I won first price in the faculty 3-min presentation

As PhD students, we rarely have opportunities to brag about our research. This post is to indulge myself in my victory in the 3-minute presentation competition, and tell you why you all need to do something like this.

I participated in the competition of the Faculty Christmas Conference this year, and competed with 12 other PhD students. The rule (which is slightly different from the trademarked 3-minute thesis) is to present your research within 3 minutes, with the help of maximum of 3 slides. The audience is composed of staff and students from the Faculty of Science and Technology, not just psychologists but also physicists, chemists, computer scientists, etc.

I accepted the challenge reluctantly when my supervisor, with his postgraduate supervisor’s hat on, nudged me on to participate. I was meaning to dodge this bullet, for this is clearly a very challenging task; but more importantly because in time as stressful as the 4th year of PhD, my mind goes on the energy saving mode. It tries to avoid all unnecessary tasks, in the name of what it deems as the single significant responsibility. This time, it’s “the writing up”.

Now that I’m at the other end of the tunnel, having utterly enjoyed the whole experience, and with some price money in may hand, allow me to be an advocate of public engagement opportunities like this. However, posts on how to do a successful 3-minute presentation are many. Here instead, let me give you three reasons why it is good and beneficial to present your work to someone outside your research circle.

  1. CV and money. Yup, honestly, yup.
  2. Knowledge should belong to all mankind. Scientific discovery, however great or small, should not be an entitlement for those who know what “osmosis” means, or someone who have access to specific softwares and websites. For sure, jargons exist to capture the complexity and specificity of certain concepts. Yet we scientists should not hide behind them. As someone who is using English as a second language, I’m aware that speaking my native tongue in an English country creates a barrier in social situations. You wrap yourselves in a small bubble and repel anyone who makes an advance.  In the same way, academics speak a special language among their small clique, that is impregnable even for academics who study in a different field. This is a loss for the scientific community because research is very much about pulling together the efforts of people with different strengths; and of course, damaging to the reputation of scientists in the whole community. That’s why, at times, scientists need to make an extra effort to share the fruit of their discovery. If you want to learn how or generally curious about science, check out this Youtube channel Kurtzgesagt. They are brilliant at explaining complex concepts in simple terms with fun illustrations and intriguing metaphors. (This is not a plug in. I just love them very much.)
  3. MOST IMPORTANTLY, it rekindles your love for research. This is the point that motivated me to write this post — Taking part in the competition compelled me to rediscover my passion for the research topic of my PhD. As I said at the beginning, PhD students rarely have the chance to feel proud about their work. At the initial step of an academic career, it can feel like standing at the edge of a forest. You are constantly dazzled and dwarfed by your supervisors, guest speakers in a seminar, and fellow students who seem to be just a step ahead. Meanwhile, in daily life, you get entangled by the nitty-gritty bits of research unbeknownst to others, as befittingly explained by the comic strip below. Those bits never make the headlines, and you can lose perspectives in them.

love science

Doing a 3-minute talk, or any public engagement presentation, to people who know nothing about your research forces you to take another perspective, and ask yourselves why you did the PhD at the first place. In order to answer the question of your audience (that is, what is the most interesting part of your research?), you have to overlook the nitty-gritty bits and bring out the most punchy message. This is not to sensationalise your research or exaggerate your contribution. Most of the times, what you need to do is just, as Hemingway put it, “kill the darling”.

A lot of people may think that knowledge is just something readily in our head, especially for PhD students who know their thesis inside out. The reality is, knowledge and understanding needs to emerge from conscious contemplation and debate. The 3-minute presentation afforded me the an opportunity to engage in such contemplation myself. I managed to find once more where my passion have lied, and other people seemed to like it too. That feeling was great.

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