Presenting your thesis, in three minutes or less

A thesis or dissertation takes years of painstaking research, thought and writing. But could you distill it down to three minutes? 

That was the challenge of the Three Minute Thesis competition, recently hosted by UChicagoGRAD. Thirteen master’s and PhD students had just a few minutes, and the use of only one static slide, to share their scholarship in a concise, compelling and impactful presentation.

“The less amount of time, the more you have to focus on what you think is most important about what you do,” said Michael O’Toole, senior assistant director for GRADTalk, a public speaking program for graduate students and postdoctoral researchers through UChicagoGRAD. “Students have plenty of opportunities to speak to other specialists, but they also need to be able to communicate their research to the general public in a way that’s accessible, and that a family member or friend could understand.”

The competition is one of many resources, programs and services that UChicagoGRAD provides to support graduate students in their academic pursuits and future careers. The 3MT format originated at the University of Queensland and has been replicated at universities around the world, including UChicago, which held its first 3MT competition in 2018. The best presenters can go on to compete in regional competitions.

This year’s winner was Shi En Kim, a PhD student in the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) at the University of Chicago, whose presentation focused on a nanomaterial that could prevent overheating in electronics.

“That most of my audience probably wouldn't have the same graduate background as mine made it a fun challenge,” she said.

The first runner-up in the PhD category was Sangmin Simon Oh, who is completing a joint program of the Booth School of Business and the Kenneth C. Griffin Department of Economics. Oh, who is studying financial economics, made the case that large jury awards are responsible for rising insurance costs. In the master’s category, the runner-up was Spring Park, a student in the Committee on International Relations; Park contended that anthropomorphic threats are likely to yield greater public support for emergency policy because it’s easier to hate a face to which evil can be attributed, rather than an insentient object or phenomenon.

For Kim, the hardest part was condensing her material into a three-minute talk.

“I wrote a script, and it really came down to questioning whether every single word I included in the final draft had a good reason to be there,” she said. “3MT really challenged me to become a better communicator. And I learned a lot from the diverse and creative approaches of the other participants to tell their research.”

The judges were Danette (Dani) Kauffman, a communications consultant and strategist; Jason Merchant, vice provost and professor in the Department of Linguistics and the College; and Laura Rico-Beck, assistant dean for Education and Outreach at the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering. The competition criteria focused on engagement, communication and content, which O’Toole described as the pillars of public speaking.

“It was remarkable to see how every student competitor did a truly effective job of conveying complex research questions and results in pithy, memorable and accessible language,” Merchant said. “This is a skill that every academic researcher should have, and it is inspiring to see Chicago graduate students excelling at it.”

In addition to helping participants refine their speaking skills, the competition can serve as preparation for interviewing and networking.

“Three minutes is about as much time as someone has to answer the question: Tell me about your research, or tell me what you do,” O’Toole said. “This experience helps students understand how to best tell their story.”

All the presentations can be viewed on the UChicagoGRAD website.