3MT – what’s the point?

Grand Final week. It’s a highlight on any Melbournian’s calendar. But my Grand Final of interest had nothing to do with red and white, brown and gold and a strange shaped ball. I am referring to the Grand Final of the 3 Minute Thesis at the University of Melbourne. The team I support was well represented, with two of the ten finalists from the ranks of the Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences. The presentations were engaging, fascinating and very well-rehearsed – it made me think about presenting research in a whole new way, about how I respond to every conversation that starts with “so, what exactly do you do?”

The 3 minute thesis started in 2008 at the University of Queensland, and has spread across Australia, into the U21 network of universities and into 18 countries outside Australia. Clearly, the creators were onto something. The idea is to explain your research project to a non-specialist audience in just three minutes. So, here’s my 3 minute thesis on presentation skills:

  1. You don’t need slides to do an oral presentation. The presenters in the 3MT are limited to a single static slide, no animation, no frills – and it works brilliantly. If you think about it, significant time goes into explaining a diagram or chart. You need to introduce what it is showing, clarify what the components are, draw attention to the important findings or features, and then explain how this advances your argument. Of course, this is a worthwhile investment if your audience needs all the evidence behind your work, but how often is that really true? If you’re short on time, simpler graphics can be much more efficient and effective.
  2. Shorter duration doesn’t have to mean simpler ideas. Your thesis, by definition, is full of complexity, whether it’s the concepts, the methodology or in the interpretation. Sure, you could present your research in a simplified form to cut down on the time. Or, you can draw on anecdotes, metaphors and emotional engagement of the audience to make ideas accessible. Tying your project into something your audience already has complex knowledge of is an effective method to get them “up to scratch” quickly. Of course, the linchpin is making sure you choose the right metaphor for your particular audience. If they’re not into computers, then using html code as a metaphor for a genome won’t help much!
  3. Rehearsal is not optional. Pauses are very effective if used strategically in speech, but less so when used because you’ve forgotten what idea comes next. Gestures and movement can be distracting if used haphazardly, but when strategically placed into the presentation, are great for engagement. It often seems some people are just “born presenters”, but this is largely a fallacy; like writing or networking, presenting effectively is something you can learn. I think it’s more like playing a musical instrument or dancing ballet – practicing smaller components and adding new techniques over time is the key. Most of your favourite lecturers from your undergrad degree weren’t born with amazing presentation skills, they developed them through observation and practice.

So, is my three minutes up yet? The most striking thing about the 3MT grand final was that every presentation ran exactly to time. The motivation, of course, is that any speaker who goes over 3 minutes is disqualified – I can think of some conferences that would benefit from the same strict rules! Unfortunately, the 3MT competition is only open to PhD students post-confirmation, but for anyone who meets the criteria, I strongly recommend you to get involved next year. If you’re not eligible, perhaps your 3 minute thesis should be developed for networking at conferences and functions.  It’s a great reason to think about your research from a new angle.

What to say when someone asks you: “Should I do a PhD?”

Consider your thought process when you first decided to enrol in a research degree. Did you know what you were getting into? I certainly didn’t – and although I am enjoying the process and the new skills I am developing, I wish I had researched what exactly I was signing up for in the first place. The Thesis Whisperer has become one of my “legitimate uses for break time”, and I think this post offered some insight into exactly what we’re asking of ourselves for our research degrees.

The Thesis Whisperer

“Do you think I should do a PhD?”

It seems like I can’t go to a party without at least one person asking me this question – does this happen to you too? I probably shouldn’t be surprised; according to a recent government report the number of people undertaking a research degree in Australia has increased by 41%  over the last 10 or so years.

There’s no doubt that some students start without realistic expectations of the amount of work that is involved and how it may affect their life, which is why I was pleased when Dr Ehsan Gharaie, a lecturer in the school of property Construction and project management at RMIT, sent me this guest post.

As a recent PhD graduate in a field which is relatively new to this form of education, Ehsan tells me that he is often approached by people who ask him

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Can I do a research degree AND be happy?

One challenge that I have faced is negative feelings toward my project. Sure, I expected frustrations and challenges about the project, but I didn’t anticipate how that would affect me mentally and emotionally. I would love to feel positive about my research and the direction my thesis is heading, but there is so much uncertainty that some days happiness seems impossible.

In the face of these emotions, it’s nice to read something that doesn’t just sympathise but offers some real survival strategies. Inez von Weitershausen is a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics, and wrote an excellent piece the Guardian earlier this year entitled How to stay sane through a PhD. What a breath of fresh air. If your mindset is holding you back from making the most of your RHD experience, this article might be just what the doctor ordered.

My own advice for getting out of the slump? Break your routine. Try doing something different, whether it’s a change of location, mixing up the tasks you’re working on, or scheduling time to take a break and indulge in the rest of life – go for a walk, catch up with a friend over coffee, do something normal. Surely if it’s scheduled in, you don’t have to feel guilty about taking a “break” from your research. For me, sometimes it’s journalling my thoughts that helps the most – what seems like a big deal in my head comes into perspective when viewed through the lens of my scrawly handwriting in a nice notebook. Which reminds me, I must schedule time for a guilt-free notebook shopping session – which moleskine shall I choose this time? I feel better already…

So you’re an RHD student…

Your research degree, whether masters or a PhD, might be one of the most challenging things you do in your life. It can also be one of the most rewarding – I dream of the day when I can hold my printed, bound thesis, knowing that all my hard work and dedication has paid off. Then it turns into a nightmare about having it examined… but let’s not think about that.

This blog is the brainchild of one early-candidature PhD student in the University of Melbourne FVAS. The first months of the PhD were a very stressful time, trying to figure out what research is and how you’re supposed to go about it. The advice, “you should read as much as you can, and start writing now” only goes so far when you don’t even know what a research question is, let alone what yours might be!

This place is designed as a safe haven during your RHD experience. RHD and me is all about figuring out how to make the your degree work for you, and even having a life on the side. Content will include links to helpful blog posts, reviews of events that you might find helpful (like the University of Melbourne’s Upskills programs), and anything else we think of along the way. Contributions are welcome – just email rhdandme@gmail.com with your ideas.

To start with, check out the Three Minute Thesis and consider coming along to the 3MT grand final on Thurs 25th September 2014. There’s always more lessons to learn about how to effectively communicate your research to the wider world – so it’s definitely a productive way to spend your time!!

In a little while, I’ll introduce you to our mascot, the Rather Helpful Dugong, or Rhodie for short. Rhodie hopes to become the symbol for light at the end of the tunnel and the camaraderie that exists between us all in the Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences faculty! In the meantime, just keep swimming.