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The 3 Gifts of the 3 Minute Thesis


Kate presenting her 3-minute thesis

On December 5th, 2018 I was awarded 2nd place in The University of Leeds 3 Minute Thesis competition. Before entering the competition, the 3 Minute Thesis or 3MT was completely new to me. In case anyone feels similarly ignorant, it’s worth giving a brief outline of what it’s all about.

What is the 3 Minute Thesis?

The competition started at the University of Queensland in 2008. The story goes that a particularly bad drought had resulted in people using sand timers to keep their showers short, and from these humble beginnings the 3 Minute Thesis was born. The competition is now held around the world in over 600 Universities. You can find out more on the 3MT website:

The University of Leeds advert summarised the task as follows:

Competitors have three minutes to give an engaging and dynamic talk on their thesis topic and its significance, in language appropriate to an intelligent but non-specialist audience.

This came with some clear rules: 

  1. It must not be longer than three minutes.
  2. You are only allowed one static slide
  3. No other media (sound files or video) are allowed
  4. Presenters cannot use props
  5. Presentations must be spoken (no poems, songs or raps)
  6. All presentations must be given from the stage.

You get the feeling that people have tried to spice up their presentation in all manner of weird and wonderful ways. I suppose this is understandable when you consider the judging criteria:

  1. Comprehension and content
  2. Engagement and communication

Something about the clearly defined and restrictive nature of the task appealed to me, it seemed an interesting challenge. There were three stages to the process: the application, the heats and the finals. Each of these three stages captured something special about the three minute thesis. Three stages, three gifts, three minutes…perhaps three really is a magic number!

The Application

Gift No. 1: Perspective

The advert for the competition invited people to apply with a 200 word research summary and title. I wrote the application after a day of working on the detail of my research. I genuinely enjoyed trying to find the right words to capture everything that needed to be said. The powerful shift in perspective that this task demanded was the first of the gifts that the 3MT offered.

The Heats

Gift No. 2: Community

57 PhD researchers were invited to take part in the qualifying heats. Any PhD researcher will be familiar with the demanding question ‘So what’s your research about?’ In most cases, those posing this question want a succinct answer. So, we hone brief explanations that can be given before the questioner’s eyes glaze over. This presentation was the same task, but with much higher stakes.

I presented last in my group. Before it was my turn I had heard about curing heart disease, technology-enhanced learning, transactional theatre marketing and much more. It was fascinating and nerve-wracking. The process brought me together with a diverse community of PhD researchers. Each of us, though deeply embedded in our research contexts, came together to share our work and insights; we were an unlikely but satisfying community. This community was the second gift of the 3MT competition.

The Final

Gift No. 3: The Thrill

I was one of 10 people selected to move forward to the final which would be part of the University of Leeds Doctoral College showcase. I carefully memorized my speech – true to the competition’s roots much of this was done in the shower. By December 5th, it wasn’t so much a presentation, but a performance. I had not only memorized what I was saying, but how I would say it and what gestures I would use. I have experience both in presentation and as a performing musician, and the 3MT bears far greater resemblance to the latter. The whole thing feels like a performance, with the same adrenaline-filled buzz. The thrill of performance was the 3MT competition’s final gift.

By the time the judges announced the winners I already had a gained a great deal, much more than there is space to write about here. For now, I’d like to celebrate the three gifts that the process handed me along the way.

  1. Perspective – Taking time to zoom out and think about the bigger picture is invigorating for both researcher and the research.
  2. Community – Connecting with diverse research communities is inspiring, and in this case even sparked the beginnings of a genuine friendship.
  3. The Thrill – It was fun. This alone is enough to have made it worthwhile.

These gifts meant that I really enjoy the 3MT, though I admit that getting 2nd prize made it all the sweeter!

If you’d like to see my presentation, or those of other finalists through the years just follow this link. Link to presentation

Kate Cameron