Impact Blog

The Three-Minute Thesis Competition: Shining a Spotlight on Graduate Research

August 2023
Dr Daniela Kaleva, Program Manager Researcher Development, Deakin University


As the academic year progresses, June, July and August mark the peak of activity in the researcher development calendar. As a researcher development specialist, for me this is the most gratifying time of the year as I have the privilege of working with graduate researchers taking the opportunity to upskill and prepare their presentations for Three Minute Thesis (3MT®) competition heats and finals.

Researcher developers, regardless of their location within a university’s structure or their roles in academic or professional settings, are dedicated to offering development opportunities that enrich the knowledge, skills, capabilities and attributes of researchers at all career stages. Our goal is to nurture professional growth, maximise research potential and cultivate a thriving research culture.
Supporting core research skills development, such as research communication and preparing graduate researchers for pitching the value and impact of their research to a general audience and working with and in industry during their candidature, comes with the territory.

If there is any way to start learning how to communicate the value and impact of doctoral research in oration format, it is the 3MT® competition. It challenges doctoral candidates to distil their research into a compelling three-minute presentation that can be understood by a non-specialist audience. The inception of the international competition in 2008 was born from the vision of Emeritus Professor Alan Lawson, the then Dean of the Graduate School at the University of Queensland. Coordinated by the same university, this prestigious event now engages “over 900 universities across more than 85 countries worldwide”, according to the 3MT website.

While the 3MT® competition is a fantastic platform for learning oral presentation skills, some graduate researchers may initially hesitate to participate. To address this, at Deakin University the competition is integrated into a comprehensive four-month research communication skills researcher development program. The program supports all stages of preparation for 3MT® and progression through to the next levels of the competition. Workshops, one-on-one coaching sessions and online courses are accessible to all our graduate researchers, empowering them to enhance their research communication skills, regardless of their participation in the 3MT heats or finals.

This means they not only benefit from the unique experience of the competition but also receive valuable training and support that extends far beyond the event. For many finalists, this experience is transformative. Many have informed us that taking part enables them to not only communicate their work to their families and the wider public, but also to refine and articulate the focus and value of their research in their thesis. Recorded presentations find a place in their professional profiles and some even seize the opportunity for media appearances and interviews, effectively expanding the reach and popularity of their research and its outcomes.

As a researcher development specialist, the 3MT® competition provides me with the chance to personally meet and interact with graduate researchers. During workshops and one-on-one coaching sessions, I work closely with them, asking questions about their pitch to refine their research narrative and facilitating a safe space for them to practise their oral skills. I take presenters through a learning process to cultivate clarity, pace, tone and variety in their speech, ensuring effective engagement through eye contact with all sections of the audience. They are encouraged to practise using body language to emphasise key ideas and to allow movement to flow naturally. Memorisation techniques, time management and mental preparation and practice, including visualisation, are also important parts of the preparation process.

What always leaves me in awe are the brilliant minds and commitment of doctoral candidates, as well as their ability to work beyond their comfort zone. The rapid progress they make by assimilating feedback and implementing new presentation techniques and approaches is impressive.

What is more, the program goes beyond development events and the competition, building a stronger research culture, peer support and networking across the University. Emphasising the crucial importance of research communication skills and industry engagement has fostered a sense of purpose and relevance, motivating Deakin’s faculties and research institutes to promote better 3MT® finals and thus encourage graduate researchers to step forward. Some areas of the University organise events around the competition to showcase doctoral research and enable graduate employability and industry engagement by building entire research training events with career and alumni panels, keynote speakers and poster presentations alongside their 3MT® heats. Setting up a feedback process in advance ensured that participants in heats of one area received ample written feedback from the judges on three different aspects of their presentations. The same area then had embedded its 3MT® final in a two-day Higher Degree by Research conference.

The Deakin 3MT® final is a culmination of weeks of preparation. The finalists, having undergone extra training in one-on-one coaching sessions, come together as a close-knit group, supporting each other through vulnerability and excitement alike in their bid to champion their research. Close cross-disciplinary connections are built through camaraderie and mutual encouragement. There is a buzz in the air. In the audience are senior University leaders, graduate researchers and their supervisors, research leaders, industry professionals, and special guests. There is a celebratory glow on everyone’s face. We all wonder at the innovative ideas and brilliance of the presenting researchers.

For me, Deakin’s 3MT® final stands as one of our flagship events, shining a spotlight on graduate research across the entire University. It provides a unique opportunity for collaboration with a vast array of stakeholders. It is a platform where we can witness our graduate researchers’ passion, learn about their upcoming innovations and collectively celebrate as a community the significance of their research. Through this shared experience, we envision the positive impact their work can have on the lives of ordinary individuals, creating inspiration and pride within our academic community.

A 3MT event is on the horizon at your university, so, mark your calendars and be a part of this exciting event. I strongly urge all graduate researchers to embrace the 3MT platform and the researcher development programs available, as they are invaluable resources to enhance your skills and confidence in public speaking about your research. I also encourage my colleagues to further develop these programs and collaborate with both internal and external stakeholders. Through our collective efforts, we shine a spotlight on advancing research breakthroughs and enrich the overall research landscape.

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