting that boiling down your research into a 3-minute statement or even into 30 seconds is a crucial skill when in an academic job interview, and grad students will do better at conferences if they can spark interest in their research rather than boring their interlocutors with a winding answer.

  3. Reuben Kaufman / April 24, 2013 at 12:36

    I’ll be the odd man out on this one, so far.

    It’s fine as a party game, or for a laugh. But do you really believe, Postgrad, that a potential funder will base a decision on an elevator speech?

    Do you really want to hone your presentation skills? A good place to start is to join a Toastmaster Club. I do apologize, however, that this will require some significant time investment, but the principles to be learned are far more valuable in the long run than this banal exercise. And yes, they also promote concise exposition.

    Full disclosure: I am a recently-retired prof, with no interest in “social” media (I have real friends) or Twitter, so obviously I am totally out of touch with reality. BTW: I have no shares in Toastmasters either!

    Right on, Janice!

    Reuben

  4. lotus / April 24, 2013 at 12:44

    in fact the UBC one was won by a PoliSci student explaining the mechanics of resistance – ie why some societies have revolutions and others don’t. No easy answers, of course, but the thesis was intriguing and thoughtful. On balance, a good thing.

  5. Jonah / April 24, 2013 at 12:46

    I wonder if you are missing the point of these contests, or maybe have a myopic view on the ever-increasing tension between the academy and public society. The 3MT and its ilk weren’t designed to reflect changing attention spans, but rather to both dismantle the idea that the academy is this space for the elite, inaccessible to anyone who couldn’t – or didn’t – access the kind of education necessary to wade through the jargon and bullshit, and to help students learn how to translate all their high-falutin’ knowledge out into the real world. Yes, the real world, where people don’t use the word “discourse”.

    I’m both a humanities graduate student – in philosophy, a particularly maligned and “inaccessbile” discipline – and a grants facilitator in a university research office. And there are two obvious reasons, to me, why these kinds of contests are valuable for graduate students:

    1. As you point out, many of the participants are nervous, lack skills in public speaking, lack, as you say “sophistication”. These contests are fun. They are collegial. They are an opportunity to learn how to speak to others, to share your ideas, to learn what the people with whom you share a community are up to. They are an exercise in communication, and they might help students to see how what they know might be translatable – and even interesting and valuable – to people outside their discipline, and to people in the community at large. This would certainly be a benefit once the degree is over and they realize there are virtually zero tenure-track professor jobs open to them and that they will have to figure out how to use that PhD in Religious Studies or Theoretical Physics. This is also how higher education helps to contribute to a healthy, critical democratic citizenship: communication.

    2. For those who remain in the academy, learning how to communicate clearly and succinctly has huge importance for one of the most crucial of all academic activities: grant-writing. Researchers are given precious little space in which to communicate their research plans for 3, 5, 7 years, and they are more often than not evaluated by multi-disciplinary committees (and even when they are evaluated by their own peers, there is no guarantee that their particular committee of sociologists will be made up of discourse analysts as opposed to demographers) who are specifically instructed to look for clarity, succinctness, and the ability to translate the value and importance of the research project OUTSIDE of the academy. Granting agencies are putting more and more emphasis on knowledge mobilization and translation, and as competition for funding becomes increasingly fierce and necessary, learning how to engage in this as a graduate student is invaluable training.

    So perhaps you are happy to hang out in the ivory tower, but for those of us who are not doing graduate work as a luxury but instead because we hope it might help us get a job, or because we enjoy meeting other people who do high-level research outside of our areas, or because we think that critical thinking and communication and public accessibility are all part of a healthy and functioning democracy, I think the 3MT is pretty awesome. It’s not about dumbing down your research, it’s about realizing that your research isn’t actually that inaccessible after all, once you peel away the jargon.