Earlier this month, AUT doctoral candidate Peter Jean-Paul placed in the top 10 at the Asia-Pacific 3 Minute Thesis finals in Brisbane. This is a rare and phenomenal achievement, confirming Peter’s status as an expert research communicator.
Now that he is back in NZ, Thesislink sat down with Peter to find out how he became a 3MT superstar. The answer? Ten weeks of hard work. But it’s paying dividends. “The ten weeks I spent preparing for the 3MT actually gave me an appreciation for the [research],” Peter says. “Now that I’m back and I’m motivated, in the last week I’ve gotten more done, with more energy, than in the last six months.“
This success and energy is not something that Peter expected when he signed up for the 3MT competition three months ago. He actually entered the competition not because he thought he could win, but because his supervisor nudged him into it.
The idea of presenting his PhD research in 3 minutes with just one slide was intimidating. When he had watched previous 3MT competitions, Peter thought that the required level of research communication was out of his league. He had watched Marian Makkar’s winning presentation at the 2017 AUT finals, and thought: “That girl is so impressive. There’s no way I could do something like that.”
But Peter’s supervisor was persuasive, suggesting that the competition could be good preparation for presenting in the oral exam. Peter was worried that he didn’t really have time for it, but nevertheless sent in his 3MT entry forms.
Early into his preparation, his confidence grew. “The first speech I prepared, I felt it was perfect,” Peter says. It discussed his research into reducing the barriers for energy retailers to install energy saving devices in homes. But when he practiced the speech on his friends, they were brutally honest. “Think of it like a movie, and read it to us like a movie,” they advised. “So I did that, I read it like a movie. And halfway through they stopped me and said: ‘Is this a movie you want to go to?’ And I’m like: ‘OK, no.'” Peter had to completely rewrite his speech. “Basically, they were trying to tell me it wasn’t interesting. It was too filled with jargon. That’s when I got demotivated.”
After that knockback, Peter attended the Graduate Research School 3MT workshop with public speaking expert Maggie Eyres. At that stage, he couldn’t even present to the class. His confidence had taken a blow, and needed a lot of practice before he felt ready. “But after a while,” he says, “I started to get the hang of it.”
He wrote and rewrote many versions of his speech, and rehearsed for hours. He progressed easily through the AUT 3MT heats. Then at the AUT finals, after four weeks of preparation, his hard work paid off. He stunned both the judges and the crowd, winning first prize in the AUT 3MT doctoral competition and the audience favourite award. (You can watch his presentation here.)
But Peter wasn’t done perfecting his skills. His prize was a trip to Brisbane to compete in the Asia-Pacific 3MT finals at the University of Queensland. He had 6 more weeks to turn his winning talk from the AUT finals into a world-class research presentation.
Peter worked with multiple AUT academics and public speaking coaches to make continual improvements to his speech and the accompanying slide. He researched previous winning 3MT presentations, analysed their commonalities, and applied his findings to his talk. For instance, Peter noticed that many 3MT winners used simple, punchy statistics to represent their findings; so he added some to his talk and his slide. He undertook numerous rehearsals, and even filmed himself to identify yet more ways to improve.
After all that effort, the difference between the first and finals versions of his talk was, Peter says, “worlds apart.” Those incremental improvements had created a talk far more impactful than what he started with.
The major change? Relatability. Peter puts it like this: “there’s what’s on your computer at home, and there’s what people want to know. You’ve got to bridge the gap between these two things, because people don’t want to know the math; they don’t want to know the equations; they don’t want to know the jargon. They just want to know: what does that have to do with me and my everyday existence? That’s the part I was missing.”
When Peter took to the stage at the University of Queensland for the 3MT Asia-Pacific finals, his talk wasn’t about math or equations anymore. It was about the huge impact that his research on energy saving devices can have on people who are struggling with their power bills.
His talk had to emphasize his research impact clearly, because the competition in Brisbane was intense. His fellow competitors were 55 other doctoral candidates from all over Australia, New Zealand, Asia, and the Pacific. Each of them was a cutting-edge researcher and an expert communicator; the 3MT champions of their local universities.
Yet Peter reports that the Asia-Pacific finalists were great company, and they actually eased his nerves rather than exacerbating them. “I was more nervous during the AUT 3MT than I was at the Asia-Pacific 3MT. When I started with the 3MT competition for AUT, I was thinking: ‘I have to do well. My professor will be there.'” But at the Asia-Pacific finals, Peter was able to relax and enjoy the camaraderie. “When I actually got there I realised everyone was in the same boat with me. We were all there together, soaking in the atmosphere, trying to be cool and relaxed. It made me feel normal.”
His relaxed performance in the morning of the Asia-Pacific finals was a hit with the judges. They named him one of the top 10 competitors, and Peter gave his presentation again that afternoon to a packed audience. You can watch Peter’s talk at the Asia-Pacific top 10 finals here.
Though he wasn’t named the ultimate champion (that honour went to hydraulic engineer Jessica Bohorquez from The University of Adelaide), Peter’s placing puts him among the best of the best doctoral communicators in the entire Asia-Pacific region. A top 10 finish is an immense achievement.
A week after the event, Peter says that the 3MT competition has changed the way he thinks about research dissemination and impact. He calls research communication “an essential part of study at this level… and not just because you have to communicate with academics. During the whole [3MT] process I realised that your research only has life when people understand what you’re doing, and what the significance is to them.“
Peter says that for him, the broad communication style of 3MT has been more impactful than academic publishing. “When you publish, people who review your work are generally people in your field; people who’ve been there for 30-40 years… when you can communicate across a wide range of people, more opportunities are open to you.”
Those opportunities have been flowing for Peter. Strangers have introduced themselves to him on the bus, enthused from hearing his talk and keen to know more. Two business people have approached him at 3MT events, interested in potential collaborations. He’s keeping in touch with these contacts so that, when his thesis is done, he can start to make some calls. “If you can communicate your research well, it becomes interesting to people,” Peter explains. “Don’t keep [your research] in the books. Try to give it some life.“
Since returning from Brisbane, Peter has launched himself back into his thesis-writing with immense energy. “I’m super motivated! 100 times more motivated now. It’s not the winning that motivated me. It’s just the fact that people come to me now and say: ‘hey, I heard your speech.’ It makes you feel like you’re doing something… it has given me a direction in terms of where I want to go now.”
What is that direction? Peter’s focus now is on finishing his thesis. After that, he plans to forge a career which strikes a balance between academia and industry.
In the meantime, Peter is telling all this colleagues to take on the 3MT challenge. “I would tell all postgrad AUT students to do it. Just do it.” His final word to future competitors is characteristically humble: “I’m nobody. If I could do it, you can do it too.”