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Years of Research in Three Minutes

December 11, 2019

Portrait of Caitlin Sisk

Portrait of Caitlin Sisk
Psychology graduate student Caitlin Sisk gives her presentation at the event. Photo by Lisa Miller.

Clear communication is an essential skill. It gives our ideas power and helps us collaborate, solve problems, and look at our world in new ways.

In addition to learning research methods and ways to communicate with other academics, graduate students also benefit when they learn how to communicate what they are learning to those without knowledge in their field of expertise. Communicating complex ideas in ways that are accessible to others is a key component of the 3-Minute Thesis Competition.

The 3-Minute Thesis Competition is held annually at over 200 universities worldwide, showcasing research-heavy colleges and departments. This year was the first that graduate students across CLA competed.

Students must boil down pages and pages of research into one PowerPoint slide and a three-minute talk. They must be clear, brief, and engaging.

Graduate program coordinators Jessie Eastman and Megan Whaley—of the political science and anthropology departments, respectively—organized CLA’s debut in the competition in October.

“The U of M (and with it, CLA) is very invested in advancing knowledge in ways that are accessible to, and supportive of, the many people who benefit from our research, teaching, and service,” says Steve Manson, CLA’s associate dean for research and graduate programs. 

And the Winner Is...

The 3-Minute Thesis Competition has been held at the University of Minnesota at both departmental and university-wide levels for 3 years, but CLA made its debut at the competition this past fall. Eight participants from eight different departments within CLA presented their theses before a panel of non-faculty judges with various backgrounds. The judges determined the winners based on how clearly the competitor presented their thesis for a lay audience.

This year’s first place and People’s Choice award winner, psychology graduate student Caitlin Sisk, presented her research thesis titled “Managing misdirection: Learning to look in all the right places.” Her research employs virtual reality to train people to automatically pay attention to important places by placing objects in virtual environments. The purpose of her research is to reduce the “blindness to things we don’t pay attention to.” In the non-virtual world, this blindness can cause very real consequences, like distracted-driving accidents. 

Her participation in the 3-Minute Thesis Competition was fueled by the challenge to describe her research to regular, non-academic people. “The only people you usually talk to about your research are the people who study the same things,” Sisk says. 

In preparing for the competition, Sisk says she spent around 50 hours perfecting her thesis pitch. To gain more insight, she shared it outside of the psychology department and recited it at retirement homes to receive feedback. 

Sisk is happy her hard work has paid off, noting that her participation in the competition changed the way she thinks about research, teaching, and media relations. “I definitely found that when describing research to other researchers, you must be very specific. When you are talking to people who are not researchers, it helps to be general. This has helped me change the way I relay information,” she says. 

Prior to participating in CLA’s competition, Sisk won the department-level competition in the Department of Psychology. After garnering two victories at the department and college-level, she went on to compete at the University-wide 3-Minute Thesis Competition held at Northrop on November 8.

The winner of the University-wide competition competes at the regional 3-Minute Thesis Competition in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in April. There, participants have the chance to qualify for the national competition held in December 2020.

A Leg Up

In addition to helping contestants effectively communicate the significance of their research, the work that goes into the preparation and execution is likely to make the students stand out in the job market. Conveying an in-depth research project to people outside of academia can be challenging, but being able to do so prepares these researchers for settings such as interviews and networking events.  

“The competition is great for graduate students because they can think about how to explain their work to employers, potential funders, and a public that is increasingly driven by sound bites and tweets,” says Manson. 
The 3-Minute Thesis Competition showcases the research being done in CLA that might sometimes go unnoticed. Within all liberal arts departments, research is addressing important issues like that of Sisk’s, looking to draw attention to distracted driving. 

“It highlights how talented our students are and how critical their work is for advancing knowledge and grappling with important problems,” says Manson. 

This story was written by an undergraduate student in CLAgency. Meet the team.