Think of it as a TED talk for short attention spans.
That’s what you get from the Three Minute Thesis, an academic competition that challenges graduate students to condense their yearslong doctorate research project into a 180-second lecture.
When the University of Minnesota recently held its second annual Three Minute Thesis contest, more than 50 graduate students gave it a try.
The competition ended in a final championship round this month before an audience of about 75 people on the U campus. Four young scholars gave the academic equivalent of speed dating presentations about their research into the spread of antibiotic resistance in the environment, high-endurance aerial drones, heart stem cells and the disappointing legacy of mega sports events.
The Three Minute Thesis started, unlikely enough, with a severe drought in the Australian state of Queensland. To save water, people were using three-minute egg timers to limit the time they spent in the shower.
The dean of the University of Queensland’s graduate school, Alan Lawson, thought that a shower-length pitch would also be the perfect amount of time that a smart researcher would need to communicate the high points of an 80,000-word thesis to a general audience. In 2008, the first Three Minute Thesis contest was held in Australia.
The idea spread across academia worldwide, and now more than 600 universities and institutions in 63 countries hold the competitions.
In some ways, the concept is similar to the “Dance Your Ph.D.” contest, now in its 10th year, sponsored by Science magazine and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
In that contest, doctoral students who want to compete for a $1,000 prize and “immortal geek fame on the internet” have to explain their doctoral thesis via an interpretive-dance YouTube video.
There wasn’t any dancing at the U’s Three Minute Thesis finals. But medical and doctoral student Amritha Yellamilli, whose cell research could lead to heart failure treatments, said the time limit helped her focus on “why am I doing this, what is the ultimate goal I’m trying to accomplish.”
“It’s easy to talk and talk and talk about your research,” she admitted.
Madeleine Orr, a doctoral student in kinesiology, said boiling down her years of study on how organizers often overpromise the benefits of mega sporting events like the Olympics and the Super Bowl was “way tougher than any essay I’ve ever written.”
Scott Lanyon, the U’s Graduate Education Dean, said teaching graduate students how to clearly describe their work to a lay audience is a way to get the public to see the importance of academic research.
“It’s vital to the success of this country,” he said.
Orr won this month’s contest at the U, receiving $500 and the opportunity to represent Minnesota at the Midwestern Association of Graduate Schools Three Minute Thesis competition in April.
She’ll also be ready the next time a relative asks her what she’s studying.
“When you go to Thanksgiving with your family, being able to describe your Ph.D. research in three minutes is fantastic,” she said.