Is it worth doing the three minute thesis?

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It is raw. It is real. It is one of the most challenging and taxing experiences a researcher can undertake, and presenting my Three Minute Thesis completely redefined my approach to research.

Naively I assumed preparing for this competition would be a breeze. The rules of the competition were simple. You have 3 minutes to give an overview of your PhD thesis. External judges would score the talk based on set criteria related to the comprehension, content, engagement and communication. When I entered the competition at Victoria University, I set low expectations. This is just for practice, I told myself. No pressure here. The initial heats took place in July 2016, at which point I was only officially 17 months into my PhD candidacy. Here we go.

Initial Heats: What was I thinking?

The day of the competition, I began to feel I was in way over my head. All of my competitors were presenting data from their studies and most were in year 3 or beyond. The speakers were dynamic and engaging, and I realized very quickly that I had not put as much time and energy into the preparation as my peers.

A student finalist from each college was selected, as well as an overall winner, a runner-up and a people’s choice. Although my presentation was not selected by the judges to advance, the audience voted me through as the people’s choice winner.

Most of that afternoon is still a blur to me, but one moment is crystal clear. I was in the elevator on my way out of the building when two audience members broke the unspoken rule of “never- speak on an elevator ride”, and struck up a conversation.

“So your research is on beetroot juice? You give that to heart failure patients and it could…help them walk more?”

The question was both inquisitive and curious, with a hint of cautious scepticism. But, in a nutshell, they got it. They defined my PhD in one sentence. And from that moment, my mindset began to shift. I can actually do this.

University Finals – Owning my story

I spent the next month prepping for the university finals, and this time I dove headfirst into the process. I analysed, reworked, tweaked and rehearsed my talk so much that I had it memorized two weeks early. I even recorded myself speaking so I could listen during my morning commute. Despite all of the extra preparation, my nerves were even higher than the first time. My heart was beating out of my chest, and I could hardly breathe.

As I tapped my foot, shook my head and started to hyperventilate, my friend provided some sage advice. Tell your story, she said. You know your story. Forget the words and remember the story. That was it. From then on, I was IN the moment.

With only 8 finalists, this round of competition went much quicker. I swear the judges took longer to deliberate than we took to present. The announcement remains a bit of a blur even to this day.

Mary Woessner.

Wait….What?

Mary Woessner is the winner of the Victoria University 3MT Competition.

 There were photos, hugs, certificates and congratulations. I was flooded with excitement, relief and a fleeting sense of pride. I couldn’t stop smiling. Not only had I finished first overall, but I had again earned the People’s Choice title. While the overall win was an enormous honour, in that moment, the fact that I won over the audience was almost more personally significant to me. My research and my story was having an impact.

Asia-Pacific Finals: Stumbling with confidence

By this time, I had fine-tuned my practice techniques, and felt less nervous than the last two competitions. The support from the university was fantastic. Not only did they help me prepare, they arranged all of my travel and offered to fund a support person to attend the finals with me. I truly felt like they were setting me up for success.

The day of the competition was a constant state of organized chaos. The relaxed feel of the university heats was long gone as the judges had to score 50 three-minute talks in less than 4 hours. Everyone was nervous. Some talked through the nerves with their neighbouring competitor, others recited their talk in a hushed mumble and a few sat silently, eyes closed waiting for their moment. I employed all three techniques in rapid succession, jumping from nervous babbling to repetitive rehearsing, to complete mind blanking all in a 60 second span.

I don’t remember much of my time on the stage aside from the bright lights. Well, that and the one moment about halfway through where I lost my words. I was well-placed, well-versed, and then, I blanked. Time froze and that moment felt like a lifetime (it was actually about 3 seconds). I knew my talk was timed to perfection. In practice I consistently finished at 2:54. Quickly I weighed up my options. Cut out a paragraph to ensure a timely completion, or try to push through. I went for it. I finished just as the clock flipped over to 3 minutes.

I was not one of the top 10 finalists, so I was able to relax in the afternoon and support the other competitors. I felt this huge wave of relief, calm, and, perhaps most surprisingly, this deep sense of pride. For the first time, the weight of the moment truly hit me. I was one of 50 students here to present their research. I had done it. Hours, weeks and months of preparation, and just like that, it was over.

The first place, runner-up and people’s choice were announced and the event came to a close. As the afternoon turned to evening and the intensity of the competition became a distant memory, everyone enjoyed a social hour of hors d’oeuvres and wine. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I had this little fleeting thought. I want to do this again. By the time I was on my flight home the next night, the inner dialogue shifted. I will do this again.

Next Step: See you in two years

The competition was a game changer for me. I learned how to share my research with a general audience in a manner that was both factual and engaging. I hear myself use pieces of the talk as I discuss my project with participants, friends and colleagues. This experience was invaluable. For anyone contemplating their next professional challenge, I encourage you to consider this unique opportunity. If you do decide to take the leap, here are a few things I learned along the way:

  • Have as many people as you can review your work. I can’t tell you how many times I thought I had the perfect script, only to present it to blank stares from my flatmates. What you take as assumed knowledge, is very, very rarely that. You know a lot more than you think you do.
  • Practice speaking slowly. Practice speaking quickly. Present it while you run, listen to music, or walk to the train. Distract yourself. If you know it when you’re distracted, you really know it.
  • Approach the competition as a challenge and set realistic goals. As PhD students, we know the value of the process, but we also tend to be results driven. Set your own expectations of what a positive outcome means.

I have a year and a half of data collection remaining in my study, so I will be sitting out the 2017 competition. As intimidating and exhausting as it was, however, I truly cannot wait to spend another 3 months preparing 180 seconds.

Related Links

If you’re an ANU student reading this, and interested in doing some 3MT training, here’s a list of upcoming events my team is putting on to help you prepare and rock your 3MT presentation. Many people just come to these to sharpen their presentation skills, there’s no pressure to compete, so come along if you are interested:

 “How to win the 3MT with the Thesis Whisperer” A workshop with me about the 3MT rules and success strategies.
Three minute theatre  Pitching and performance training with the excellent Dr Peter Coperman.
Presenting in English for candidates with an ESL background: a new workshop which we expect will be very popular – be quick!
Improvisation tools for persuasive and strategic communication in the sciences: a workshop run by the excellent centre for public awareness of science (CPAS).
Improvisation tools for persuasive and strategic communication in the humanities: Why should scientists have all the fun? CPAS has adapted this workshop for non-scientists.
#ANU3MT media skills: run by SCAPA, our strategic communication team.
3MT clinic : Come and show us what you have so far and we can give you feedback
All winners and runners up will be invited to our intensive 3MT bootcamp weekend for finals training.
And the ANU final is on the 6th of September. Last year 900 people came – join the fun! You can register here
Author Bio: Mary Woessner who is a PhD candidate studying clinical exercise science at Victoria University in Melbourne Australia. Her research is exploring if drinking beetroot juice can help improve exercise capacity and overall quality of life in patients with heart failure.

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