The 3MT as a lens into concision, productivity and creativity in PhD research

Perfection is not when there is no more to add, but no more to take away. ~ Antoine de Saint Exupéry

Last week I spoke at my university’s Three Minute Thesis competition, which challenges doctoral candidates to explain their research in under 180 seconds, to a non-specialist audience.

Other PhD students in the competition had been attending multiple workshops, practising for weeks in front of experts, and being given feedback from professors and each other. I wrote my speech the week before, and then attempted to memorise it while teaching, marking essays, parenting, and revising my whole thesis (again), this time for the eyes of my second supervisor. In amongst that week, the universe decided to add night after sleepless night with sick children, and sickness for me, too. Such is the world of the working, parenting PhD candidate!

I found ways to fit 3MT prep into the cracks in my week. I recorded my speech on my dictaphone and played it in the car on the way to and from work, and before I went to bed. At night after my kids were in bed, I ran through the speech. By the time 3MT day came around, I was still full of cold and bleary eyed, but I figured I only needed to be ‘on’ for three minutes. That, I could do. I presented the speech before its first ever audience on the day. I managed to remember my entire speech from start to finish, did it under time (which is crucial) and got some nice feedback afterwards. (Thank you to those in the audience who nodded vigorously, and the two girls at the cafeteria afterwards who told me they think I should have won!)

The most useful part of the 3MT for the PhD researcher is the decision making that goes into writing the speech. At around 500 words the speaker has to make tough decisions about what to put in (in my case, from research which has resulted in a 100,000 word thesis) and what to leave out. About how much to popularise and entertain, and how much serious research detail to foreground. I think my balance was a little off, but the experience of writing it – like writing abstracts or short papers – was a worthwhile thinking exercise in distilling my PhD down into its essence. It forced me to ask: What is the crux of what I am doing? Why should anyone care? How might I encourage them to want to know more?

my 3MT slide with thesis illustrations by me

my 3MT slide with thesis illustrations by me

Above is the image I used for the static slide which projected behind me as I gave my 3MT competition speech. It gives an idea of the way in which I’ve conceptualised my research about professional identity, professional learning and school change. It’s an approach which might be perceived as a bit whacky and non-traditional by some.

I’ve used narrative method, but taken the notion of story further, including using a well-known literary novel as conceptual frame and even providing illustrations in my thesis. These decisions emerged from systematic working through of research problems such as the ethical issue of protecting anonymity, as well as the storytelling challenge of making meaning for readers. I’ll be presenting at this year’s Australian Association of Research in Education conference about the use of extended literary metaphor and known literary characters as analytical and conceptual tools.

In reflecting upon this slide and my 3MT speech, I was heartened by Helen Kara’s new book, Creative Research Methods, and by this recent podcast from Tara Brabazon and Steve Redhead. Helen, in her book, does not encourage researchers to be creative for the sake of creativity, rather she notes that being open to creative solutions to research problems acknowledges and respects the complexity of research work.

Tara and Steve, in their discussion of interdisciplinary PhDs, make a point about doctoral (and other) research that resonates for me; select a university, supervisors and examiners who will protect your journey and respect your work. This has been so important for me. My supervisors, neither of whose own work is in my specific area, have been supportive of my ideas and my journey. That is not to say they have not challenged me! Quite the opposite. When I first floated the idea of creating illustrations for my participant stories, for example, they were sceptical, but not dismissive. I worked on the theoretical rationale for using illustrations in my thesis and once I had articulated my argument convincingly, my supervisors told me that I’d effectively made the case. This is one example of a number of moments in my PhD journey in which my work has been respected and my journey supported, rather than controlled.

So as I presented my 3MT speech, before my idiosyncratic slide, I felt that I was presenting research in which my journey, my voice and my work has been – challenged, certainly – but also respected.


5 thoughts on “The 3MT as a lens into concision, productivity and creativity in PhD research

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