I was recently in Australia, the birthplace of the Three Minute Thesis competition, and had a chance to visit with staff at two major universities.  I imagined I’d find out about the courses they offer that teach competition participants how to distill their message, couch it in understandable terms and show their passion as they explain the promise of their research.  Not so. Instead they told me about coaching and practice sessions.  And supervising professors who encourage students to participate.

I was delighted to learn they’re also investing in internships and other innovative programs to help students acquire transferrable, essential skills – the kind that will serve them well in front of important decision makers in the future. Some programs showcase student accomplishments and expose them to venture funding. Others focus on building essential communication skills – like assertiveness and influence – through real world experience. These efforts are driven in part by the reality that there are not a lot of academic positions in Australia for graduating scientists.

Competitions Help Hone Communication Skills

The Endeavor program at Melbourne University showcases the engineering Master’s projects at year end.  In its third year, Endeavor is a competition with venture capital funding at stake that helps launch new ventures. In 2018 student winners were using their creative talents and command of science to create window washing drones, respiratory support for pre-term babies and 3D printed prostheses.

Melbourne University Endeavor Exhibition 2018

Melbourne Uni (as they fondly call it) has also adopted another national program aimed at helping graduate researchers shore up their communication skills and promote their research, Visualise Your Thesis.  Ideal for students who would rather not get up on stage, this competition requires a student to distill their research and bring it to life in just 60 seconds, using video, images and text only.

Community Partnerships Benefit Students and Businesses

About 800 kilometers north,  graduate students at the University of Newcastle are also encouraged to participate in the Three Minute Thesis program by professors and staff.  To acquaint students with what’s required to compete effectively, the Post Graduate Student Association offers workshops covering fundamental presentation skills, including how to deal with imposter syndrome and stage fright.  The organization also hosts movie nights and other recreational activities to help students build important social and soft skills that they don’t develop as part of their science curriculum.

In addition, the University is piloting a three-part program to create greater engagement with its PhD students. Their approach entails skills training, paid internships and an experiential learning elective designed to build capabilities that graduates will need to be more effective in the workplace.   Small, interdisciplinary groups of students meet regularly with the program leader to learn and practice presentations skills, assertive communication, influence and giving/receiving feedback. In its first year, this program has been met with enthusiastic support from local businesses which benefit from fresh student perspective and recommendations as part of a problem solving exercise.

The university people I had the pleasure of meeting with bring enthusiasm, energy and passion to preparing their graduates to go out into the workplace and make an impact.  I applaud their commitment and aspirations to expand the reach of their programs exponentially in the coming years.