UMass Amherst Holds Inaugural Three Minute Thesis Competition

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AMHERST, Mass. – Ten University of Massachusetts Amherst graduate students will distill their doctoral or master’s theses into accessible three-minute oral presentations as they contend for a $1,000 first prize in the final round of the university’s inaugural Three Minute Thesis (3MT) Competition on Friday, March 24 at 4 p.m. in the Student Union Ballroom.

The culmination of a six-week-long contest designed to test participants’ research communication skills, the competition was organized by the Graduate School’s Office of Professional Development (OPD). The 3MT Competition attracted 70 entrants from seven of the university’s colleges and 35 academic departments. Contestants participated in a preliminary round to vie for a spot in the finals and were evaluated based on their ability to explain the significance of their research to a general audience in three minutes or less.

During the event finals, speakers will address a wide array of subjects, including the use of water management as a strategy for ending poverty, the nature of artificial intelligence, the importance of group role play in foreign language instruction, the development of novel radio telescopes, and the mathematical modeling of turbulence. In addition to the $1,000 first prize, $500 awards will be given to the contest runner-up and the audience’s choice for best speaker.

“I am looking forward to the finals of the Graduate School’s first-ever Three Minute Thesis Competition with great anticipation,” says John McCarthy, senior vice provost for academic affairs and dean of the Graduate School. “Our students performed remarkably well in the initial phase of this contest while undertaking an imposing challenge—compressing months or years of complex research into a succinct, compelling and readily understood narrative explaining their work. I’m certain their presentations will be even stronger during what should prove to be a very exciting final round of competition.”

The hard work required to develop a 3MT presentation will yield significant long-term rewards for contestants, says McCarthy, because the competition cultivates a fundamentally important skill: communicating specialized ideas to an audience comprised of non-specialists. “Advanced academic training largely focuses on the production of new knowledge rather than the process of communicating that knowledge to a general audience,” McCarthy observes. “As a result, researchers typically excel at reporting their results to fellow specialists who share a common language, but they often face steep challenges in translating their projects for individuals working outside their discipline or beyond the academy. But professional advancement—including the process of finding a job or obtaining research funding from a foundation or government agency—often depends upon the ability to explain the overarching purpose and importance of technical research to individuals who likely do not share that scholar’s intellectual interests, professional background, or expertise. And it is precisely this skill that the Three Minute Thesis Competition helps participants acquire.”

The benefits of the 3MT Competition should eventually extend beyond participants to UMass more broadly. “When researchers become properly equipped to demonstrate the relevance of their work to varied audiences, they are better positioning themselves for success within and beyond the academy,” said Heidi Bauer-Clapp, assistant director of the Office of Professional Development and principal organizer of the 3MT Competition. “But they are also positioning themselves to enhance the image of the university by illustrating how research undertaken at UMass helps solve significant problems to benefit society. Through the development of strong research communication skills, scholars can more easily participate in ongoing public dialogue on a wide range of topics and elevate the reputation of the university while doing so. Consequently, improving the ways in which scholars talk or write about their work serves as one key to improving the public perception of academic work.”

To accelerate the process of strengthening research communication skills among graduate students, the Office of Professional Development has launched a larger initiative devoted to the topic. In addition to sponsoring the 3MT Competition, OPD has also held a series of workshops—including several events featuring high-profile presenters from the Alan Alda Center for Science Communication and the Spoken Science communications consulting firm—to impact as many students as possible. OPD’s plan has rapidly progressed, with more than 300 graduate students participating in one or more of these programs in the last two months alone.

“Over the past several years, the academy has increasingly come to understand the undeniable value of research communication skills, a trend that is reflected in the growing popularity of Three Minute Thesis Competitions across the globe,” Bauer-Clapp notes. “Since the first 3MT contest was organized in 2008 at the University of Queensland, more than 350 other universities have held similar competitions. Internationally, we are witnessing a cultural shift in the way academics perceive the importance of research communication to the scholarly enterprise. At UMass, the Office of Professional Development is attempting to initiate a similar cultural shift among graduate students. We want them to understand that their ability to connect with many different kinds of audiences about the nature of their research will benefit themselves, their profession, the university, and academia itself.”