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Thesis contest: 3 minutes to clarity, content and cash

PhD candidates present their thesis at the first annual Three-Minute Thesis (3MT) competition. Emory Photo/Video.

On March 5, the Laney Graduate School (LGS) held the first annual Three-Minute Thesis (3MT) competition at Emory. 3MT is a skills development program that challenges students to explain their research project to a non-specialist audience either verbally, in three minutes, or with a written abstract, limited to 350 words. The competition was judged by a diverse panel of professionals, both academic and non-academic, and cash prizes were awarded to the winners.

"Programming such as 3MT is a fun and rewarding way to prepare our students for the very serious task of making their work accessible to broad audiences," says LGS Dean Lisa Tedesco.  

The Laney Graduate School became aware of 3MT from colleagues in the Graduate School at the University of Georgia, Athens who have hosted several competitions. Initially developed by The University of Queensland, Australia, 3MT is an event that challenges doctoral students to present a compelling oration on their thesis topic and its significance in just three minutes. LGS customized the event by including the public abstract.  

"3MT is not designed to trivialize or 'dumb-down' research, but rather to encourage students to consolidate their ideas [and to] practice speaking about their research in an interdisciplinary setting," explains Cora MacBeth, LGS assistant dean for student affairs.

Ready. Set. Present!

Nine students participated in the 3MT verbal competition, representing graduate programs in an array of disciplines, from anthropology and computer science, to comparative literature and epidemiology.  

The judges evaluated communication style and comprehension.  

Emerging victorious was nutrition and health sciences student Lisa Staimez, who presented "Unlocking the Gates to Diabetes Prevention."  

"Prepping for the 3MT competition was very rewarding for me. It forced me to distill my research into simple terms that were academic, descriptive and accessible to a general audience," Staimez says. "I was surprised with what I ended up cutting to meet the three-minute time requirement…I thought very carefully about what makes my research compelling, and undoubtedly, this exercise will be valuable as I pursue future sources of support for my research beyond the doctorate." 

Angela Miller, a graduate student in epidemiology, whose presentation "Can Fathers Prevent Preterm Birth?" earned her a runner-up finish, also found the competition beneficial. "In epidemiology and other areas of public health, relaying our findings to the public in language that everyone can understand is key," Miller says.

"I enjoyed participating, and hope it becomes an annual event that students look forward to."  

The verbal competition also featured a People's Choice Award winner, selected by audience members. This year's People's Choice was Graduate Division of Religion student William Yoo for his presentation, "American Missionaries, Korean Christians and the Making of a New Religion."

"The written and verbal competitions pushed me to clearly and concisely explain my dissertation project in religious history to non-specialist readers and listeners. It certainly took a lot longer than three minutes to prepare my verbal presentation, but I learned how to more effectively communicate my research findings through the process," Yoo says.  

The 'write' stuff 

A unique feature of the Laney Graduate School's 3MT was the public abstract. Students were asked to submit written abstracts without technical jargon and no more than 350 words in advance of the competition.  

The abstracts were judged by a separate panel, evaluated on their ability to engage the public and communicate why the scholarship is interesting and has impact. The winner of the abstract competition was mathematics and computer Science student Olgert Denas who engages software in evaluating genetic predisposition to various conditions.  

Broad support  

Now, more than ever, scholars and researchers must be able to convince people outside of the academy that their work is worthwhile – that it's relevant to addressing current problems and issues. Facing a changing job market and a challenging national funding environment, many students are exploring careers beyond the professoriate or seeking a leg up in the national competition for grants.  

"The LGS is interested in promoting events and experiences that challenge our students to present and discuss their scholarship in non-traditional ways," says MacBeth. "Physicists know how to present to other physicists. But can they describe their doctoral research and why it is important to someone outside their field?" 

Beyond challenges, however, there are also opportunities. "We live in challenging times and must face a myriad of issues that are complex and require rigorous analysis and debate. Graduate education does and must have a place in shaping these discussions," says Tedesco.  

Next year, LGS hopes to expand the competition to allow all interested students an opportunity to participate and, perhaps, eventually compete against other universities. 

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