Delivering a thesis in three minutes

Research pitch competition helps grad students hone presentation skills for community audience.


(Edmonton) Cramming two or more years of painstaking research into a three-minute spiel may seem impossible, but a handful of University of Alberta graduate students have done just that.

Taking part in the Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition this month, more than 75 U of A graduate students from 31 faculty departments honed their communication skills by explaining their research projects to a non-academic audience—in just three minutes. One take, one photo slide, no props. Not an easy job for young researchers trained to think and work in techno-speak, but the whirlwind challenge was useful in sharpening their presentation skills and getting their points across quickly.

“The competition compels students to reflect on what they do in their work and how it benefits society,” said Renee Polziehn, director of the Professional Development and Outreach Program in the U of A’s Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research. “We believe it is the researcher’s responsibility to be able to share their work with various audiences, including the wider community, and the Three Minute Thesis competition is a great way to do that.”

The master’s and PhD students, from the faculties of medicine and dentistry, agriculture, engineering, education, public health, nursing, arts, science and St. Stephen’s College, were judged in the rapid-fire competition from March 16–20. The 3MT competition was started at Queensland University in 2008, is held annually in 12 countries and is at the U of A for the first time.

Speaking on research topics ranging from asthma to genomics to water treatment, the competitors were weighed on their communication styles and their success in holding the audience’s attention. The mixed three-person judging panel included one U of A senate member, an academic and a post-doctoral student.

Faculty of Education PhD student Jaleh Shahin pitched her research on early identification and treatment of mental health issues for doctors. She saw 3MT as a good opportunity to boost her presentation skills for her career in counselling psychology. As a registered psychologist, she often gives workshops and presentations.

“I like a good challenge, and this one motivated me to learn more about what differentiates a great speaker from a good speaker.”

Shahin won the judges over by sharing a heartfelt side to her work, asking them to imagine a loved one struggling with life or death, and how important good mental health is to a doctor trying to save that life. “I just tried to channel the passion I feel for the topic of physician mental health.”

It worked, and Shahin is one of the semifinalists going on to the next tier of campus competition March 27.

Cutting to the research chase

“The students have to avoid scientific jargon, explain the terminology and provide a good background that illustrates what they are trying to say,” Polziehn said. “It helps them break down a massive dissertation and get to the essential points of their research.”

Another semifinalist, Joshua Lee, used an everyday example of an auto-correct fail text message to sum up his complex work in medical genetics for the audience. A master’s-turned-PhD student in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, Lee focuses his research on treating diseases like muscular dystrophy, which are caused by misplaced genetic sequences.

“I related that auto-correct fail to what happens in the body and how to fix it.”

Already a seasoned public speaker through other competitions, Lee took on the 3MT challenge to see whether he could beat the clock, and finished with 30 seconds to spare. “I had to be succinct. I like to talk about science, but when restricted for time, you have to think very carefully about what you want to get across.”

3MT gives U of A graduate students an edge as they further their research careers, Polziehn said. “Once they finish their graduate studies, it’s a professional development skill they can take with them.”

The students’ ability to talk about their work is also vital to the community, she noted.

“A lot of community members want a greater connection with the University of Alberta, and it’s a way to build bridges and enable the community to have a greater connection to what we do here. The 3MT competition is a tool for students to communicate the solutions they are looking for through their work at the U of A.”

A total of 14 semifinalists now go on to compete in the next round, vying for a first-place $1,000 cash prize, a second-place prize of $500 and $100 for the people’s choice winner. From there, the overall U of A winner goes on to western finals April 30 at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia, then on to a national virtual final in June, competing for a $1,500 first prize and a paid trip to the Canadian Association of Graduate Schools annual conference.

Lee hopes the U of A continues to host a 3MT event in future. “It’s a great opportunity for grad students. We can be so wrapped up in our own projects, this is a good opportunity for development of real skills and even personal development. It’s good for us to get out and stretch some communications muscles.”