Faculty 3MT Support Builds Grad Students’ Communication, Collaboration and Research Skills

February 27, 2023

Over the past few years, we’ve noticed a trend—certain SFU students from specific disciplines were consistently performing well in the annual Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition. In searching for the reasons why, we found these students tend to have guided laboratory, classroom or group preparation activities with their academic supervisors or classroom teachers. 

Not only do these students perform well, but they also use what they’ve learned in this competition when applying for jobs, presenting at conferences, or speaking with people outside of academia about their research.

Conversations with two 3MT supporting faculty members, archaeology professor, Dana Lepofsky, and biological sciences professor, Gerhard Gries, revealed parallel approaches to preparing students for 3MT, student skill-building similarities, and the benefits they’ve seen that go beyond the competition itself. 

“You can't talk about or present your research well unless you understand it well; if you understand it well, you can speak about it with family and other faculty members,” says Lepofsky.

Says Gries, “We like to think that we do research that really matters and makes a difference in the real world. If grad students do not communicate their findings to the general public (including politicians and decision makers) that difference will not be made. You really need to voice your opinion and promote your findings on platforms beyond publishing a paper. You can see how my former student Elana Varner is using the skills she acquired in her current fellowship with the Government of California.”

Lepofsky embedded 3MT preparation into her Research Designs classes, while Gries embeds 3MT and conference preparations into weekly lab meetings. Even though they come from vastly different disciplines, their approaches to breaking down the process for graduate students were similar.

Both professors help break down the format and content of the presentation into the basic elements, have students’ workshop their presentations, proposals and research with each other, making the process engaging and unique.

Says Lepofsky, “We watch and listen to the previous 3MT videos on your website. While watching, we'd stop every 10 seconds or so to say, ‘Okay, they’ve said this/done this at 10 seconds in, 20 seconds in and so on.' We talk about the structure and break down what worked. We make note of when they’ve switched from an introduction to their thesis. 'What do they say? What’s on their visual slide? When and how do they refer to it?’ We use this 3MT preparation as another way to workshop that just fit in with what I was doing in the class already.”                                  

Because Gries’ works all conference, proposal and presentation preparations into weekly lab meetings where postdocs, undergrad and grad students are all present, he takes a slightly different approach—one in which helps to build comradery and teamwork into the fabric of the lab and their processes. 

“Students will give their first attempt at presenting their slide and their talk. Labmates will constructively critique the talk itself, the flow, the logic, the background, the goals, the significant findings, everything. They point out where technical jargon was used and won’t be understood by others. We try to find analogies to day-to-day life that everyone knows and can relate to and make it comprehensible and understandable to a general audience,” says Gries.

The students take the feedback, make changes and the process starts again. They do this as many times as necessary until they, and their labmates, are happy and comfortable with the result.

Students also learn to embed further creativity into their research, reframing their work to communicate it to people who aren’t familiar with the concepts with the help and support of their peers.

“I tell my students all the time that the students who don't have passion, don't finish doesn't matter how smart you are,” says Lepofsky.

Of course, there’s pride in having students do well and place in the top of their competition. However, both Gries and Lepofsky agree that the most rewarding part of this process is seeing the growth in those students who really struggle the most with public speaking. Whether they place in the competition or not, they gain confidence in themselves, build excitement about their research and writing, and do well when it comes to defending their theses.

“We get students, who have terror around presenting. Not just nervousness, but terror. I remember a student who participated in the 3MT competition who had that terror, and she did it. I don't think she placed, but in my mind, she was number one,” says Lepofsky.

Says Gries, “It's great to see students evolve from an anxious, almost frightened presenter to a confident communicator. This weekly lab process instills a sense of home and belonging in these students because they’ve all contributed to the successes of each other. And most of all, it’s fun.”

For those faculty members who don’t have labs but see the value in 3MT, Dana has a final word of advice to help support the potential for cross-collaboration.

“Where I think it's fun and the most useful is workshopping in a group, cohort, class or with a friend. Because even if you don't have a supervisor who is encouraging you to present or doesn't have a lab group, this group process provides a glue or product that you're all working toward together,” says Lepofsky.

Faculty members can encourage your students to participate in your Faculty's heat or the GPS Wild Card heat on March 22.

See the 3MT Schedule for dates and times