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Former finalists share their secrets to 3 Minute Thesis success

A person with black textured hair worn up is wearing a pink sleeveless top and a black skirt, gesturing on a stage.

Earlier in March, past 3 Minute Thesis (3MT) competition finalists Kala Hirtle and Tareq Yousef shared their experiences with graduate students interested in taking part in this year’s competition. Their responses to four questions below have been edited for length.

The presenters:

Kala Hirtle is an English PhD student and writing advisor with Dalhousie’s Writing Centre. She has taken part in 3MT three times, and advanced to the finals in 2014 and 2015. Video of her presentation from the 2015 finals is available on YouTube.

Tareq Yousef is a Medical Neuroscience PhD candidate. He has taken part in 3MT once and was the winner of the 2020 competition. Video of his winning presentation is available on YouTube.

How did you ensure your presentation stayed under 3 minutes?

Kala: I practiced a lot -- so many times. My technique was to determine how many words I could get through in three minutes -- having presented at conferences in the past, I had a ball-park word count. I reduced the word count to allow for pauses and more of a performance-style delivery. After I had written a script and workshopped it with my peer (thanks to Celine Ibsen for listening to me practice numerous times!), I started practicing it to memorize it.

I practiced around the clock: on the bus, while I was cooking, walking my dogs. I relied on timers quite heavily -- I used a stopwatch and took splits for the four "blocks" of text in my script.

In 2020, I didn't have as much time to practice, which I think impacted my delivery. I also used a similar opening statement as I did in my 2015 presentation and the two became confused in my memorization stage. I'd suggest if you are presenting a second time, to change the script more than I did! Aim for 2:45 to allow for freezing or pausing.

Tareq: I started working on the 3MT speech from previously written scientific abstracts, which are intentionally written to provide a short summary of one’s research work. I drew upon my background from high school debates and knew roughly how many words I could speak per minute.

Kala Hirtle presents at the 2014 3 Minute Thesis finals

What’s something you learned from competing in 3MT that was not apparent to you before you took part?

Kala: The biggest thing I learned from competing in 3MT that wasn't apparent to me before I took part was that a general audience typically doesn't have a good idea or concept of what I do in my research and work. I couldn't rely on words like "study," "trial," or "experiment" to lead my audience. If I say I do "close reading," often people didn't know what that meant because it is discipline specific, so instead I had to shift my language to explain that I was looking for patterns and themes (or, conversely, stark differences) in the texts I was including in my project, and to use what I found to make sense of larger, zoomed out ideas about my project.

Tareq: I practiced making “elevator pitches” before but always focussed on audience comprehension rather than engaging interest. 3MT allowed me to practice the audience interest side which is arguably quite important when trying to acquire a stranger’s attention for a brief period of time.

Tareq Yousef presents at the 2020 3 Minute Thesis finals

This year’s 3MT is being held virtually. How do you think that would change your approach if you were participating this year?

Kala: I thought about this question a lot. If it had been virtual, I think I would have done better -- specifically on the level of accessibility. I am chronically disabled and depend on a mobility device. If you watch the YouTube playlist of 3MT presentations, you'll see a lot of engaged speakers walking, using their hands to emphasize key points in their presentations. With a cane, I struggled to hold onto the microphone and I couldn't walk or pace as I spoke -- holding the microphone also meant that I had less options for "hand talking." I felt I looked really stiff. As a female-presenting participant, I also quickly learned in 2014 that I needed to wear a blazer or something with pockets so that I had a place to clip my microphone battery pack (I ended up juggling it with my cane).

I also think the eye contact piece would be easier if I was recording my presentation; rather than trying to make eye contact with judges, other heat participants, and audience members.

Tareq: The visual component is going to be important, because there are no distractions from looking right at you on a screen. Try to be as engaging as possible, remembering that part of the 3MT is also how well you perform your presentation, not only how well you write it.

Again, a major focus is on the visual aspect so choosing a slide that will be easily understood by your audience is even more key as you may be losing out on body language cues you might otherwise use to explain certain diagrams, for example.

How have you used some of the skills gained during 3MT in the remainder of your degree program or in your professional life?

Kala: This question is very important to me: you spend a lot of time preparing for the 3MT and may question how it is useful in the remainder of your degree program or professional life.

I wanted to make it easier to explain what I do and why -- in academia, or at conferences, people are going to ask you how your thesis is going and what you work on. The 3MT provided me with an easy, well-practiced reply. It also taught me some "inroads" to asking my peers what they study and why. I also found that presenting to the specific type of audience you have for the 3MT (educated, non-specific lay audience) opened up avenues outside of academic conferences for presenting: I've presented at Hal-Con (the Halifax Sci-fi, Fantasy, and Gaming convention) three times and enjoyed sharing my work (which has a popular culture element: vampires!).

Tareq: The experience helped me with elevator pitches at conferences and gave me the confidence to speak to people about my research knowing that they are not from my field.