On 30th May 2017, the Stirling Graduate School ran the popular three minute thesis competition.  With 8 participants representing 4 of the 5 faculties and around 60 audience members, the event was a great opportunity for our PhD community to come together, share their research and learn some valuable skills. In case you missed it and want to know more we asked Stirling Graduate School’s Policy Officer Dr Stephanie Colvan what the 3MT is all about and her reflections on the event.

The three minute thesis competition is about giving our research students the chance to hone their presentation and communication skills.  Their presentation must be concise and their message managed for a non-specialist audience whilst conveying enthusiasm for and the impact of their research.  The idea for the competition came from the University of Queensland in Australia and has spread across the globe since 2008.  Vitae will host a national competition in the UK and our winner will be entered into the semi-final for the UK competition.  The live final takes place at the Vitae conference in September.

On the day, our esteemed judging panel comprised of Prof Leigh Sparks (Deputy Principal for Internationalisation and Graduate Studies), Ms Iona Beveridge (Academic Registrar), and Ms Jennifer Harrison (Director of Communications, Marketing and Public Engagement) who were tasked with choosing a winner and runner up. Prizes from the panel included £300 for the winner and £200 for the runner up, while the audience voted to decide who would wear ‘the people’s choice’ crown (and a £50 prize). 

Our congratulations go to all our participants but especially to Sasha and Iona.  It’s not as easy as they made it look.  We strongly encourage all students to consider participating – focus your message, practice your public speaking, meet new people and potentially win some money!

In case you’re considering taking part next year or want to know what you missed out on, we asked this year’s winner, Sasha Hird-Saunders to write us a post on her experience.

And the winner is…

Sasha with her well deserved reward

Sasha Hird-Saunders, PhD Researcher Stirling Management School 

It is easy to find reasons not to do something, particularly something new or out of your comfort zone. I first heard about the Three-Minute Thesis (3MT) competition last summer whilst finishing my masters and hoping to start a PhD. I distinctly remember thinking two things at the time, firstly, that the notion of condensing and pitching one’s doctoral research in three minutes must be terrifying, and secondly, that if I was accepted to the PhD programme I would have to challenge myself to participate… However, when 3MT rolled around this March I found myself making excuses.

For some people, public speaking comes naturally, for others it’s more terrifying than snakes and giant tarantulas. Admittedly, I have always felt fairly comfortable in front of an audience. In my role as part of the Student Enterprise team in Research & Innovation Services, I have done my fair share of public speaking at workshops, interviewing guests on discussion panels – i even hosted the University’s Dragon’s Den (in front of the Principal?!). Whilst public speaking in these and similar situations produces a certain degree of anxiety, for me it is a bit of an adrenaline rush.

Given these experiences perhaps it would seem like an obvious progression to participate in a pitching competition. However there is a key difference between hosting events and asking other people questions in contrast with pitching your own research, which is your own. For me, the first serious hurdle to overcome in participating in 3MT was to challenge myself to talk about my research. Seven months into my PhD, I am focused on my literature review and obviously have most of the journey still ahead of me – what could i say even if it is only three minutes?

As a first year PhD student it is easy at times to wonder if you’re moving in the right direction, if you’re moving at the right pace and whether you should be doing something the same way a colleague has or if you’re right to stick with your approach. Aside from supervisors, few people intimately understand your project. Thus at times I reckon it is inevitable to experience some self-doubt and feelings of isolation with your work – I had to remind myself that the PhD is not a place, but a process that involves constant learning and development. Communicating your research is part of this developmental process. An academic in my division often says that the more constructive feedback you can gain before the viva the better prepared you will be and Stirling has always struck me as having a particularly supportive community so if I felt nervous to start talking about my research, where better to begin than on home ground?

Now that i was convinced and committed to taking part my second big hurdle was figuring out how to condense my work into three minutes and (the real feat) make it interesting. I am sure (at least I hope!) that I am not the only Doctoral Researcher who has found myself feeling frustrated when someone asks me about my PhD and I hear myself struggling to explain it concisely. The sight of someone’s eye glazing over whilst you delve into research that you are extremely passionate about can feel disappointing, to say the least. My involvement in Dragon’s Den this February really inspired me to strive to convey my research in an interesting, understandable and compelling manner to a diverse audience. Research is important to everyone and therefore finding effective ways to communicate research to non-specialist listeners is vitally important. I was lucky to have friends and colleagues who shared their time and offered honest feedback to help me develop what became my three-minute pitch.

On the big day I would be lying if I didn’t admit to experiencing moments of wishing that I would stumble across a hole in the floor and fall down it not to be seen for the duration of the competition. Not unlike other challenges through which you learn a great deal, it took a lot of self-motivation to get there but I am so glad to have participated. Not only is 3MT an opportunity to hone your communication and pitching skills, gain valuable feedback and build confidence talking about your research, it is also an incredibly inspiring experience. I really valued meeting and learning about the exciting research of the other finalists. Opportunities to engage with postgraduate researchers from other disciplines are valuable and help to reinstall a sense of community.

To PhD students who are considering whether or not they should participate in the Three-Minute Thesis competition in the future, all I would say is go for it. No matter what, you stand to gain from the experience. It is important that we challenge ourselves to discuss our work, to develop our skillsets and to view the PhD as the journey it is. Whilst I don’t know whether there is such a thing as a truly perfect pitch, I can say that my 3MT experience felt like it finished on a high note.

Need more encouragement?

Hear from Craig William Docherty from Computer Science and Mathematics in Faculty of Natural Sciences on his experience of taking part in the 3MT.

“The 3MT is a good challenge, which  provided an interesting opportunity to allow me to develop my skills with regards to communicating my research to a lay audience – with several technical elements to explain to the audience, finding the clearest – sometimes less technically correct(!) – explanations is a rather interesting challenge. From the experience, I am more aware of how to communicate to non-expert audiences and therefore my communications & conferences/papers to more general fields will be encouraged. Thinking twice about taking part? Give it a shot. It will be a challenge, it will be nerve-wracking, but it will be rewarding & will help you develop your communication skills.”

Craig’s PhD research involves using Gamification and Serious Games for Long Term Retention of information with regards to Education, Outreach and Engagement in Tree and Plant Health.