Feb. 19, 2019

How a family dinner isn't too different from a Three Minute Thesis

UCalgary 3MT veteran Sydney Harvey on why grad students should enter the communication competition
PhD student Sydney Harvey, 2018 3MT finalist.

PhD student Sydney Harvey, 2018 3MT finalist.

Sydney Harvey

If you’re a grad student, you’ve probably been there.

A beloved aunt or grandparent asks about your research. What do you say? Chances are, you come up with a quick, engaging answer without dumbing it down or getting too technical. To philosophy PhD student Sydney Harvey, that’s exactly what the Three Minute Thesis (3MT) is all about.

Harvey, currently on leave from the University of Calgary as she completes a one-year MA at Warwick University as an American Fullbright Scholar, was a finalist in the 2018 University of Calgary 3MT. In this research communications competition, thesis-based grad students deliver a three-minute talk on their research using a single, static slide. Judges assess the talks for being clear, compelling and effective in explaining research to a broad audience.

Like any PhD project, Harvey’s work in philosophy of mind and film is complex. As she describes it, her dissertation explores “how film’s successful manipulation of reality may be able to reveal constraints of consciousness.” The research builds on interests sparked during her dual bachelor’s degree in philosophy and film from the University of Missouri – Kansas City before entering directly into the UCalgary doctoral program in philosophy.

You may have unwittingly already presented a 3MT talk

The challenge of condensing a thesis into three minutes may seem daunting to some. Harvey has a different take.

“I am attracted to speaking engagements that are restricted to very short amounts of time,” she says. “In 30-minute presentations, you have to get into the details and you lose audience members that are not experts in your field. But a three-minute pitch about my research is easy, every researcher can do that. Just remember the last family dinner you had when your grandparents asked you what you research and you had to explain it quickly, broadly and most importantly, in a way they would find interesting. That’s basically a three-minute thesis.”

Harvey knew she wanted to enter the 3MT as soon as she learned about it in GRADpost. “I read every email the faculty of graduate studies sends. I suggest that to all grad students; it only takes a minute and you never know what opportunity you’ll find,” says Harvey.

Doing stand-up comedy helped Harvey plan her 3MT talk.

Doing stand-up comedy helped Harvey plan her 3MT talk.

Sydney Harvey

The 3MT: Not just for STEM students

In the competition, Harvey found herself one of few humanities students in a field of competitors from STEM disciplines. She sees many good reasons for humanities and social science students to get involved.

“Being able to pitch your research quickly is an asset in any field. It’s important in the humanities and social sciences because you need to fight for funding and grants,” says Harvey. “In these fields our research expertise are typically idiosyncratic and yet they are all related to humanity. Often in philosophy we don't want to explain our research to people outside of the field because they 'wouldn't understand' unless they had the same years of training. That is just simply wrong, if you can't make work that will apply to the general public then what's the point?”

What’s so funny about the 3MT?

An open mind and willing attitude can make the 3MT a great experience. Harvey thrives on a challenge and drew on her stand-up comedy experience to plan her 3MT.

“In a five-minute comedy slot you have enough time for three hard jokes but since the time is so short you want to hide them in one story or theme, that way the audience follows you in a seamless narrative,” says Harvey. “When I was writing my 3MT I used this template, three main points all hidden in one narrative.”

Making it relatable

One challenge of the 3MT is finding an angle from which to present one’s research. Harvey planned her talk around how the mind perceives the passing of time differently depending on context. “During a car crash time appears to move slower than normal. This perceptual illusion of duration can be elevated using film techniques of sound and visual movement,” she explains. “Although my research contains a lot more, I only had three minutes so I decided to just take a piece out of the pie and focus on that alone. 

“There should never be a point in your speech when the audience has to google something you just said, because they won't,” says Harvey. “After you finish a draft of your speech, read it to your mother and if she understands then you're probably on track.”

Harvey returns to her PhD program at the University of Calgary in fall 2019.

Registration is open

All thesis-based graduate students can register for the 2019 UCalgary 3MT by March 1. By registering, students can access practice sessions and workshops on presentation skills, vocal skills and slide design. And remember: unlike most family dinners, entering the 3MT puts you in the running for a $1,000 top prize!