Tim Squirrell is a PhD candidate in Science and Technology Studies at the University of Edinburgh. His research focusses on construction and negotiation of authority and expertise on the internet, with a focus on fitness and nutrition communities.

Three Minute Thesis - Video and reflections

Three Minute Thesis - Video and reflections

Just over a week ago, I competed in the University of Edinburgh Three Minute Thesis final. Spoilers: I didn't win. However, I learned a few things, and I want to share some info on the competition and reflections about my experiences and the concept as a whole.

First off, the video of my presentation is online here. It's called "Going against the grain", but unfortunately the full name was too long for the video title so they've just used the much more abstract second part of the title to name the video.

The idea behind 3MT is that PhD students don't get that many opportunities to (a) present their research to others, (b) to do so in front of a lay audience, (c) to try to do so in an engaging way, and (d) to hone their presentation skills. Consequently, the competition makes you do all of these things. You have a strictly limited three minutes (good for instilling the virtues of timekeeping) to present your thesis (or at least a central premise from it), with the aid of one slide.

I think the idea is a good one. There's no shortage of poor presenters in academia, and honestly I think that the majority of lectures that I've been to in the six years I've been at university might have been better spent with me reading the material myself and taking notes, for all the added value that a lot of lecturers give. (Some) academics will literally just read their notes at you in a monotone; they'll turn and read off of Powerpoint slides that they've packed full of text to the point that you just end up copying them down; they'll make no effort to present their work in a manner that's comprehensible or interesting.

That's not to say that all academics are like this, or that it's necessarily entirely their fault. Training in presentation skills is quite limited, and people tend to get recruited and promoted primarily based on their research output, rather than their teaching prowess. Even when training is provided, it's often in the form of telling you how to optimise your Powerpoint slides, or giving the standard public speaking tips that encourage you to relax and imagine everyone naked, rather than talking about effectively communicating with your audience in a way that makes them really glad to be there.

I'm uncertain that 3MT necessarily gives you all of the training you would need in order to actually get good at presentation if you weren't already decent, though. There are a couple of sessions at the Institute for Academic Development, and they're quite decent; likewise, there's training offered for the university-level finalists which is reasonably useful. But if you wanted to get from the point of not being super great to being able to present your ideas in a really interesting and compelling way, I'm not sure that you could with the materials on offer. Again, that's not really anybody's fault; it just means that one of the goals of the exercise might be quite difficult to achieve.

I enjoyed the experience of presenting in front of an audience that didn't know anything about my work, particularly when people told me afterwards that they found it interesting. I think there's something about being forced to condense your research into a three minute elevator pitch (for a really long elevator ride, perhaps up the Burj al-Arab) that grants you a clearer perspective on your own work and its significance.

With that said, I have a couple of things I think merit further reflection. First, whilst there is no particular enforced style in 3MT, there does seem to be some kind of tendency towards TED-talk type presentations with their exaggerated pauses for profundity, contrived acts of audience engagement ("close your eyes and imagine..."), and so on. Whilst there's not necessarily anything wrong with this, it would be nice to see more of a plurality of styles of presentation.

The other thing is about judging criteria. I was a little disappointed with my own performance in the final for reasons aside from the result (I felt like I was a little flat, and that I didn't really manage to convey the meat of my research - possibly because I was too worried about memorising everything and getting it out under the time limit, particularly after I'd been told to slow down after the college heats). I don't want any criticism to be perceived as sour grapes. But with that said (he said, straying worryingly close to wandering into vinegar-making territory), I think that perhaps the judging for 3MT might have something of a bias towards the more empirical or applied sciences. One of the considerations that allowed our judges to come to a decision was of the significance of the research (in immediate terms, rather than in terms of the field as a whole), This seems to be a criterion which favours those whose research has a clearly stated application or takeaway.

As a general observation, this is quite a lot easier to achieve in the sciences in many instances. Moreover, it definitely grants an advantage to those in the later stages of their thesis, who have completed their empirical work and analysis and are in the process of writing up (or have already submitted). As someone in the first year of my PhD, I'm not quite sure exactly how I could express the significance of the research I've done so far, particularly as the first heat for the competition was way back at the beginning of the year (I could probably present some more substantive conclusions at this point).

Again, this isn't some kind of veiled argument about how I should have done better, or a dig at the natural scientists. If you're going to run something as a competition for PhD students from every area, though, then it generally behoves you to make it a fair fight and have scoring criteria that make winning just as achievable for any candidate, no matter what their field of study or stage of research.

With that said, I definitely intend to have another crack at 3MT next year. Hopefully I can restore any confidence I might have lost and salve my insecurity at the lack of immediate applicability of my research to concrete outcomes by presenting up an absolute 4-course Sunday roast of a talk.

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