Academic Idol

Academic Idol

Ph.D. candidates explain years of research in just minutes at Carnegie Mellon University's inaugural Three Minute Thesis Championship today.

The competition, brought to CMU by Dean of Libraries Keith Webster, challenges students to give a compelling oration explaining their work for a general audience.

The event will take place at 5 p.m. in McConomy Auditorium. Not in Pittsburgh? It also will be webcast live.

"Many of our students are working on research that has a broader impact on society, health and the economy," Webster said. "Challenging them to communicate their findings to a non-specialist audience, in a concise manner, helps to share their contribution. It also offers a great venue for students both to showcase their research, and to step back and reflect upon the big picture of their research."

The Public Communication for Researchers (PCR) student group has provided support for the event. PCR President Jesse Dunietz said that communicating with others is an essential part of a scientist's job.

"Researchers possess knowledge that can make a crucial difference in the ability of others to make good decisions, so it's our responsibility to help society use what we've learned," Dunietz said. "Projects like 3MT hone participants' skills for doing just that: boiling down a complex research idea to its most essential elements, and conveying them compellingly to smart people from other backgrounds."

The rules are simple. The only aid students are allowed is a single PowerPoint slide. The goal is to engage the audience with simple spoken words that communicates the essence of their thesis work.

Each student is judged on three points:

  • Was the thesis topic and its significance communicated in language appropriate to an intelligent but non-specialist audience?
  • Did the presentation help the audience understand the research?
  • Did the oration make the audience want to know more?


During the primary rounds of CMU's contest, more than 140 Ph.D. candidates competed. The 11 finalists are:

Shorr also is a board member of PCR. He said competitions like the 3MT not only help him practice science outreach but also provide clarity.

"There's something about distilling your work into three minutes for a smart person who happens to be outside your field - it's clarifying and refreshing," Shorr said. "I get to think about my research questions from different perspectives and remember why I fell in love with it in the first place."

Webster, who joined CMU earlier this academic year, was previously at the University of Queensland where 3MT launched in 2008. It has now been adopted by dozens of universities and Universitas 21, a global network of research-intensive universities hosted its inaugural international competition last fall.

"The success of the competition at UQ showed that there was great demand for opportunities like this," Webster said. "As other universities became aware of the competition, it was inevitable that it would be implemented more widely. I am delighted to see the rise of international events such as the Universitas 21 competition, and I hope that we might see a North American challenge before long.

"I have been overwhelmed by the response by the CMU Ph.D. student community to the 3MT competition," Webster said. "They have risen to the challenge, and presented some truly transformational research."


Webcast note: If you're not in Pittsburgh, you can watch the webcast starting Tuesday, February 18 at 5p.m. EST.


Related Links: Carnegie Mellon University Libraries | More about 3MT | Universitas 21