Fireside Chat: A True Story About the 3 Minute Thesis

What can you do in 3 minutes? Boil a kettle, make toast, listen to a song, wash your face, and get rice into the rice cooker? In 3 minutes 750 births happen; 1 million tweets are tweeted; and a graduate student can present the core of their research in a compelling way with one slide.

An 80,000-word thesis or dissertation would take 9 hours to present – their time limit is 3 minutes.

What a fascinating idea. Sharing your thesis in 3 minutes and one slide. How could that be? I was intrigued.

Here’s my story of how my curiosity and my passion for educating graduate students led me to bring the 3MTTM   to the U.S. – first at the University of Georgia. I then shared my discovery with the rest of the Graduate Community.  Today, it’s been adopted in some form or another across the U.S. and into Canada.

I discovered the 3 Minute Thesis TMcompetition while talking with a colleague from the University of Queensland (networking). We were at a meeting in Munich, Germany in 2011.  I can still see us standing around during a coffee break.

Several folks were talking about a three- minute thesis. A three-minute what? I was curious.

Once they explained it to me, I was hooked on the idea. It was exciting and challenging to share your research in 3 minutes or less to an intelligent lay audience with one static slide, no dancing, and no props.  That’s not all, you had to engage your audience to want to learn more.

Returning home to Athens, Georgia, I gathered my team and said, “We’re going to do a 3 Minute Thesis TMCompetition!  We’re going to do it this year! This competition is so relevant for our students to hone their communication skills. It will be fun.”  You should have seen the surprised look on their faces.  That was October and we did it! We held the first 3MTTM to my knowledge in the U.S. on March 29, 2012.

Why did I push so hard? What was my vision? I wanted to help grad students succinctly communicate what they were doing – what their scholarship was about – and the “so what” of it.

I saw the value of these students sharing their knowledge to a wider community.  As it happened – they are holding 3 MTTM competitions across the U.S.  It’s an important career and employability skill.

A skill essential for career advancement.  Students need to be able to communicate technical information to a smart intelligent lay audience like policy makers, or in a job interview, or to their grandmother.

The competitions are amazing. I learn so much each time I attend one.  It’s tough to judge these – I know, I served as a judge.

Students learn as much by preparing for the competition. They learn how long or short 3 minutes are.  They learn not to speak using jargon.

Most importantly, they share with a broader audience 1) the benefit of graduate education, 2) that graduate education is a public good, 3) the new knowledge they created, and 4) they inspire others to want to know more; they peak their curiosity.  It’s curiosity that drives the engine of innovation and creation of knowledge.

Several students shared that they practiced giving their talk at a stoplight. Others practice in front of their friends or even in front of their grandmother. If their audience could understand them, they knew they are on the right track.

I knew I had to share the marvelous aspects of the 3MTTMwith my grad dean colleagues.  They could see I was passionate about this competition.  They invited me to bring three of my finalists from our competition to “perform” for the Conference of Southern Graduate Schools (CSGS) Deans regional meeting over lunch.

To fully understand. You need to stop a minute and picture the setting in which this was done.  Imagine wait staff clearing dishes, the clinging sounds of silverware and glasses being remove from the tables. The distraction of dessert being served. That was our background.

I arose from my table and proceeded to introduce each student one at a time and they each gave their three-minute talk. Each dean was so impressed. I could see it on their faces. Their focus and attention were not on dessert and coffee or a conversation with their neighbor, but rather on each student as they presented.

They were so impressed with how professional, engaging the presentations were, and how the distractions of the clearing of the tables did not bother any of the students.   “WOW” was the comment I heard most often followed by, “How do we do this on our campus?”

Next year many of the deans began to implement a 3MTTMcompetition. Before you knew it, CSGS was holding a regional competition inviting the winners from each campus to compete.  Today, regions are sending their winners to the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) meeting for a national showcase.

I love the 3MTTM.   I love what it can do for students. I love how an idea – an innovation – can be shared for the benefit of our students.

I invited Legislators to meet with our students and experience their three-minute talk.  I had our students do their three-minute talk to the Chancellor, to the Board of Trustee members, to Alumni Boards, to my Development Board.

It demonstrates the powerfulness and impact of communication. The audience sees the result of the value added and transformation that occurs in graduate education.  They can also see the public good of graduate education.

So next time you have 3 minutes, maybe you will be practicing your talk.  It’s not as easy as you think.

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drmgrasso

My experience as the chief academic officer and administrator charged with providing vision and leadership in planning, guiding, and coordinating all aspects of graduate education from admission through graduation at two major research universities provides the foundation for our fireside chats.

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