The three-minute thesis®

One of the oft-forgotten but critical parts of doing science is presenting one’s findings to the larger community. Science that is not shared is lost and in many ways a wasted effort. Even experiments that do not produce “significant” results have value for alerting us to dead ends that need not be pursued farther, indicating that progress needs to be sought by a different route.

Scientific findings can be publicized in many ways. Currently, the most common means of communication is journal articles, which have a fairly standard hourglass format: starting broad in the introduction, then focusing in on the methods used and the results found, before broadening out in discussion of implications. In some areas academic books rather than the shorter articles are a more common format. Also common are presentations at conferences, either as talks or as posters that usually report specific finding. Scientists are often invited to give talks or host colloquia that lay out the importance of their broad research program by summarizing many experiments. Students write and defend their research in thesis documents at the undergraduate level and the master’s level and in a dissertation at the PhD. Each method has its strengths and weaknesses as a communication tool and serves a slightly different purpose, but all serve in communicating what has been done to others.

Recently I spent a morning at an Ontario-wide competition that highlighted a new format for communication: the Three-Minute Thesis (3MT®) competition. The format of this competition takes its focus from what has been called an “elevator speech”: presenting your key take-home message to someone, particularly an important individual, that you happen to meet in an elevator. You have a very short period to sell yourself, your idea or product to someone who could change your opportunities significantly. In the 3MT® competition graduate students have three minutes, with one static slide, to explain their thesis research to a broad non-specialist audience.

Marvellous new scholarship

The 3MT® competition started close to 10 years ago in Australia and has spread widely across the university community. Each university involved has a local competition leading to the broader competition. At Laurier we held our internal competition in early March; of the 18 graduate students who presented, one was chosen to represent Laurier at the Ontario-wide competition, hosted this year by Laurier at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo. There are three such regional competitions across Canada, and videos of these regional talks will be screened to choose a Canadian winner.

When you realise that masters students spend two years on thesis research and PhD students three or four years on dissertation-related research, the challenge of reducing their work to a three-minute talk for a general audience is obvious. The talks come from all areas of academic scholarship including the humanities, social sciences and the natural sciences. The 20 students I heard at the Ontario competition were up to the challenge – I was amazed! I learned about many very interesting areas of scholarship.

Students talked about recognising cancer cells by the sound they made in blood, softening the lens in the eye to prevent short-sightedness in older adults, the experiences of childhood cancer victims, burnout in social workers and mental health issues found in young adult literature. All the talks were different but gave the audience a brief taste of multiple areas of university scholarship. My sympathies were with the five judges who had to choose the winners; in my mind all the competitors were stars.

The 3MT® format has much going for it, and it might be interesting to see it applied in other places. Can you imagine a three-minute sermon competition? Three minutes to expound on a passage of scripture and give people the take-away message. And one slide – visuals are something we might want to add to our sermons now that most churches have the technical equipment. One could not use 20-30 minutes (or more!) to develop a three-point sermon, but it might be that in this day two 3- to 5-minute sermons with visuals in a worship service might be a more effective way to communicate the good news of the gospel.


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