A (Successful) Three Minute Thesis Competition!

I explain what "Three Minute Thesis" is, how it's judged and how I did my best to perfect my presentation (with some success!).



What is Three Minute Thesis (3MT)?

3MT is an annual and worldwide competition started in 2008 which challenges PhD students to condense their doctoral research into a short, snappy, 3-minute presentation using only one PowerPoint slide. Your goal is to disseminate your research to a non-specialist audience, so lots of technical terms are best avoided. It's a great opportunity to practice some key skills and public engagement in a friendly and supportive environment.

Why get involved?

3MT is a great opportunity to develop some skills that are essential to a range of industry and academia jobs, in a positive environment (which can be difficult to come by in academia). Here are some things you can learn by competing in 3MT/you can use 3MT to evidence on your CV.

You'd never know I used to be scared of public speaking - and that's the goal!

  1. Presentation/Public Speaking
    I am not a natural public speaker - I used to hate it, in fact. I vividly remember the fear I felt whenever I had to give a presentation as part of my undergraduate degree. Unfortunately for anyone in the same boat, the common line that "practice makes perfect" is true. While I don't claim to be an expert in public speaking, a few years of presenting at journal clubs, lab meetings, internal seminar series, leading seminars and even talking about the history of prohibition to every group of customers at an old bar job has definitely diminished the fear. Do I still feel a bit nervous right before I step up for a presentation or my first seminar with a new group of students? Yes, definitely. But, through practice, I've reached the stage where I'm confident in my ability to deliver a presentation well and feign confidence even if I don't feel it. 3MT was another great place to further my confidence when public speaking.

  2. Conveying a complex topic simply and succinctly
    There are so many times in your life when people will ask you casually "what's your PhD about?", and they want a 1-minute summary (tops). Similarly, you're likely to be asking in interviews about your research, and while they might want you to go slightly more in-depth, they definitely don't want a word-for-word recount of your thesis. Additionally, you'll have to explain your topic in a way that your audience can understand. It's easy to talk about your research with your supervisor who's been with you every step of the way and knows the technical terms you tend to use, but can you explain your work to a non-specialist? 3MT is a great way to practice providing a succinct summary of your research in an accessible way that captures people's interest while making the "why, how and so what?" points clear.

  3. Answering unprepared questions
    This is the part of any presentation that I dread. You have a fair degree of control over how the actual speech goes and how the slides look. But once your presentation is finished, the floor opens up to questions and you're at the mercy of the audience. I've found few opportunities to truly practice this, and even fewer when it's a low-pressure situation. 3MT is a chance to have people ask you follow-up questions to your presentation without any real consequences if you fub your answers or even can't answer. It's great to practice skills like this in a low pressure and supportive environment.

The Judging Criteria:

The judging criteria for 3MT are publicly available and are a great place to look when you're starting to plan your presentation. It's broken down into two main categories, each with three sub-points. I'm going to talk about these points and how I tried to achieve them within my presentation.

Comprehension and Content

  1. Background and significance: This was something that I felt was glossed over in a few of the presentations I watched because people were eager to focus entirely on their own research. However, this is not something that should be scrimped on. I often tell my students that the most important thing that should come out of the introductions they write for papers is an understanding of why this research is important. I spent the first minute of my three talking about the importance of digital inclusion, offering some statistics and context. This meant that my research felt fully rationalised by the time I started talking about it.

  2. Research strategy and design: This was the focus of the next minute of my presentation. I spoke briefly about the approaches taken by previous, interventionist research and why I felt they were insufficient. I then spoke about what I'm practically doing in my research and how I'm measuring outcomes to test the effectiveness of my intervention.

  3. Conclusion, outcomes and impact: I haven't gathered enough data to be able to give a full run down of my findings yet, which made this judging point a bit more difficult to answer. Instead, I spoke about my predicted findings and the implications and impact of those.

My slide from the competition.
When you're only allowed one slide, simplicity and visual information are key!

Engagement and Communication

  1. Clear, non-specialist language: I think this is best done by presenting to a non-specialist and asking what they didn't understand. While I wrote my presentation with this audience in mind, I still found it valuable to corner my partner, make him listen to it, and tell me what was unclear. Similarly, none of the images in my presentation required specialist knowledge to be able to understand.

  2. The slide was defined and enhanced the presentation: I think I could have done better with this. I think slides which made the process of research clear were well received, whereas mine is more a collection of images that I spoke through. I think making the timeline clearer with visuals would have been beneficial. However, I do think that my slide was visually simple and accessible - bare in mind the size of the room you're presenting in and that text and many small images may be difficult to see from the back of an auditorium.

  1. Enthusiastic presentation and capturing the attention of the audience: I think this is something that comes with practice. I was confident in what I had to say, so I could focus on making my talk sound natural and engaging, rather than worrying about what I had to say next or whether I was going to run out of time. I'd also recommend making the context applicable and relatable to the audience if possible; I spoke about how I was very reliant on my ability to FaceTime friends and family, or Google search if I was sneezing because of COVID or hayfever. A joke doesn't hurt either!

I had a great time competing at the 2022 3MT competition at Cardiff University. It was lovely to hear about so many people's research and practice some skills that can easily become neglected (and winning a prize didn't hurt either!).