Distilling Your Dissertation

Next week, I have an opportunity to present my work in a short five-minute/1 slide format, and next month I am competing in the UCI Grad Slam (basically, a Three Minute Thesis challenge). These short presentations are supposed to capture the essence of my project, my approach, and my contribution with minimal fuss. And to be honest? These kinds of presentations are some of the hardest to nail down. If you’ve ever done a “lightning talk” or a pechakucha (its Japanese equivalent), you might know what I mean. We live and breath our research, shouldn’t this kind of thing be easier?

But in the time between undergraduate and graduate school, “short” presentations balloon in length in the Humanities: the 10 – 15 minute seminar presentation, the 15-30 minute conference paper, the 50 minute – 2 hour lecture, etc. Your written work also expands proportionally eventually leading to the 200+ page dissertation. Opposite of what we encourage in an undergraduate setting (a streamlined talk that hits the major points without too much fluff or distraction), graduate students constantly fear running out of time at conferences, and professors expertly squeeze final remarks out of that last two minutes of lecture. It is frustrating to be constrained by time and/or word limits when we have so much to say!

I feel like the eve before your first conference, and even more so as you enter the job market, you start learning the importance of the “elevator talk” or the “elevator speech”: explaining your (jargon-free) research and its importance to someone in 30-60 seconds. You want to be dynamic, engaging, and informative to draw people in, not shut them out. But doing this effectively is a tough task, and one that I think all graduate students, irrespective of discipline, need more practice doing. We already practice it in writing (via the abstract), but we need more opportunities to “talk” our project through in various lengths and various degrees of formality.

thesisI bumbled into an old article from 1999 titled “Making Science Understandable to a Broad Audience” (which is amazingly dated by the lingo — overhead transparencies anyone?), but Richard Reis makes a great point about having graduate students practice and master their “elevator talk,” “hallway talk,” “office talk,” and “guest lecture.” Let’s face it: (most) of us plain suck at boiling down the complexities of our work for non-specialists. We need to “teach” our projects, not just state them, and this practice is important in BOTH the Sciences and the Humanities. I’m excited to see Three Minute Thesis competitions emerge worldwide over the last 7 years (the first competition was in 2008), and hope that this is a trend that will continue, but I also think that this kind of exercise is useful even without the competitive component.

The value is definitely there, as mastering just this one skill helps you to connect with people from a variety of disciplines. I would love to see more professional conferences that integrate these short-format, exciting, fast-paced blurbs of our research agendas, because I think it helps us understand and distill our own importance as scholars more so than the conference paper or guest lecture. I know that the New Media Caucus has been doing them at the College Art Association for  a few years now. For example, in addition to formal 3-5 paper panels, there could be a session of 6-7 minute lighting talks by graduate students and do 8-10 of them rapid-fire. Then, have an open networking meet-and-greet session afterwards where people can drink coffee, ask questions, exchange e-mails, and create those important connections to faculty and peers across fields.

Alternatively, I think embracing the competitive aspects could also be fun in an undergraduate class. Have students create 3 minute presentations and then pick their favorites by secret ballot at the end. In my course on Japanese popular culture, we had a miniature film festival with videos they created on Mozilla Popcorn Maker. Although I evaluated their projects for a grade, students also judged them in various categories to determine whose video was the most effective at teaching their lesson, the funniest, the most creative, etc. It was fun, and they really embraced the spirit of the assignment, which got them thinking critically about their own work. Couldn’t this be replicated with a version of the three minute thesis?

I see real value in my project, but there are occasions when I really do believe that more can be said with less! There is an art to brevity (something that I just failed at with this post!)

(Images by PHD Comics)

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