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Vitae launches three-minute thesis challenge

Research careers organisation Vitae has launched a competition in which postgraduate students must capture the essence of three or more years of work and distil it into a three-minute presentation.

The students are asked to explain the basics of their doctorate thesis to a lay audience, testing their communication skills rather than the quality of their research. They must describe complex ideas in a way that others can understand and that will make the audience want to know more, says Traci Wilson, a higher education institution programme manager at Vitae.

Originally developed at the University of Queensland in Australia, the three-minute thesis has been borrowed by a number of UK universities to be used as a training exercise for postgraduate students. ”It has been shown to make postgrad students look at what they are doing in a different light, to engage with the public and to start thinking about the possible impact of their work,” Wilson explains.

In June this year, the winners of internal contests at six UK universities met in the first national competition, organised by the students’ union at the University of Leeds. Vitae wants to open the competition to representatives of all UK universities, and is inviting them to send their own champions to an event that will be held during its annual conference in Manchester in September next year.

The 2013 competition was won by Frank Soboczenski from the Department of Computer Science at the University of York. He analysed the errors made by people when setting the controls on medical devices. “I found the three-minute-thesis competition challenging but also tremendously rewarding because it helped me to demonstrate what my research is about and what the potential impacts for society are. In addition, it was good to meet lots of people afterwards who were really excited about my work and wanted to know more, which in itself is rewarding,” he said.

York, which is co-hosting next year’s event,  has run its own competition for the past two years. It  forms part of the university’s outreach activities, with local A-level students invited to be members of the audience and even judge the competition. “It can change their perceptions of what research is all about. It shows them that researchers are normal people too and encourages them to consider higher education as an option,” says Jenn Chubb, a research innovation officer at the university.