features

The three-minute thesis

In a Graduate School competition, PhD candidates try to reduce the work of several years to an elevator pitch.

Alan Wechsler has written for the New York Times, Climbing magazine, and the Atlantic, among others.

Imagine the effort that goes into earning a PhD. Thousands of hours in libraries, in a lab, in front of a computer; untold amounts of research or experiments or fieldwork. Finally, the dissertation—often 200 or more pages of technical prose, slaved over for months and then presented to an audience of learned scholars tasked with the job of tearing it apart.

How, then, to explain it all in the time it takes to prepare a soft-boiled egg?

This is the goal of those who compete in Yale’s Three-Minute Thesis Competition. Held toward the tail end of the spring semester, it is an elevator-speech contest for doctoral candidates. Competitors must sum up their academic work in front of four judges and a standing-room-only audience of peers, Yale undergraduates, faculty, and alumni, before the timer runs out. And try not to choke.

In the spring, several preliminary competitions are held, attracting mostly fourth- to sixth-year students. These early contests weed out those who, for instance, use too much jargon or focus on one aspect of their work without describing the big picture; others come close but are edged out by the tough competition. Then, a few weeks later, the finalists meet in a lecture hall to duke it out in the deciding round.

This is the scene at Yale’s Loria Center for the History of Art, late in the spring semester: in the first row sit the 11 competitors, dressed casually, name tags hanging from necks. Some chat, some review notes, others just wait. In the second row are the four judges: Lydia Brown, a Connecticut Public Radio talk-show senior producer; Devesh Raj ’01PhD, a Comcast vice president; Stephen Roach, Morgan Stanley’s former chief economist and now a lecturer at Yale’s management school and global affairs institute; and Lynn Cooley, dean of the graduate school.

Behind them are the spectators. All seats are occupied. Students line the stairs, filling the doorways, craning necks at the back. One hundred and seventy people have shown up on a Friday evening to watch this academic exercise in brevity.

The rules are simple. Contestants stand in front with a microphone and start speaking. They’re allowed one slide, projected overhead, to sum up their work. Two and a half minutes in, there’s a 30-second warning, and then a bell when time is up. Judges have two minutes between each round to compare notes. Even the spectators can get in on the action, voting via an app for their top picks; the two audience favorites will each win $350.

Andrew Richter ’79PhD, chair of the Graduate School Alumni Association Board, starts things off with the immortal words of wrestling announcer Michael Buffer. “Let’s get ready to rumble,” he tells the crowd—and then adds, “but not ramble.” Nathan Nguyen, a biology grad student moonlighting as the emcee, announces the first speaker.

It’s Lien Nguyen, a fourth-year neuroscience student (no relation to Nathan). Her topic: “Finding a Cure for Chemobrain.” It’s a discussion of how chemotherapy can defeat cancer only to cause brain damage—“chemobrain”—later on. She’s speaking a bit fast but sounds confident. She’s standing in the center of the room, making eye contact, using hand gestures. She explains quickly how she’s using mice to test new ways to avoid brain damage from chemotherapy. “My hope is the result of my research will help cancer survivors enjoy a good life,” she concludes—well below her three-minute limit.

The presentations that follow include the scientific, the humanistic, and more. A management fourth-year named Winnie Jiang talks about methods for moving on after being laid off. Cell biologist Xinyu Hong talks about fighting bacteria with drugs that can break through a bacterial membrane. He makes it relevant: “By 2050, there will be 10 million deaths associated with antibiotic resistance. We need to better understand our bacteria enemy.”

Lydia Hoffstaetter, a neuroscience student, speaks on hibernation. She starts with a joke: “Don’t you sometimes wish you could just curl up, close your eyes, and wake up when all your deadlines and exams are over?”

She gets her laugh, and keeps going. She talks about her research on the neurons of hibernating squirrels, and how one could apply it to help patients in therapeutic hypothermia, or perhaps for controlled hibernation of astronauts on a mission to Mars. “Imagine the possibility that what we learn from a small mammal curled up underground might one day send us to space,” she concludes. The crowd loves it—she gets some of the loudest applause of the evening—and in the end she’ll get second place, with an Apple Watch as her prize. Hoffstaetter will also win one of the two people’s choice awards. The other will go to Jillian Jordan for her discussion of “What Drives Moralistic Punishment.”

 

While the event is definitely fun—as the standing-room-only crowd attests—organizers say it has a serious purpose. “It’s really to train students to be able to communicate not only the subject of their research, but the value of the work that they are doing, to audiences broader than their specific discipline,” says Hyun Ja Shin ’94PhD, director of graduate and postdoctoral career services. “It’s a really important professional asset in any career.”

The first contest is thought to have been held at Australia’s University of Queensland in 2008. Today, events are held at more than 600 universities around the world. Yale’s Office of Career Strategy first brought the event to Yale in 2017, when 33 grad students competed for the top prize of an Apple watch. A year later, the ante was upped to a $1,200 cash prize, and more than 50 PhD students took part.

Shin advises competitors to take time to prepare. Whittle it down to short, simple words. Present it to friends (but not those in the same discipline) and see if they get it. Ask for feedback—was it clear? Was it simple? Was it interesting? To help the process along, sponsors of the event offer online tips, workshops, and one-on-one counseling sessions.

But not everyone pulls it off, as a PhD student in economics demonstrates during the finals. (He humbly requested that the Yale Alumni Magazine omit his name.) He begins with an unforced error—a dry title about network analysis in economics. It will go downhill from there.

He starts out all right, explaining that by measuring the centrality of a region, a businessperson can decide, for instance, whether it’s a good area for an entrepreneur to sell their idea or to find investors. He talks about the ancient Silk Road city of Samarkand, once one of the world’s most connected communities. “If you’re a trader and you’re moving from China to Persia [in the Silk Road era], you have to go through Samarkand. If you innovate something in Samarkand, you’ll be inspired by millions of people from different places.” Then: “In Atlanta, Georgia, most folks are the same.”

There’s laughter from the audience. It catches him off guard. “I hope nobody’s from Atlanta,” he quips.

He tries to recover, explaining that if you were to invent a peach, it would make sense to try to sell that invention in a place where peaches are appreciated, like Atlanta. But then the 30-second warning comes. “I’ve completely lost it,” he admits to the crowd, before trying to sum up his point: that there’s an economic benefit to living in a place where there’s diversity. When the bell rings, he looks almost relieved.

Later, he says the laughter unnerved him: “I didn’t intend to be funny.” He also admits that he had too much material. And he did zero practice beforehand. “I always feel that, if you understand your material, you can capture some audiences better if you haven’t practiced,” he says. “Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t.”

Dolly Goldenberg, on the other hand, practiced before a lot of people. A fifth-year linguistics student, age 36, she discusses “Hearing with Our Skin: Multisensory Integration in Speech Perception.” The idea is that people with hearing disorders could use sensation to recognize words—for instance, the puff of air one makes when pronouncing the letter “P.” Adding an aero-tactile component to headphones might also assist individuals in noisy work environments, she says, such as pilots and mechanical engineers.

Later, Goldenberg estimates she spent about ten hours preparing. She made some changes when a friend said she was using too much jargon. “It made me realize I’m so immersed in it, I really can’t talk to people without boring them to death!” she says. It’s understandable. Every day, in casual conversation with peers, she uses terms like “somatosensory,” “categorical distinction,” and “laryngeal phonology.” She carefully avoided all those words in her elevator pitch.

Nevertheless, she admits, she didn’t think much of her presentation. It felt too fast: “I finished 30 seconds early.” (In fact, the notes a judge gave her after the presentation included the command “SLOW DOWN!”) But in the end, her work pays off: she comes in third, winning a $200 gift card for the Yale Bookstore.

 

When the competition is over, there’s a 30-minute break while judges confer in private. In the meantime, a grad student a cappella vocal group, The Citations, performs for the crowd. They close with a crowd-pleaser, Queen’s “Somebody to Love.” The music director, School of Nursing student David McIntosh, runs around the room ad-libbing: “I’m a complex person / You’re a complex person / But I know we can sum it up in three minutes / I just need somebody . . . to share my thesis with.”

In the end, the top prize goes to engineering student Beza Getachew, whose topic is “Self-Healing Water Filtration Membranes: From Concept to Proof.”

“What would it be like if your skin wasn’t able to heal itself?” she asks at the start of her presentation. “You get something as small as a paper cut . . . and you now have a permanent liability, where bacteria and viruses can enter your body.” She asks the audience to imagine what would happen if other materials in the world also had this healing ability. Water filtration membranes, so important all over the world for ensuring access to clean water, can be easily damaged. That increases maintenance costs and limits their use in developing countries. If these filters could self-heal, they would be more reliable, and costs would go down.

For her PhD thesis, she explains, she wants to build the world’s first self-healing water filtration membrane. She’s experimenting with a few different techniques—such as materials that swell in the presence of water, filling and blocking any microscopic holes. “My hope is that others can build on the work and create self-healing water filters that are as common as self-healing in our skin,” she concludes.

Afterward, Getachew says she honed her presentation by delivering it to her close friends and paying attention to every point when they frowned. “You can see it in people’s faces,” she says, when they don’t understand something.

Later, the judges say they were impressed with the presentations. “We judged them on the basis of ability to convey the essence of their problem, the relevance of their research, and the potential application of their findings,” says Stephen Roach, the former Morgan Stanley chief economist. “It was a daunting scenario. I thought they pulled it off exceptionally well.”

Dolly Goldenberg, the third-place speaker, would agree with “daunting.” “I really admire professional speakers,” she says. “This is not an easy thing to do. It’s an art.”

1 comment

  • Felipe Pait
    Felipe Pait, 10:16am November 20 2018 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Excellent event! We'll be experimenting with the format at the University of S Paulo, Brazil.

Post a comment