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A thesis in three minutes: making research accessible

Squeezing a thesis into three minutes sounds impossible. But it’s an important skill to learn. Lecture image from

Imagine condensing a thesis – which would normally take nine hours to read aloud – into a presentation just three minutes long.

Today at the Australian and Trans-Tasman Three Minute Thesis competition finals forty-three research students will do just that for a room full of their peers. Their presentations can only include one powerpoint, they must speak without notes and anyone going over the three minutes will be disqualified.

It sounds like an impossible task, but along the way participants gain valuable skills while also shedding some light on what happens in that ivory tower.

The Final for the Trans-Tasman 3MT will commence at 2:00pm. Click here to watch a live broadcast of the competition.

The elevator pitch

The Three Minute Thesis competition started at The University of Queensland in 2008 and was founded on the well-worn business trope of the “elevator pitch” – a way to simply and quickly propose a new business idea in the time it takes to get from the ground floor to the top level boardrooms.

So the idea went: if a good elevator pitch can open up new doors in the business world, why can’t it do the same in academia? And the concept for the first Three Minute Thesis competition was born.

Distilling a project into three minutes requires candidates to think about their audience and pick out the salient points; while honing the delivery helps build confidence and provides tools for engaging with an audience.

But the Three Minute Thesis concept is about far more than improving public speaking. It goes to the heart of what it now takes to be a successful researcher.

Communication and the modern academic

Just take the competition for grant funding as an example. Invariably, those making the decision on your grant application will no doubt be intelligent, but are unlikely to know your subject as intimately as you.

They will also be inundated with numerous applications and under pressure to allocate the limited funding they have at their disposal. Being clear and concise in these grant rounds could be the difference between receiving funding and missing out.

Along with vying for grant funding, there are other reasons academics need great communication skills. A skill all modern researchers need is to make their research accessible without dumbing it down – a skill clearly visible in a Three Minute Thesis presentation.

The public too, increasingly expect academics to prove the value of research. And as more and more researchers now blog, tweet and post articles about their research to websites such as The Conversation, our writing needs to be clear and compelling – precisely the hallmarks of a successful Three Minute Thesis presentation.

Building skills

Of course, participating in the Three Minute Thesis does not just build skills that are applicable to an academic career. We know too well that not all of our graduates will go into research and that some will end up taking other career paths. But clear communication remains invaluable in all industries.

The overarching values of the competition have been key to its appeal. This has been borne out by the sheer number of universities running their own competitions not just in Australia and New Zealand, but in countries such as Canada, the United States, England and Singapore.

More than a prize

Today the winner will walk away with a $5000 prize and their university will have the right to host the next 2013 Trans-Tasman competition.

But the competition goes beyond winners and losers; it promotes the importance of research to the public and helps develop the next generation of communicators – in academia and beyond. Each of the competitors will have developed much needed skills, grown in confidence and broadened their network of contacts.

And surely, that is something to be celebrated.

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