2.5 years in 3 minutes

A month ago, I signed up for the “3 Minute Thesis” competition at my university. The Three Minute Thesis (3MT® ) is an academic competition developed by The University of Queensland (UQ), Australia for research students. The concept is simple: graduate students describe their Master’s or Doctoral research to a non-specialized but intelligent audience in 3 minutes. The presentation can be accompanied by a single static slide. No animations, no props, no songs, no dance.

Being one of the few people who doesn’t dread public speaking I signed up without hesitation. My enjoyment of giving presentations is probably one of the few areas where I am not on top of the average curve.

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At first, I thought that summarizing my research in 3 minutes would be a breeze. I know my project inside out, and am still at a stage where I enjoy talking about it. It’s my intellectual baby.

I was wrong.

The version was 8 minutes long and my first slide draft looked something like this:

3mt slide

This presentation forced me to squeeze 2.5 years of my life and hundreds of hours in 3 minutes. Not exactly straightforward. Or simple. It forced to pin point the most important aspects of my research, simplify it without dumb-ing it down, and conveying its importance to an audience that was there to support someone else.

I challenge you to do that about anything you are passionate about.

I wasn’t as anxious as I expected on qualification day. I stayed quiet as I sat with the other participants. Others chatted, discussing their study, explaining how difficult it was to squeeze everything into 3 minutes. The man next me introduced himself. I wasn’t in the mood the talk. I wanted to breathe and change my shoes. Thankfully, he didn’t really give me the opportunity to speak. He engaged in a monologue about his plans to invite the entire department to the finals if he made it, and since he is the president it shouldn’t be too hard. He took a short intermission to greet members of his fan club and turned back to me. I nodded while I vaguely gazed in his direction and took deep breaths. He was not rude, not even arrogant, simply too talkative…about himself. To me, his expression of confidence was a reflection of his insecurity.

It is sad how poorly attended departmental events when there is no free food. Looking around the old auditorium, I noticed that there were as many audience members as there were contestants – everyone managed to bring at least one person. Having posted a Facebook event, I was expected a handful of people. I reluctantly turned around every time the auditorium door clicked open. Finally, two friends walked in and smiled in my direction. My shoulders dropped from my ears – where they like to hang out when I’m anxious – and I was ready to start. It was comforting to know they took the time out of their busy schedule to watch me (and 10 others).

The next 20 minutes were a blur. Students stepped up one by one, described their work elegantly, concisely, and clearly. No mumbles, no “ums”, no trips, or falls. Even the man next to me presented. He had a reason to be confident.

My name appeared on the projector and I jumped up – I didn’t think it was my turn yet. Despite the clear instructions we were given about staying on the X marked on the ground, I wondered back and forth in front of my slide. I was in a trance while I told the story of my mother asking me if the stove was turned off when we left the house.

Let’s fast forward 3 minutes. Let’s imagine my friends giving me thumbs up as I step off the stage. Let’s fast forward through the fact that I finished second place in my qualification heat and made it to the finals!

The chatty guy? He didn’t make it, neither did all the members of his department.

Let’s fast forward to my final presentation, where again, I knew 3.5 people in the audience of about 100.

The .5 is a prof in our department that I don’t know at all, but saw his face on our website. So we he counts as half. I hope he doesn’t take offence. 

I didn’t win, the winner deserved to win though.

I could write about how hard it was to condense 2.5 years of my life in 3 minutes. I could also write about the sadness and loneliness I felt when very few people I knew showed up at the qualification rounds or the finals. I know that many people would have been there physically but instead sent positive vibes. This is not mean to be a criticism of who wasn’t there, it is meant to be a focus and appreciation for those who were.

The idea of support, like I wrote in a previous post, is like layers in the same cake. Layers support and complement each other, and that means showing up at a silly (read nerdy) event during a busy week, reading over each other’s work, or helping out through peer supervision. Thank you to all those who did. Thank you to those who asked about it and supported me through it from close or far. 

A dissertation, like anything else in life (read: graduate school), is not not a solo project. Sometimes supports means being critical of each other, other times it’s about shutting up and listening. Either way, it is critical to success.Support is also about saying (and meaning it!) when you say “good luck!” or “that’s sound so interesting”. Its about congratulating each other for our efforts, achievements, and successes and most importantly it’s about giving each other a little push when we need a little help.

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Averagely yours,

the candidate

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5 thoughts on “2.5 years in 3 minutes

  1. How intense! Kudos for making it to the finals; I couldn’t imagine summing up my work in 3 minutes, and I don’t even have that much! I agree that support is so fundamental to what we do; it’s most definitely not a solo effort.

  2. I’m also one of those people that enjoys public speaking and have competed in the 3MT competition myself so I can relate to what you were saying about the challenges of condensing your research into just three minutes! It sounds like the 3MT competition was a really positive experience for you too, congratulations.

    • Thanks HM – it was a great experience. I recommended it my colleagues. Not only is it the obvious public speaking exercise, it’s also a way to “re-focus” on the crucial aspect of my work and it reminds myself that it matters. I think we can all use a booster on that!

  3. Pingback: The Inevitable End-of-Year Wisdom Post | Average: Chronicles of a Phd

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