Can complex ideas be communicated in 3 minutes?

As a PhD student in OZ  I have been encouraged to participate in a competition called the 3M thesis. This competition is for PhD students and consists of  a 3Minute presentation of your thesis  to a lay audience. This competition started in 2008 in Australia and it has become very popular. Most universities run internal competitions, and then  send their best representatives to the national finals.

The promoters of this competition say that the 3M thesis  is not a  “an exercise in trivialising or ‘dumbing-down’ research but forces students to consolidate their ideas and crystalise their research discoveries.” Is that true? Well, I have been asked to do my 3MT twice, and that experience has made me wonder if it has really contributed to focus on my research and improve it. On one hand you have got the challenge to condensate an 80,000 word thesis into 3 minutes, and on the other, you have to be able to communicate it persuasively. Can you do it? How can you do it? What for?

I revised some of the videos of the finalists and winners of previous years, and  most of them belong to the natural sciences. Their presentations started with an anecdote or a general question attracting people’s attention, that lead to their research question, and the last minute was used to reveal their research discovery. Does that pattern work in social sciences as well? The 2011 winner was a  young criminologist talking about advanced techniques for identifying fingerprints. The runner up was a dietitian working in intensive-care units; the People’s Choice award went to a pharmacologist studying cannabinoid receptors. Of 10 finalists, only one was working in literature (she studies Australian women’s travel narratives as found in blogs). There was not a single one from education . Is it just a coincidence that the social sciences are underrepresented in the 3MT competition?

I don’t know if I am getting too cynical or what, but these competitions like the3 M thesis or Dance your PhD  feel a bit wrong. It makes me wonder if all the effort that PhD students put in trying to communicate complex ideas in 3 minutes is really worthy. I would be very interested to know  about how these experiences shape the Phd students learnings’, or how the 3 MT contributes  towards the completion of a PhD. And of course, I’d be very keen to ask PhD students in the social sciences what they think about the 3 M thesis.

About Malba Barahona

Educational researcher, language educator. PhD from Australian National University. Passionate bushwalker and mountain lover. I procrastinate reading fiction, hiking, doing yoga, riding, having a beer and more recently decolonizing my existence. I write in English and Spanish in different blogs especially with the purpose of encouraging my students to write.


  1. Steve

    I’ve participated in both Dance Your PhD and a precursor of 3MT. I can say both were fun. Whether it was an efficient use of my time towards completing my thesis, I don’t know. It seems that 3MT does at least have the potential to force you to clarify your thesis (or one part thereof, you don’t have to talk about the whole thing) down to its barest essentials. It did help me think about the broader context of the process I was modelling in my thesis and not just think in terms of a mathematical abstraction.

    OK so I am from the natural sciences, but I don’t think the social sciences have any major inherent disadvantage. It’s not easy to communicate some abstract concept from physics or mathematics. Biologists have it a bit easier because they can talk about animals or parts of the body. But social scientists have, in at least one respect, a huge advantage over even biologists — they can talk about people. People love to hear about people, whether themselves, or someone else they might know. The only 3MT presentation I can still remember (I might have watched this on the Internet) was from a social scientist. She was looking at something like how fragmentation of communities due to religious differences led to incest (or at least close in-breeding), in England a century or two ago. She managed to weave in statistics with anecdotes of a family from this time while showing a family portrait. It made for a very powerful story. From memory she won, or did very well.

    • Malba Barahona

      Thanks for this Steve. I haven’t been lucky to find any one from the social sciences yet. I agree that it is not easy to communicate abstract ideas for anyone, and I am happy to hear that it was useful for you to see your research in a broader context. I just wonder .. and wonder…

  2. Mike

    Hi Malba,
    You haven’t posted for a year- did you submit successfully?? I, too am doing a PhD in SLTE and enjoyed and related to your posts.
    I am sure you wrote up a great thesis.
    All the best from a sunny Wales

  3. Anonymous

    Hi Mike,

    Thanks for your comment. I am editing and rewriting the thesis to be submitted in the next weeks.
    Yes, it’s been a year. How did this happen? There is so much that I didn’t write in the process. I hope to have some time off soon and do some writing here.
    Good luck with your thesis!

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