In pursuit of balance and inclusion: reflecting on the 2022 3 Minute Thesis competition

By Emily Hay (PGR Events Intern) in the Researcher Development Team.

Though much of the Researcher Development Team’s announcements are devoted to research communications competitions for PGRs, it’s an area which receives little in the way of pedagogical attention. So, hot off the heels of another thrilling iteration of our flagship Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition, now seemed the perfect time to pause and reflect on this year’s events, celebrate the successes, and take stock of the areas in need of more attention moving forward.

What is 3 Minute Thesis?

3MT is a communications competition for PhD, MPhil and MRes researchers, initially developed by the University of Queensland in Australia. Versions of the competition take place at universities across the world, with Glasgow’s being the longest running competition in Scotland. 3MT challenges its participants to present their research to a non-specialist audience in just three minutes, with the assistance of a single PowerPoint slide. The aim of the competition is to encourage researchers to get to the core of their research in a three minute ‘elevator pitch’, developing both their public speaking and public engagement skills.

At Glasgow, 3MT’s organisation is the responsibility of the PGR Events Intern with the support of the wider researcher development team. It takes place at the beginning of every calendar year, with advertising beginning in January and both the heats and the final taking place throughout March. 

What was different about the 2022 competition?

Last year, a whopping 72 researchers entered the 2021 competition – the biggest competition Glasgow had ever seen, and probably due to running in the more accessible online format for the first time. Organising a follow-up to that huge success was daunting to say the least. Yet, despite the popularity explosion of the competition last year, some historic inclusion issues were still rearing their heads. Namely, the imbalance between SHAPE (Social Sciences, Humanities and the Arts for People and the Economy/Environment) and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics/Medicine) researchers entering, and then additionally the issue of SHAPE researchers progressing within the competition. For 2022, the priority was to put in place certain procedures to address this imbalance, without giving any one type of researcher an advantage over the other.

We went about this in a few different ways. Firstly, provision was made for specific training for entrants into the competition, covering both crafting and delivering a great 3MT entry. This training was offered for both STEM and SHAPE researchers in separate sessions to provide an equal starting point for both categories of researcher. SHAPE researchers have historically struggled more than their STEM counterparts with successfully demonstrating the wider impact and importance of their research in the 3MT format, we hoped that the tailored training would provide a confidence building opportunity which would translate into more of them entering the competition.

Secondly, we structured the heats differently from previous years, separating them between STEM and SHAPE researchers. This was done to ensure that a relatively even number of researchers in each category made it to the final no matter what happened in the heats. 

Thirdly, we approached judging in a brand-new way. For the heats, we approached University staff members working in communications and public engagement rather than strictly academic roles – after all it is a test of communication skills. For the final, we enlisted external judges with experience in communicating with and engaging the public in their respective fields. Four judges represented the broad remits of each of the Colleges:

Kirsty McLaughlin, a producer/director of life science documentaries; Tawona Sithole, poet, playwright and UNESCO artist-in-residence at the University of Glasgow; Timothy Revell, a Deputy US Editor of New Scientist magazine; and Zara Kitson, Head of Partnerships at The Prince’s Trust Scotland and board member of Engender – Scotland’s feminist policy and advocacy organisation. In investing more time and resources into choosing judges, we hoped to emphasise the competition’s focus on communication and public engagement – for which an extra special thanks has to be said to Dr Zara Gladman, the Public & Community Engagement Advisor within Research and Innovation Services, without whom finding such an incredible range of judges wouldn’t have been possible.

Did we succeed?

Yes! We achieved a much better balance of SHAPE and STEM researchers taking part in the competition compared to previous years. That higher quantity of presentations though, did not sacrifice their quality. Compared to previous years, where SHAPE researchers had been more likely to struggle to demonstrate the impact and societal importance of their research, the overall quality of presentations on offer suggested that the training had clearly been effective. This training, alongside separate heats, and an overhaul of the judging process combined to successfully overcome 3MT’s prior STEM-leaning biases. The proof is in the pudding: for the first time ever, first place went to an Arts researcher (Claire Hammond with ‘Cocky’ the Cockatoo and Displaying the Relics of Empire), second to a CoSS researcher (Kirsten Somerville with Creative Earth Writing in Secondary Geography Education), and the People’s Choice award to a researcher from MVLS (Gabriela Gerganova with To BAM Or Not To BAM?). You can view the winning talks over in our 2022 3MT archive

As Glasgow’s overall winner, not only has Claire won a £1000 travel grant, but she will now also get to record a studio version of her presentation to be entered in the U21 3MT competition, with the opportunity to win a $2500 prize.

What next?

Despite our successes this year, there are still some noticeable sticking points with 3MT that successive iterations of the competition have struggled to address. Most pressingly, there is a noticeable bias against non-native English speakers proceeding to the final. The nature of the competition and the judging criteria does little to make provision for those tackling the extra hurdles of navigating a presentation of this ilk in an additional language. A major question moving forward is, how do we address this imbalance in a way that keeps the competition fair for all PGRs? Should the organisers provide a more comprehensive guide for how judges are asked to apply the judging criteria, and thus get more deeply involved in the judging process themselves? Or, is it a case of offering more specific training and support for those with English as an additional language?

Finally, whilst not necessarily an area for ‘improvement’ there is another aspect to 3MT which merits pondering ahead of next year: when, if ever, should the competition return to its in-person roots? After two years of the pandemic, we had originally begun this academic year believing the return to in person was imminent for 2022 – but the rise of Omicron at decision-making crunch time and the fact that many researchers remained at a physical distance from Glasgow rendered it yet another virtual year. The fact of the matter is, 3MT works online. It is both easier from an organisational standpoint, and more accessible and comfortable for participants. Is it fair to take away that accessibility once again just because we can? Or, do the issues of a return to in-person simply come part and parcel with the aims of the competition? Hybridity is of course a new area of exploration, but it is complicated by the competition format – how on earth do you fairly judge an in-person presentation against one delivered over Zoom? 

Whoever takes on the mantle of the competition next year will no doubt have some tough decisions on their hands – but whatever changes they choose to make, they will be arrived at through thoughtfulness and a genuine desire to make changes for the better.

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