October 16, 2013, by Yvonne Teoh

80,000 words in three minutes: The Three Minute Thesis (3MT®) competition

The Three Minute Thesis (3MT®) competition is exactly what it sounds like: describe your thesis in three minutes.  In plain English, so someone outside your field can understand it.  To put it in perspective, a typical thesis of 80,000 words would take 9 hours to present.  We had three minutes.  (That’s 180 times less, in case you were wondering.) 

80,000 words actually isn’t that much — the seventh Harry Potter book is 2.5 times that.  But the problem is really, that most of those 80,000 words are terms that no one except you and your supervisor understand (inward-outward anisotropy!), or details that no one except you understands (sustained spatiotopic component of attentional facilitation coexisted alongside the transient retinotopic facilitation!).  So summarizing all that in three minutes, in non-gobbledygook, is actually a lot harder to do than you would think — a lot harder to do well, at least.

I’m pretty lucky in that my research — driving — is about a topic that everyone knows and loves (well, not loves, but has a very strong opinion on, if you’ve spent more than five minutes on Malaysian roads).  It’s incredibly practical — we’re developing a new test for driver licensing.  It could potentially save lives.  And it doesn’t hurt that I speak at 200 words a minute.  (But don’t worry — I slowed down to 150 or so for 3MT.)

My favorite description of academic research comes from Daniel Gilbert in Stumbling on Happiness.  “Doing science is a bit like flying in an airplane over a vast landscape for an hour, and then landing the plane, getting out and digging in the dirt with a teaspoon for twenty years.  Establishing facts is so damned time-consuming that as the years pass it’s easy to forget you have wings.”  Never mind twenty years — after even one or two, it can be hard to see anything but the spoon.  (And sometimes there is no spoon.)  It’s easy to forget the big picture, when day in and day out, you’re in the lab — running your 100th participant, redoing your stats, crashing Excel.  But sometimes, you need to get back in the plane, and remember why you’re doing what you’re doing — and be able to tell other people too.

So if you want to take three minutes to watch grad students flying their planes, head over to http://vimeo.com/channels/u213mt2013.

And if you want to find out how we’re trying to improve Malaysian driving, visit http://vimeo.com/76597348.  And if you enjoy the video, please vote for me in the U21 competition by clicking like!

Lim Phui Cheng
(Postgraduate Student, School of Psychology, UNMC.)

Footnote: Cheng won the UNMC Three Minute Thesis with her presentation, Rethinking Driver Licensing, and is representing UNMC in the finals of the Universitas 21 3MT competition.  If you enjoyed this post, or the video, please take a minute to vote — and if you would like to help out with Cheng’s research, drop her a line at khyx1lpn@nottingham.edu.my   

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