Five Things to Know About… the Three-Minute Thesis Competition

The annual competition allows Ph.D. students an opportunity to hone their public speaking skills — and better understand their research.
3-minute thesis participants and judges with Dean Lynn Cooley.

Left to right, Lihao Yan, Arya Ökten, Yanyu Zhao, Jenna Andrews, Ethan A.Lerner, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dean Lynn Cooley, Alicia E. Ellis, Laura Stevens, Meera Choi, Alev Baysoy, Theodoros Trochatos, and Leonardo de Siqueira Lima. (Photo by Stephanie Anestis)

Every year, Yale’s Three-Minute Thesis Competition provides Ph.D. students with an opportunity to step away from the fog of their dissertation research and tell the world exactly what it is they are trying to achieve.

In three minutes.

The competition, known as 3MT, requires students to present their theses in a succinct, clear, and compelling way before a panel of judges. Winners receive a cash prize and bragging rights. But everyone who competes likely comes away understanding their research better and feeling more confident about public speaking, said Suzanne Young, the assistant dean for graduate student professional development in the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS), which sponsors the competition.

This is really going back to the roots of public speaking, where it’s about you, your voice, your intelligence, and your quickness on your feet while presenting to people who might be reacting to you in the moment,” she said.

Yale News caught up with Young just before this year’s event on April 12. (See this year’s winners in accompanying box.) Here are five takeaways.

Yale’s 3MT competition is modeled after one founded by the University of Queensland (UQ) in Australia.

The original 3MT was held at UQ in 2008. The concept gradually spread throughout Australia and then abroad. Competitions are now held at more than 900 universities in more than 85 countries, according to UQ’s 3MT website.

For Yale’s competition, which debuted in 2017, registration opens in January. Most years, about 35 to 40 students sign up. A first-round competition is held in late February. The 10 winners chosen during that round go on to the April finals.

The competition is not just for students in the STEM fields.

Students compete in one of five categories: biology, engineering, humanities, physical science, and social science. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the entrants tend to be weighted toward the sciences.

In biology, contestants are talking about different ways to attack cancer, and in astronomy, different ways to understand dark matter,” Young said. “The stakes of those questions are pretty straightforward and obvious. I think that helps STEM candidates come to this competition more eagerly.”

But humanities students stand to gain a lot from the preparation required for the competition, and Young encourages them to give it a try. She knows from her own experience writing an English dissertation that the long process involved in shaping a thesis — including questioning, researching, and reading — can at times make the project feel “a bit amorphous.”

Having to say, ‘here’s why this matters, here are the key central ideas, here’s what I hope to change about the field, here are the stakes of what I’m doing’ — that clarity can be really welcome and helpful,” she said.

Presentations must include a single PowerPoint slide, but the use of any other technology or prop is prohibited.

In such a technology-dependent culture, this rule might seem outdated. But prohibiting technological enhancements and other distractions keeps the focus on the speaker, Young said. The single slide is intended to be an adjunct to what the speaker is saying and not a focus itself.

We’ve all been to talks where you have to decide whether you’re going to listen to the speaker or read the slides,” she said. “We want this to be a live moment of public speaking and all the challenges that come with that.”

Coaching is available to all competitors.

All participants are encouraged to prepare for their presentations by pursuing the Certificate for Public Communication, through the Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning. As soon as they sign up for the 3MT, they receive an email link to the certificate page. They also have access to coaching and advice from Young, as well as staff in the Office of Career Strategy and the Graduate Writing Lab.

We really emphasize the power of preparation and feedback,” Young said.

The judges in the competition are Yale alumni.

The final round takes place before a panel of judges comprised of accomplished Yale GSAS alumni representing a mix of disciplines and Lynn Cooley, dean of the graduate school. After the presentations, the judges leave the auditorium to confer. The audience — both those in the auditorium and those watching via the live stream — is then invited to vote for two entrants to receive the “People’s Choice” award. And there is entertainment — this year, the graduate and professional school a cappella group, the Citations, performed.

Eventually, the judges troop back in and announce the first-, second- and third-place winners. Each poses with an oversized cardboard check (prizes range from $300 to $1,000 for first place).

We try to make it fun, and a bit of a spectacle,” Young said.

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