Short and sweet competition serves up vital skills to students

23 August 2017
Less is more when it comes to the ‘3 Minute Thesis’ competition

Wouldn't be nice if a PhD took just three minutes to complete? Though research can span years, postgraduate students competing in the 3 Minute Thesis condensed their studies into pint sized presentations for the crowd. 

The 3 minute thesis (3MT) competition is a fantastic opportunity to shine the light on our amazing higher degree research students. But better yet, it’s a mutually beneficial opportunity. Students enlighten the crowd with their ground-breaking research, while the competition’s structure encourages students to fine-tune their pitching and presentation skills. It also helps student’s reflect on what the heart of their research is and acts as a platform to get their findings out there.

Higher degree psychology student Nikki-Anne Wilson competed in the University-wide competition finals last week after progressing through the faculty heats. Although she didn’t take home the ultimate prize, she sung praises of the initiative that’s helping postgraduate research students strengthen their communications skills.

We sat down with Nikki-Anne to hear more about her research in dementia and why she’d suggest the 3MT competition to other eligible postgraduate students.


Briefly describe your PhD research.

I am interested in how the breakdown of cognition in dementia influences other aspects of daily function. My PhD examines the mental processes contributing to social behaviour, specifically, whether mental simulation deficits underlie the social dysfunction seen in the behavioural variant of frontotemporal dementia. By utilising innovative behavioural methods combined with brain imaging, my research provides clinical and theoretical insights into the neural underpinnings of how we relate to those around us.

What real-world applications will your work in dementia have for the scientific community or the wider community?

Due to the aging population, dementia is an increasing national and international health issue. However, dementia is not merely a disease of the old, with over 25, 000 Australians under the age of 65 years living with younger onset dementia. Frontotemporal dementia is the second leading cause of younger onset dementia, however, little is known regarding why this disease results in such profound behavioural changes. Improved understanding of the cognitive processes underlying these changes will not only improve screening for the disease but potentially assist in managing the symptoms, ultimately easing the burden on patients and their families.

What prompted you to start your PhD?

I love research! Even when I find it overwhelming, frustrating and feel like I’m drowning, I love the puzzle of research. I am also passionate about my research area – bringing light to the often overlooked behavioural manifestations of dementia, and particularly, younger onset dementia.

What was the best aspect of competing in the 3MT competition?

I first encountered 3MT when I was doing my undergraduate degree and was immediately hooked! I loved the fact that 3MT makes science – and scientists – accessible. I can honestly say that 3MT is part of the reason I’m doing my PhD today. Your research deserves an audience and 3MT allows you to step outside of the lab or the field to not only share why what you’re doing is important but to hear about the amazing things being done by other researchers. Also, it’s a lot of fun!

What skills have you developed in participating in the competition?

Doing a PhD is one thing; however, learning how to communicate your findings is one of the most important skills needed as a researcher. I believe that by participating in 3MT and developing the ability to target my research to a lay audience these skills will serve me well both now, to boost my research profile, and throughout my research career.

What advice do you have for people considering a PhD at Sydney?

I once heard someone say that doing a PhD is more than a degree, it’s a journey of self-discovery. As someone mid-way through that journey I cannot emphasise enough the importance of the people around you. Surround yourself with people who support you, inspire you and make the most of the opportunity to engage with those outside your immediate research area. I am fortunate to be a part of the FRONTIER and MIND research groups at the Brain and Mind Centre as I am constantly surrounded by hard working researchers making a real world difference to the lives of patients with brain related diseases. 

What advice do you have for your PhD peers about entering the 3MT competition?

Do it! A fellow PhD student said to me that they couldn’t possibly do 3MT as their research is too boring. I honestly believe that behind every research project there is a story worth telling, after all, your research area must have appealed to you at some stage or you wouldn’t be doing your PhD! 3MT helps you to find that story. I strongly encourage you to consider entering 3MT as it helps you to look at your research from a different angle. By targeting your presentation to a lay audience – in less than three minutes – this forces you to get to the very heart of your research question. Also, did I mention it really is a lot of fun? It’s a chance to meet new people and an opportunity to be in a room full of potential future collaborators. And you may even win some money!

The 3MT competition runs each year throughout August at the University with opportunities for students to win cash prizes and travel allowances to compete at the Australasian finals in Brisbane.