3MT: Skills Valuable Beyond Degree Conferral

By Katya Hrichak

If your grandmother asked you about your research or scholarship, would you be able to explain it to her in language she understood? And if a journalist called, would you be able to explain it clearly and concisely?

Communicating your research to people in your field might be easy, but stripping away the jargon for a general audience is another story.

In the Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition, graduate students compete for monetary prizes by distilling their thesis or dissertation research into a three-minute presentation in front of a non-technical audience with the use of one static slide. Learning to speak plainly about a complicated topic while showing its impact is a skill that will affect students’ futures in unexpected ways. Just ask a few of our 3MT alumni.

William Pennock
William Pennock, Ph.D. ’19

“When I was hiring graduate students, a number of them mentioned my 3MT presentation as something they saw that made them interested in joining my lab group,” said William Pennock, Ph.D. ’19, now an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

The lessons he learned from competing have made him a better professor, too. Instead of using complicated presentations with an abundance of visual content, Pennock now keeps his slides simple with only helpful visuals and equations reduced to what is essential. Plus, the 3MT helped teach him how to find real-world connections to his research—a skill he now uses to make material more relatable and exciting for his students.

Jason Guss
Jason Guss, Ph.D. ’18

As CEO of Iterate Labs, Jason Guss, Ph.D. ’18, uses the techniques that won him the 2018 3MT competition every day. Whether he’s talking to his team, customers, or fundraising partners, Guss fine-tunes each message and finds nuances that will be most compelling to his current audience and does so “in such a way to inspire lasting excitement and interest.”

For Derek Holyoak, Ph.D. ’18, the concise messaging strategy needed for the 3MT is most vital to his job as a senior associate with Exponent, Inc. Additionally, he finds that knowing how to structure his project updates, starting with a big-picture summary before delving into details, “is extremely effective.”

Derek Holyoak
Derek Holyoak, Ph.D. ’18

3MT takeaways have other practical applications, too. Now a postdoctoral fellow in the linguistics department at McGill University, Carol-Rose Little, Ph.D. ’20, writes grant applications as if the reviewers are unfamiliar with her field. By acknowledging the possible lack of awareness regarding field-internal debates, she makes her work readily accessible to a much broader public – and now knows how to describe her research to friends and family.

As 3MT alumni have found, the skills polished through competition participation have a vast range of applicability to everyday situations.

Carol-Rose Little
Carol-Rose Little, Ph.D. ’20

“Participants will use these same skills in job interviews, job talks, conference presentations, client meetings, and of course thesis and dissertation defenses,” said Denise DiRienzo, experiential program director for Careers Beyond Academia in the Graduate School. And, as an added bonus this year, participants will have the opportunity to hone their use of technology as a presentation tool through the entirely remote competition.

“The competition might look different this year, but this shift provides us with a great opportunity to help our students strengthen their virtual presentation skills,” said Jan Allen, associate dean for academic and student affairs. “Throughout the years, 3MT has introduced students to ways to effectively communicate with non-specialist audiences, and they take these new skills with them when leaving Cornell. This year’s competition will even better prepare students for remote presentations and communication using technology.”

Students interested in experiencing the advantages of practicing effective communication can attend a 3MT information session on February 9 before the preliminary round begins on February 22. More information about the 3MT is available on the Graduate School website, along with recordings of past presentations.