When the time comes to write their thesis, many Ph.D. candidates find it difficult to compress years of reading literature, conducting experiments, and analyzing results into a clear, complete, and coherent dissertation. Explaining their research in a talk just a few minutes long may seem next to impossible. Add audience members who are not experts in their field, and many would throw up their hands in defeat.
But not all. In a format launched at the University of Queensland in Australia in 2008, which has since gathered momentum around the world, Three Minute Thesis (3MT) and similar competitions put Ph.D. candidates onstage with the mission to present their research, clearly and engagingly, to a lay audience, in no more than 3 minutes. This scientific version of the elevator pitch is intended to celebrate doctoral research, hone participants’ communication skills, and disseminate research to the public.
I believe these are the skills that a researcher needs to effectively promote his or her work at a conference or to get funded.
Last week, after 3 months of regional competitions, France ran its own version of a national 3-minute thesis competition. Twenty-seven finalists, chosen from almost 680 participants from across the country, presented their work at the final of the “Ma thèse en 180 secondes” competition (MT 180), organized by the French Conference of University Presidents and the National Center for Scientific Research.
After 81 minutes of research talks, three presenters were selected by a national jury to represent France in an international francophone contest to be held in Paris in October. The jury’s first prize winner Alexandre Artaud, a Ph.D. candidate with the Université Grenoble Alpes in the Laboratoire de Transport Electronique Quantique et Supraconductivité, presented a thesis titled “Tunneling spectroscopy at very low temperature of graphene grown on superconducting rhenium.” As he explained during his talk, he is studying how putting graphene in contact with the superconductor rhenium changes the behavior of electrons.
Second prize winner Rachida Brahim, of the Laboratoire Méditerranéen de Sociologie at Aix-Marseille Université, presented her research on “Racist crimes and racialization. Process of differentiation and universalization of the ethnic minority groups in contemporary France, 1971-2003.”
Grégory Pacini, who is doing his Ph.D. with the Université Paris Descartes in the Equipe Interactions Hôte/Virus at the Cochin Institute in Paris, won third prize with his presentation on the “Role of EHD4 in the regulation of the HIV-1 restriction factor: BST2.” In his talk, Pacini explained how his work tries to shed light on how HIV gets rid of some of the defense mechanisms of the cells it infects.
Science Careers got in touch with the three MT 180 winners by e-mail to find out why they entered the competition and what they learned from the experience. Their answers were edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: What made you decide to take part in a contest like MT 180?
Artaud: A nonscientist friend of mine often teases me about my thesis being hardly understandable and about Ph.D. students being so bad at communicating. A few months back, I showed him the video of last year’s MT 180 winner to prove him wrong. He still was not really convinced, so he encouraged me to take part in it. After a few days of reflection, I considered that, apart from rising to my friend’s challenge, the competition was an exceptional opportunity to make science more popular and to finally explain my thesis to my grandfather.
Brahim: For me, this contest is, above all, a way to explain and give my research back to a larger public. I think that such outreach activities are an essential part of our job as researchers. I hope that this is only the beginning of my efforts communicating my research to the public.
Pacini: The first thing that really pushed me to enter the MT 180 competition was the communication exercise in itself: You have to put your work out there, bending your words in such a way that everyone can catch a glimpse of what you do as a scientist.
It’s also a rare occasion in the academic world to be asked to popularize what you work on. Most communication that scientists do, both written and oral, is targeted toward other scientists in our own fields. It feels good to get out of your comfort zone and try something new. I was also attracted by the idea of demonstrating to a lay audience that, okay, research is complex, but the result can be very easy to understand, almost intuitive, and fascinating if explained in the right way. Finally, my flat mate had something to do with my decision. She also entered MT 180, and I wanted to share this experience with her!
Q: What was particularly challenging or enjoyable for you?
Artaud: Selecting the key information out of all the relevant work I have done so far was a real challenge. You have to make the science as clear and witty as possible, and at the same time, you cannot let yourself oversimplify your thesis. This requires having quite a lot of imagination, being very precise in the words that you pick, and making a few tough decisions. Eventually, you end up giving your best in front of an enthusiastic audience, and this is such an exciting and enjoyable moment!
Brahim : The challenge was to make political sociology understandable to a lay audience in such a short timeframe. It was really interesting for me to see how I could preserve the science of my thesis in a presentation of only 3 minutes. My subject is really sensitive, and I attach a lot of importance to accuracy.
Pacini: The biggest challenge? Time! It is so hard to make the speech fit in 3 minutes. It has to be detailed enough to allow people to get what you say, but if you let yourself go, you start talking, and before you know it, it's been 20 minutes. So you really have to restrain yourself and go straight to the point, without sounding dry and boring.
Q: Did you receive any specific training? How did you practice?
Artaud: My university ran a 3-day training program to prepare all its candidates. This covered linguistics, storytelling, and public speaking skills. Further coaching was provided to those of us who were selected for the final at the regional level. I practiced a few times with my friends and supervisors, whose opinions about both the science and the communication have been invaluable.
Brahim: My university organized a short training program in communicating science to the public to prepare for the contest. For example, a theater professor taught us a few things about how to talk and stand on a stage, such as what to do with our hands and how to modulate our voices.
Pacini: Some specific courses were available for the first round of selection, but I declined the offer. I didn't believe in my chances, so I didn't bother “wasting time” in training for an event that wouldn't take me anywhere. But after winning at the regional level, I got more serious about it and worked with the heads of communication at the Université Sorbonne Paris Cité to put together the best speech possible for the national final. And then I just repeated it again, and again, and again, mostly facing the mirror. I also tried different versions of my speech on friends, colleagues, and flat mates to see what worked best. “Take that out,” “put this in,” “rephrase that a bit,” “breathe longer here.” I kept doing that until no one would listen to another single word.
Q: What are the main lessons you’ve learned?
Artaud: I have learned quite a lot about how to convey my research to a lay audience. My thesis title sounds frightening to nonexperts, and I discovered that humor was a rather effective way to break clichés. This competition also offered me the chance to learn a lot about what other Ph.D. students work on, no matter their disciplinary domain. I found that listening to your competitors is actually a great source of interest, and it fosters fascinating conversations afterward. Such interactions with other people teach you things that you would never have expected to learn, such as economic perspectives on the cap and trade system, the role of religious symbols in psychedelic rock, or simply that most Ph.D. students share the same fears and doubts.
Brahim: I already knew that it was really important to communicate to the public, but I was really surprised to see how powerful it can be. We got much interest and enthusiasm from our audience, and we received wide media coverage that disseminated our research broadly in just a few days. I learned that we have to build our discourse based on our research, but to really get our message out there, we need to get out of the lab. We need to get out of the traditional venues for scientific communication, such as papers and conferences, and use broader communications tools, such as the media and the Internet.
Pacini: I learned when to breathe when talking fast! On a more serious note, I did learn a lot, witnessing some 50 presentations in total on a wide spectrum of subjects, including biology, cosmology, literature, physics, chemistry, law, geopolitics, and the human sciences. I found it inspiring and took it as an encouragement to stay open-minded and develop a way of thinking across disciplines.
Q: How do you think it made you a better or more versatile researcher?
Artaud: Communicating your Ph.D. work under such constraints requires you to draw the attention of your audience and to get to the point. I believe these are the skills that a researcher needs to effectively promote his or her work at a conference or to get funded.
Brahim: I found that this contest makes you a better, or at least a more versatile, researcher because you are obliged to adapt and maybe outdo yourself to communicate with people who are not used to scientific research.
Pacini: I don't think that taking part in the competition changed my perception of science and research. But MT 180 gave me the opportunity to express myself, which I really enjoyed. It also gave me visibility, which is paramount when it comes to employability in both the academic and corporate world. I may now even consider public outreach for future career opportunities.
Q: Would you encourage other Ph.D. candidates to enter such competitions?
Artaud: I would definitely urge them to try it. It is both an exciting challenge and a surprising human experience.
Brahim: Yes, because it is a part of our broader involvement as researchers and because we have things to learn from both the public and the researchers from other disciplines, who are all represented in this contest. However, I would add that, as young researchers in France, we face a dilemma. With this contest, research is highlighted as a public service, but each year there are only very few new permanent positions opening up in this sector. To take part in this contest reinforces your desire to become a researcher and to enthuse the public about your work, but it is quite difficult for us to anticipate our professional future.
Pacini: I’d definitely recommend taking part in such a competition. On a personal level, it is a new and enriching exercise in a great atmosphere .On a larger scale, scientists don't have that many opportunities to reach out to the public. It is for science's sake that scientists have to participate in this kind of event. Research suffers from bad press nowadays, and some of it is justified (data doctoring, nonreproducible published data), so our mission is to remind people that science is still as relevant, fascinating, and useful an endeavor as it has always been and that our society needs science to help tackle the big problems that we are facing, ranging from the transition toward nonfossil-based energies to food security.
Q: Any advice on how to win?
Artaud: This sounds terribly cliché, but just be yourself and enjoy it. This is the only thing no one else can beat you at.
Brahim: Have something to say!
Pacini: Write your own speech the way it comes. You'll be and look much more natural when you give it. If you're both natural and passionate, you can't go wrong. You'll communicate your passion and make people want to know more. Most of the time, when you make the effort, people are really interested and curious.