Advice & News

July 5, 2024

What Job Seekers Can Learn from the Three Minute Thesis


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In 2008, residents of the Queensland state of Australia were being encouraged to limit water usage due to an extreme drought in the area, and many people took to affixing a three-minute egg timer to their bathroom wall in order to time their showers. Among these residents was the dean of the Graduate School of Queensland University, and the timer gave him an idea: what if graduate students were challenged to distill their findings down to a three-minute presentation (The University of Queensland)? Thus, the Three Minute Thesis (also called 3MT) competition was born. Since 2008, 3MT has grown exponentially and is currently held in 900 universities across 85 different countries.

So, what is the 3MT competition? As the name suggests, the 3MT competition challenges graduate students to effectively explain their research in three minutes, in language appropriate to a non-specialist audience, using only one static slide. Although it may seem daunting for graduate students, who have spent years honing their research to match the discourse of their discipline, at its core, it encourages researchers to communicate the broader significance of their research to diverse audiences.

Aside from having innumerable benefits for the students who participate in the competition, the 3MT offers some powerful lessons for those in the middle of a job search. The 3MT format teaches scholars how to distill complex ideas into simple, understandable language -- a skill that is invaluable in navigating the job market in academia. Here's how you can apply the principles of the 3MT competition to your job search in higher education:

Nail Your Elevator Pitch: An 80,000-word thesis would take more than nine hours to present, but in the 3MT competition, students are asked to do it in 3 minutes. Similarly, in your job search, it may take hours or even days to articulate your academic achievements, experience, and research interests. In your job search, it will be invaluable to spend real time thinking about how to summarize your resume in a concise and compelling manner.

Emphasize Impact: In the competitive landscape of higher education, highlighting the impact you've had in your previous roles is crucial. Just as you would in a 3MT presentation, focus on illustrating how your contributions have advanced the goals and mission of your previous institutions, addressed challenges facing your employers, or introduced new approaches to teaching, learning, or administration. When demonstrating the quality of your work, use concrete examples such as improved outcomes, achievements, or projects and initiatives you've spearheaded.

Tailor Your Message: In the same way that 3MT competitors need to tailor their presentation to suit a diverse audience, customize your interactions to resonate with the priorities of who you're speaking to. During the interview process, take the time to understand the perspectives, concerns, and goals of those you're speaking to, and address how you can help contribute to their success.

Embrace Spontaneity: Adarsh Suresh, winner of UChicago's 2023 Three Minute Thesis competition, admits that "I didn't put in as much time into memorizing my speech as I should have, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise because I was able to improvise. Improvisers are experts at telling complex stories with limited amounts of information about their audience, right? They don't know much about their audience, but they're constantly trying to engage them" (UChicago News). While preparing for an interview, it can be tempting to memorize rote answers to common questions, but don't be afraid to think on your feet and provide an answer other than what you may have prepared.

Tell a Story: A common piece of advice to 3MT participants is to think about their presentation like a story, with a beginning, middle, and end. Just as in a 3MT presentation, in an interview and a cover letter, use storytelling techniques to engage your audience, evoke emotions, and make your message memorable. Whether you're discussing your research, sharing a teaching experience, or presenting a strategic plan, you can connect with your audience on a deeper level by telling a story.

The Three Minute Thesis isn't just for graduate students; mastering the art of the Three Minute Thesis can be a winning strategy for your career in higher education. Viewing the job search process through the lens of the principles of the 3MT enables job seekers to think not only about if their experiences match the requirements, but how to present their expertise in an engaging way.

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