Three Minutes and Not One Second More
Last year, during my first year as a PhD candidate, and lured by the prospect of a free lunch, I attended the Three Minute Thesis (3MT) heat for the Faculty of Arts and Education. I’ll be honest and say that what I remember most about the competition was the lunch. At the time I didn’t appreciate the value that the 3MT has for post-graduate students. But, for those who know me, my competitive nature meant it was no surprise when I decided I would compete the following year.
Fast-forward twelve months and the successful sign-off of my colloquium and I was apparently eligible to enter. I should be honest again and say that I entered mostly because I still remember how good that lunch was…
According to the University of Queensland who developed the concept for the competition, the 3MT competition “celebrates the exciting research conducted by PhD students. Developed by The University of Queensland the exercise cultivates students’ academic, presentation, and research communication skills. The competition supports their capacity to effectively explain their research in three minutes, in a language appropriate to a non-specialist audience.”
If I a still being honest, I was at that point neither particularly enthused nor committed to the competition. And, given that I had already proven myself capable of whittling my thesis description down to about 15 seconds, I wondered how I would fill the remaining two minutes and 45 seconds.
My first attempt was…forgettable, laughingly bad, and so incredibly boring. Because I had written what I thought the competition required. In three minutes I laid out for my (at the time pretend) audience exactly what my thesis intended to do, what my methodology was, where I found my sources and outlined my chapter structure.
Deakin defines the 3MT as “an exercise in developing academic and research communication skills. Higher degrees by research students have three minutes to present a compelling oration on their thesis topic and its significance in language appropriate to an intelligent but non-specialist audience.” There were two key components I had entirely overlooked: a “compelling oration” and proof of the “significance” of my work.
After youtubing past winners from around the world, I realised the competition itself is part thesis and part performance. In large part, however, it is about the “so what” factor for the audience and the judges. Which made my job as an Australian historian, researching the rhetoric of a long dead American president whose name most people often only recall as the victor of the Second World War rather like a particularly steep uphill climb. While I have a seeming unquenchable level of enthusiasm for my research, I have often questioned the worthiness of my endeavour, especially when surrounded by colleagues who are engaged in research that may actually change people’s lives or national laws. The question I found myself facing then was how was I going to convince the judges that my research was in fact compelling and significant?
I needed a trump card…
The “so what” factor that I brought to my presentation did have some legitimate links to my actual research. In the midst of a presidential election that seems to have the whole world as its audience, Donald Trump, the Republican Party’s current presidential nominee, felt like the most appropriate choice to give Dwight Eisenhower greater relevancy than he may have had in a non-election year. A presentation that was built around Eisenhower’s use of American foundational narratives designed to (re)create an “ideal” America, began with Trump – though in my defence it was to note that Trump had called Eisenhower “a good president, great president. People liked him.” I factored Trump briefly into the middle and referred obliquely to Trump in my conclusion. But the essence was Eisenhower and the problematic nature of using myths to recreate imagined ideals.
I should also stop and point out here that my presentation at the University final differed slightly from my presentation during the faculty heat. And that small change was the result of a light bulb moment that occurred during the process of creating my three-minute presentation that I think my supervisors had begun to wonder if I would ever reach. I finally realised that Eisenhower had duped me. The language that he used to convince Americans to embody an “ideal” United States, one that for him was based soundly in the nation’s history and heritage had blinded me to one key fact: a myth is just that, no matter how compellingly, or sincerely presented. To me, this only emphasised the importance of my research. Presidential rhetoric can be problematic at the best of times, but when engaged to (re)construct an “ideal” nation to defeat an ideological enemy, it reinforces ideas about a nation and its national identity that is rooted more in myth than in fact.
I don’t remember my presentation. I had practiced my speech more times than I can count. I knew the words. But the reach theatre had a lot of people in the audience, our vice chancellor was there and the MC was Emma Alberici, former Deakin alumni and journalist/presenter for ABC’s Lateline. What I do know is that I finished with only three seconds to spare. And I remember that the Vice Chancellor murmured “bravo” after I stopped talking.
Beyond having to reconsider the approach I take to my thesis – no small endeavour that one – participating in the 3MT gave me the opportunity to reassess what I considered the most important aspects of my work. The 3MT forced me to define how I would need to phrase my research to get across to an audience the importance of re-evaluating the language of a dead president long considered a rather poor orator. It also reminded me that even after years of working with Eisenhower I still have so much passion for my work.
I won’t lie and say I didn’t want to win, because by the time the finals came about last Thursday I was fully committed to the competition. I wanted to win to show that the humanities can compete the sciences. Though I didn’t win the Vice Chancellor told me she voted for me as people’s choice. And the judges decided that I deserved an Honourable Mention. Which, when I consider the impressive field of contestants feels like an achievement to be proud of.
At the end of the day, the 3MT competition requires time and practice. Remembering three minutes of dialogue under pressure is hard. Persuading the audience of the importance of your work is perhaps harder for some than it is for others. But for any post-graduate students who find themselves eligible to enter next year’s competition I would encourage them to sign up. It is an entirely worthwhile exercise and if for no other reason, go, present, and then enjoy a free lunch…