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Annual Graduate School 3-Minute Thesis Competition Develops Communication Skills

April 4, 2019

Communication skills are essential for any graduate student, whether at a high-level conference, interviewing for a job, or just explaining your research to friends and family. Complicated, specialized projects like dissertation research can be particularly difficult for non-specialists to understand, even within the same field, and so the ability to coherently and succinctly summarize one’s work and its greater significance is invaluable.

That’s where Yale’s 3-Minute Thesis Competition, organized by the Office of Career Strategy (OCS), comes in. The second annual competition, held on April 20, 2018, saw eleven finalists deliver brief presentations of their research. All participants were limited to a single PowerPoint slide and could only speak for three minutes. The panel judging the competition consisted of Dr. Lynn Cooley, the Dean of the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences; Devesh Raj, Senior Vice President of Corporate Strategy at Comcast; Stephen Roach, Senior Fellow at the Jackson Institute of Global Affairs; and Lydia Brown, Senior Producer for NPR’s “Where We Live.” Addressing an auditorium filled with a diverse mixture of academics and non-academics, the participants needed to make their presentations accessible to a general audience.

The winner, Beza Getachew, reflected on some of the unique challenges this entailed. She had originally signed up to participate to practice her public speaking skills and different styles of communication.

The challenge I was expecting was that it would be difficult to give all the information I wanted to provide in the time I had. But when I started the process of practicing and fine-tuning my presentation, I realized that even before I got to the details of my project, I had to communicate the importance and stakes of my research,” she said. A PhD student in Chemical and Environmental Engineering, her project was entitled “Self-Healing Water Filtration Membranes: From Concept to Proof.”

Another challenge I didn’t see coming was the difficulty of applying metaphors from one field to another. What I considered to be a very straightforward metaphor didn’t track for other people not in my field, and so I had to adapt my language and communication style.”

An interest in science communication attracted second-place winner Lydia Hoffstaetter to the competition. Prior to the 3-Minute Thesis Competition, she had participated in Brain Education Day, a neuroscience outreach program aimed at local New Haven middle and high school students in the Pathways to Science program.

The trickiest part for me was distilling my research into a single slide and three minutes. I wrote out the bare essentials of my project and main take-home messages, and then practiced extensively,” Hoffstaetter said. “I got feedback from friends, colleagues, and the OCS staff.”

Brian Frenette, Senior Associate Director of Graduate and Postdoctoral Career Services, organized the 2018 event.

This year, we ramped up our partnership with the McDougal Center, the Writing Center, and the Center for Teaching and Learning. With their help, we tripled our initial applicant pool, and narrowed down the eleven finalists from ninety-two original participants.”

Frenette is confident in the value of events like the 3-Minute Thesis Competition for all graduate students, regardless of their career plans.

We’re the career services office and we’re focused on developing communications, presentation, and networking skills,” Frenette said. “But these skills are also important for academic careers. It helps on the job market, and when communicating your research to non-specialists. It’s to the advantage of any student in the GSAS to consider participation. It might be difficult for a first or second year to participate but I think the skill development piece is so key.”

The 2019 3-Minute Thesis Competition will take place Friday, April 5, in Sudler Hall WLH (100 Wall Street) from 5pm-7pm. All students, faculty, staff and other members of the Yale community are welcome to attend.  The event will feature refreshments and a special performance by the Citations, Yale's graduate a capella group. For more information, including a list of judges and finalists, see the Office of Career Strategy website: 3-Minute Thesis 2019 Competition.

Check out the work of 2018 3-Minute Thesis audience choice winner Jillian Jordan featured in the New York Times.

Sean Blink, Website and Social Media Fellow