UofG PhD Student is U21 Global 3MT Winner

By Ciaran McGeady

I have always found discussing my research with non-specialists to be a bit of a tightrope walk. If I was careful I could partially convey the value of my work but more often than not I’d make a wrong move and totally alienate people. I would often see genuine interest evaporate as I struggled to put into simple terms what I actually did on a daily basis and why. I wanted to find a clear and concise point-of-entry to my research that I could use whenever I got the ubiquitous question: So what’s your PhD about? When the call for the Three Minute Thesis competition came around – an annual graduate school event aimed at developing academic communication skills - I was keen to apply.

There was a slight issue, however. Apart from thinking about how to make my research more accessible, I would also have to present in front of an audience from across the university. To put it lightly, this terrified me. I signed up anyway, telling myself that three minutes would be over in a flash, and given the calibre of previous winners I didn’t need to worry about getting a place in the final.

The days leading up to the first round were some of the most nerve-wracking of my life! No looming exam or thesis deadline comes close. Thankfully, once the time came and it was my turn to present the nerves subsided. I came second place. I was delighted – and stunned, the other presentations were all brilliant - but daunted at the prospect of doing it all again. With the judges’ comments in mind, I tweaked the talk slightly and presented again in the final round over Zoom. Unbelievably, lightning struck twice and this time I won first place! Although it felt like divine intervention at the time, I have had time to think it over and I believe I made a few decisions that stacked the odds in my favour. Here are a few you might want to consider:

Watch previous years’ winners from the university and beyond. A good ‘3MT’ presentation tends to begin by laying down a central idea which is easily understood by the audience. This serves an entry point. For me, instead of talking in the abstract about motor disability I focussed on one man’s experience of full-body paralysis. It was easy to understand, and set the context and tone for the rest of the presentation.

Practice every sentence and gesture. Don’t leave anything to chance. Practice in front of other people, especially non-specialists. At first I thought I could dazzle the audience with my expert pronunciation of words like electroencephalography but once I saw my sister’s eyes glaze over I realised this was not the way to go.

What you say is important but so is how you say it. I struggled with this at first. Past winners talked energetically. For me, any attempt to emulate this came across as artificial. I realised I needed to be myself and not play a part. This helped me come across as more genuine.

Record yourself and watch it back. This is something I was reluctant to do because of the cringe-factor. But after I got feedback from colleagues such as, “Why have you changed your voice?” (which was news to me), I understood the need to see myself from the audience’s perspective.

The slide. This is an important part of the judging criteria yet seems overlooked by many contestants. Keep the slide as simple and text-free as possible. I couldn’t believe the number of slides in the heats that looked conference-ready. Every second the audience spends trying to decipher your slide is time they are not listening to your presentation. Go with a simple illustration that’s easy to take in in one glance.

The 3MT experience, the judges’ comments, the advice of colleagues, friends and family, have all, I feel, made me a better, more confident communicator of my research – even ignoring the final result. I’d urge every PhD student to give it a go. There is no way to come away empty handed – you will learn something about yourself. If I can do it you certainly can.


View Ciaran's three minute presentation here.

U21 2020 winner news release and announcement

First published: 22 October 2020

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