Sandra Barbosu and Hila Fogel-Yaari practise for the competition (all photos by Eugene Grichko)

On the road to the Three-Minute Thesis (3MT)

Making years of research interesting and intelligible for non-experts in less time than it takes to sing a pop song

It’s a dramatic question: “If you were hit by a bus, and crawled into the room at the contest, bleeding and dying, what’s the one sentence you would use to make your point?”

The image is intense but for Sandra Barbosu and Hila Fogel-Yaari, PhD candidates at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, devising an answer is all part of hammering out their presentations for the Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition. 

3MT began life at the University of Queensland, intended as a forum to help train doctoral students to explain their research in a clear and concise manner to non-expert audiences. 

The concept is simple: explain years’ worth of research in three minutes, with a single static slide, and no props. The idea quickly spread across Australia and beyond, with competitions springing up around the world. The Canadian iteration, run by the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies, sees competitors from Victoria to St. John’s competing within their universities, and then at regional finals (at Thomson Rivers University, Western University and Concordia University). Top performers in each region are then invited to present at the association’s annual conference in Calgary in the fall. 

Fogel-Yaari and Barbosu, practising in front of each other and a few colleagues, are working to ensure that they’ll be chosen to represent U of T. For two years running, U of T has taken the provincial title but in each case a life sciences student was crowned champion. 

“I spent a lot of time focusing on my overall goal,” last year’s winner Daiva Nielsen said. “I looked at the bigger picture and thought about the most important point to get across.”

The discussion in the small room is intense and ranges from encouraging – “You just lit up when you started explaining the importance of innovation” – to brutally frank: “You only explained your work starting at the two minute and thirty seconds mark. I want you to rework this completely!”

Methodologies are questioned; the structures of presentations are tweaked, adjusted or completely scrapped and replaced. 

Fogel-Yaari, who will begin a tenure-track faculty position at Tulane in the summer, is an expert on the importance of innovation in corporations, and her thesis examines the relative importance of CEO personality and information asymmetry between managers and shareholders in driving innovation. 

“In the literature, researchers focus on one or the other,” she explains. “I am one of the first to look at how they are related.”

Something is lacking, though; the idea remains abstract, until she begins talking about the importance of innovation itself, citing a 2005 paper that found that each additional patent citation could add three per cent to the value of the firm, and her colleagues pick up on her enthusiasm. “You’ve got to let that energy transmit to the audience – it’s infectious!”

Barbosu’s research into film production has involved eight months of laboriously combing through data for 60,000 titles on Amazon’s streaming service to analyze the profitability of movies that span multiple genres. 

“Can you choose a single studio and two films to use as concrete examples?” she is asked. Pencils scribble furiously as everyone in the room takes notes to revise for yet another iteration of the presentation. “You mention game theory, but only once. Should that be expanded or cut?”

One thing everyone in the room agrees on is the importance of the skills developed by the competition. 
“It’s vitally important that our graduates can explain the real-world impact of their research,” says Alyson Colón, administrator of the Rotman PhD program, who organized the practice session. 

As the session winds down, the candidates leave the room, armed with their notes, and talking animatedly about their presentations. The university-wide winner won’t be crowned until April 8, but if all contestants are taking it this seriously, says Colón, the final round will be electric.

photo of two Rotman PhD students laughing at front of class

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