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Three Minute Thesis

I had such a wonderful time last week competing in the 2013 Three Minute Thesis Trans-Tasman Final at the University of Western Sydney. For those of you who haven’t heard of the competition before, it’s essentially an opportunity for students enrolled in higher degree research to communicate their thesis to a non specialist audience in three minutes or less.  I realised quite quickly that I wasn’t going to win the competition. Not due to lack of ability, confidence, or content but simply because everyone was exceptionally talented, interesting and engaging.  Like me, most of the speakers had won both the people’s choice award and taken out the final at their respective universities so it was anyone’s game really (though, admittedly, it is very difficult to compete with people who are literally curing cancer). I can’t speak highly enough of my experience and I hope to articulate, what I see, as a number of benefits, applications and opportunities that the three minute thesis presents.

1.  Meeting other contestants.  This was, by far, the best thing about the competition.  When I described my experience to my husband he said, “Wow! It sounds like you were at a TED Talks after party!”  That is an excellent summation of my experience.  Those who know me will know that getting to mingle with a bunch of highly intelligent and charismatic people is pretty much my idea of awesome (even though I felt like the dumbest person in the room – I didn’t even care!).  What’s more is that, not only were the contestants completely fascinating and friendly, they were also incredibly humble.  Many of the contestants would preface their research with the word ‘just’. For example, “I’m just trying to build a space elevator.” No joke. Someone was building an elevator. Into space.

I also really enjoyed getting to chat to the other students about the highs and lows of research.  Seeing as I have completed my study both externally and part-time, I’ve often felt quite isolated so it was heartening to hear that other people had gone through similar experiences to me (even though some of these experiences are quite horrible and disheartening, it’s nice to know you’re not the only one!).

2. Sharing research.  Often we can become so absorbed in our own little study bubble that we have absolutely no clue as to what anyone else is doing – this often means that we miss out on making really useful professional connections. It was great hearing all the conversations afterwards along the lines of, “I’ll give you the name of someone at my uni who’s doing a very similar project to you.” Awesome! It also made me feel more passionate about an idea I’ve had for a while: academic common rooms. Seriously – it’s a great idea! Academics getting out of their faculties and meeting other academics informally.  This is easy and isn’t onerous. Just think – it only took us 3 minutes!

3. Realising how much you don’t know.  My mind was blown by all the amazing research topics, most of which I literally didn’t even know existed! Considering how much I love learning and my many and varied interests (which explains why I’ve been playing trivia for the last 6 years), realising all the things I could learn about was so exciting. Realising how little you know about anything is quite liberating because it takes the pressure off feeling like you should know everything.

4. Condensing your research into 3 minutes.  Most of us had been encouraged by our supervisors (or other important people) to participate in the competition. Even though at first most of us were reluctant to take on another commitment, everyone acknowledged just how valuable the experience had been for their own learning. It really forces you to consider some vital questions: What are the main points of my thesis? Why is my research significant? Do I actually have a clue?  What is my thesis actually about? I really think it should be a compulsory milestone exercise for all HDR students (though making things compulsory really does take the fun out of an activity).

5.  I think this is an exceptional learning and teaching tool.  It covers so many key academic skills (speaking, synthesising, critical thinking, writing, analysis, argumentation, addressing criteria) and I think it would make for an exceptional formative or summative assessment tool within a secondary or tertiary context.  While speaking for 3 minutes, at first, seems very easy (it only amounts to about 450 words) it’s an exceptionally difficult task which provides a lot of scope for a variety of learners.

As I said, I can’t speak highly enough of my experience. I would strongly encourage anyone doing higher degree research to enter your university’s competition and I would also suggest the format as a highly effective and challenging formative or summative assessment tool.

I’m off on holidays for a week so will see you in 2 weeks!