Early Career Researcher and Teacher (SOAS)
So, way back in June I participated in my university’s first ever Three Minute Thesis competition. The Three Minute Thesis (or 3MT®) began at the University of Queensland in 2008, and has travelled far since then, with competitions taking place in the US, Canada, and the UK — Australia and New Zealand even have a national version! It basically involves students talking about their research in an engaging, accessible manner for–you guessed it–three minutes to a non-specialist audience, with a backdrop of one image.
At York, the competition coincided with the arrival of the Olympic torch, and formed part of a day-long event involving local sixth-form students (ages 16-18) among others. Ten of us had been shortlisted, with only two students from the Arts and Humanities: myself and a music PhD. I was pretty nervous – the competition came at a time when I wasn’t feeling very confident about my research, and I thought I could already see some clear winners from the rest of the group. I hadn’t memorised my script, and my image was almost entirely bleached out by the sun (the event was in a room with floor to ceiling windows, at midday). As you can imagine, I was pretty surprised when they announced the winner, surprised to the point that I didn’t stand up to receive my prize (an iPad!) until nudged by the guy next to me.
I recently received an email asking me about why I applied to the competition, and how universities might encourage greater participation from students in the humanities. As the writer pointed out, the 3MT® has been almost universally dominated by the social and hard sciences. In the rest of this post, I’ll draw on my (limited) experience to try and answer these questions.
Originally, I applied for the competition for two reasons: 1) my commitment to public engagement, and 2) the iPad. That might sound very materialistic, but I had a pretty good idea of how much an iPad would make my life, and particularly my work, easier, and that was a huge motivating factor. By the time I got to the shortlist, the need to “represent” the humanities was also key. Having glanced over the applicants in the longlist schedule I received, I was aware that we hadn’t been the only humanities students who had applied, but by the final we were in a real minority.
So why might that be? In the email I received, it was suggested that students from social and hard science backgrounds “more readily feel equipped to talk about the wider impact of their research”. To an extent, I agree with this, and think it feeds into a more pervasive problem with graduate education in the humanities. In a panel on “Rebooting Graduate Training” at this year’s MLA (s749), there was a lot of discussion around the “misaligned career expectations” of humanities grad students: the discrepancy between what students embarking on a PhD in the humanities think they will do for a career (usually a tenure track job, or its equivalent in countries without a tenure system), and the number of those jobs available. I’m no expert, but off the top of my head I think the current ratio of tenure track jobs to graduate students in the humanities is about 1:5 (PLEASE correct me if I’m wrong). Which means that 4 out of 5 students are not going to end up on the tenure track, or conventional academic, job path, whether they want to or not. While there might be similar issues in the social and hard sciences, in my experience many students in these fields go into a PhD with a relatively open-mind about their career options.
Again, this is based on anecdotal evidence only, but my impression is that in social and hard sciences, there is far more movement between industry/practice and theory/research, reducing both stigma and ignorance about career options for PhD graduates outside of the university. By way of contrast, in the humanities, there’s still a huge amount of stigma and ignorance about non-academic career options for PhD graduates. This, coupled with the commitment to an academic career path that most students bring to the start of their PhD, tends to prevent students from considering other options until very late in, or even after, the PhD process. As a result, the need to repackage one’s research for a non-specialist audience doesn’t arise.
Although public engagement work is not unknown to the humanities, it’s usually thought of as something you do when you’ve reached a certain age and status: Professor Mary Beard being a case in point. However, during the time I have been a PhD student (just over three years), emphasis has increasingly been placed on public engagement as an integral part of academic life at all stages, and rightly so. Logically, this should have created occasions for humanities students to present their research to the public, and prompted greater involvement by humanities students in events like 3MT®. This might indeed be the case: in 2012, there was at least one other 3MT® winner from the humanities (Emily Cock from the University of Adelaide, whose excellent presentation–which puts mine to shame–can be viewed here). In the UK, there have also been more concerted attempts to encourage researchers in the humanities to reach out to the public: since 2011, the Arts and Humanities Research Council have collaborated with BBC Radio 3 on the New Generation Thinkers programme, for example. It’s still a work in progress, of course, but at least it’s now work that has begun.
Would I recommend the competition to other arts and humanities students? Without a doubt. I’ve had a difficult two years, and my relationship with my research and career choice has been extremely fragile at times. Although it didn’t magically resolve these issues, winning the 3MT® was an incredible confidence boost. It made me realise that my research had meaning and value to other people, and in turn restored some of its meaning and value to me. It was also fun, allowed me to develop some new skills, and introduced me to some really interesting people. While I don’t recreate my presentation word for word when people ask about my thesis, it has made it easier to answer the questions that people outside of the academy have, and also made me realise how grateful I am for those questions and the opportunity they provide for sharing my research and learning more about its public reception.
If you’re really keen, my presentation can be viewed below. Having watched several other presentations in my research for this post, I’m now pretty embarrassed about how amateur mine seems, but then again we Brits aren’t known for our dazzling stage presence. And hey – it did the job!
Please note I prepared and gave this presentation before all the gory details of Armstrong’s doping were revealed. A post on his illness memoirs is forthcoming, where I’ll also speculate about the implications of recent events on our perception of Armstrong as a cancer “survivor”!