EUA Council for Doctoral Education


"My thesis in 180 seconds": entertainment, communication and doctoral education

Over the last decade, a number of public presentation events involving young researchers have bloomed in academia. In French-speaking universities, “Ma thèse en 180 secondes” has become a must. As Denis Billotte of CUSO argues, beyond the entertainment and the promotional aspects, such competitions also have great value for doctoral education.

Years of work on a doctoral thesis and only three minutes to explain what it is all about to an audience that has not necessarily studied at university. This is certainly a nightmare scenario for many researchers. However, in recent years, it has been an unforgettable and very enriching experience for the doctoral candidates who participate in the "Ma thèse en 180 secondes” (My thesis in 180 seconds, MT180) competition. And there is always an audience both for live events and for videos on social networks. How can this success be explained?

Doctoral training today is part of the more general idea of the doctoral experience. The doctorate is not only a diploma, it is the first step of a researcher's career path with its components of skills development, scientific deepening, methodological improvement and enrolment in professional networks.

The professional future of doctoral candidates lies first and foremost outside the university, and often even outside research. The academic path remains but a niche. Whatever career is pursued, it is the acquired knowledge, but even more so the skills, honed and validated through the research experience, that are decisive in finding a job and advancing in one's career. The ability to synthesise, the communication skills and the ability to effectively share complex information, are particularly important.

It is also the responsibility of universities and researchers to report on the research conducted, the results obtained, and their potential impact on society. Our Universities are financed, totally or partially, by public money. Therefore, there is a duty, not only to account for the use made of it for research, but also to return this knowledge to the public and society. More generally, knowledge, and thus science, is only worth something when shared.

Communication events for the general public are very important for universities. Over the past ten years, new initiatives involving competitions, and specifically targeting young researchers, have been developed all over the world. Among these, the MT180 competition is a great success in the French-speaking area. It is an adaptation of an event created in 2008 at the University of Queensland entitled "3 Minute Thesis" (3MT). This competition spread rapidly throughout the English-speaking world, and a French version was launched in Quebec in 2012 thanks to ACFAS (Association francophone pour le Savoir). The development of this French-language version was very rapid, with a first international final held in Montreal in 2014. Today, it has spread over Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, and the international finals welcome 18 to 20 candidates each year.

The concept is simple: on stage, in front of a mixed audience (colleagues, family, friends, and simply curious people), doctoral candidates from all disciplines present their theses and their research experience with the support of a single slide. All this happens in less than three minutes. For candidates, it is a question of getting to the heart of the matter on the objective and interest of their research. But it is also an opportunity to share their passion for research, and to show that doctoral candidates are indeed human beings and hard workers. The duration of a doctorate and the difficulty of carrying it out must not be hidden.

A jury selects the winners on the basis of three main criteria:

- the elocution and quality of the stage performance;

- the quality of the scientific popularisation (explanations must be clear and relevant, images must be meaningful, slides must be appropriate);

- the quality of the text: structure and form are important.

The audience can also choose its favourite and vote, leading to a special "prize of the public".

With such events, universities can promote themselves to the general public, to policy makers, and to society at large. In addition, doctoral training takes advantage of this media exposure to cultivate a more accessible, humane and concrete image for employers. In other words, it helps to showcase doctorates as excellent qualifications for the labour market.

But beyond the "show", MT180 is an invitation to consolidate the doctoral candidates' communication skills, especially orally, but also in writing. The text, necessarily brief, must be penned with great care and precision. Speaking in public after being well prepared, with a confident voice, are essential qualities in a professional career. The exercise of the stage is also very conducive to building self-confidence. Finally, the constraint of presenting only one slide requires a mastery of graphic language to obtain the best impact. The universities participating to MT180 thus organise specific training courses for the benefit of candidates. But the competition also encourages doctoral candidates to participate in more general training courses on communication, public speaking, the use of images, popularisation and scientific mediation.

The competition itself brings a fun and entertaining atmosphere, reinforced by the presence of the stopwatch. In addition, there is huge diversity in the disciplines and subjects covered: from mathematics to psychology, from literature to biology, the whole range of academic research can be covered over the course of an evening. This double gap in comparison to academic habits is the first attraction for the public, whose interest must then be captured by a fair balance between scientific rigour and well-chosen metaphors.

There lies the greatest interest from the point of view of doctoral training. Candidates must agree to take a step back and look at their research with a fresh eye, to find what can be shared with the public, a common reference on which to base the speech. At the same time, they must be able to say how research adds to knowledge and brings something new. This requires a deep understanding of the subject, because if one is vague or shallow, the presentation may be less interesting and less convincing to the jury and the public. Many candidates also testify that their participation in the competition has changed their own view of their research subject, and sometimes even helped them to advance in their work, or even modify some aspects of their thesis.

An operation such as "Ma thèse en 180 secondes" obviously remains secondary in the doctoral candidates' training path, and there should be no question of making it an obligatory step. But through its effects of promotion, training, shifting of perspectives, as well as its direct contributions to the consolidation of important skills, it has its place in enriching the doctoral experience.

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Denis Billotte

Denis Billotte is Secretary General of CUSO, the association of the French-speaking Swiss universities organising and sponsoring joint doctoral programs. On behalf of the member universities of Fribourg, Geneva, Lausanne and Neuchâtel, he developed a new framework for joint doctoral programs aimed at promoting the links between the different institutions and offering a combined and collaborative offer of support and training for doctoral candidates. He also initiated and helped create the transdisciplinary program in transferable skills, which provides training for the more than 4 500 doctoral candidates in the CUSO programs. In 2016, Billotte initiated the “Ma thèse en 180 secondes” competition in Switzerland and is now the national coordinator.

Photo credits S. Campardo