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Rutgers-Newark Announces the Winners of the 2020 Three Minute Thesis Competition

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Monika Baraniak

Imagine explaining a 75,000 word dissertation in less than 180 seconds? Doctoral students across the globe are doing just that in the Three Minute Thesis (3MT®) competition. 

Founded at Australia's University of Queensland in 2008, more than 900 universities across more than 85 countries now host 3MT® competitions. Under the rules of 3MT®, contestants must package their research into a presentation lasting no more than three minutes, aided by just one, static, PowerPoint presentation slide. In addition to developing presentation and engagement skills among doctoral students, each competition also brings research knowledge to larger communities. 

The Rutgers Graduate School-Newark and the P3 Collaboratory for Pedagogy, Professional Development, and Publicly-Engaged Scholarship organized Rutgers University-Newark’s second annual 3MT® competition. This year’s contest featured Rutgers-Newark doctoral students from global affairs, marketing, and chemistry, who competed for cash prizes of up to $1,000.

Among an initial field of seven competitors, Monika Baraniak (chemistry) garnered the $1,000 grand prize with her presentation on "Borinic Acid Polymers." Catrina Palmer Johnson (management) earned the first runner-up prize of $750 with her presentation titled "The Transformation of Mentoring Relationships in Academe." Global affairs doctoral students Rebecca Pena and Hourie Tafech, and recent graduate Olajumoke Ayandele, also competed with presentations on global philanthropy, refugee entrepreneurialism, and state resiliency and interventionism, respectively.

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, Rutgers-Newark held the final round of this year's competition virtually, with competitors recording their presentations independently and posting them on the judging platform no later than May 8, 2020. This year’s team of judges included Charles Menifield, dean of the School of Public Affairs and Administration; Jason Cortés, associate professor of American studies, women's and gender studies, and Spanish and Portuguese studies; Mary Rizzo, assistant professor of global urban studies/urban systems Ph.D., American studies, and history; and Peter Englot, senior vice chancellor for public affairs and chief of staff. The judges assessed the presenters on the content of their presentations and also rated them on their comprehension of their research as well as their oratory skills.

With disqualification looming for presenters who exceeded the three-minute mark, a strategic approach to the process proved essential.

“When I started preparing for my presentation, I first wrote down the main purpose of my research. The big challenge is to stop for a moment and be able to look at the importance of your research not only to yourself, but to a broader community,” shared Baraniak, a native of Poland who currently resides in Wayne, New Jersey. “The next challenge is to present it in a language that anyone would understand and explain why you’re passionate about what you’re doing. The PowerPoint slide can help to convey the message to the audience, so it has to be clear and not too busy,” she noted. “Finally, I think it is very important for the students to remember that we are all doing RESEARCH, and that our studies may not be changing people’s lives today, but they may be changing the world in a way by making a contribution to something great tomorrow.”

Johnson's strategy boiled down to repetition.

“My strategy included reciting my speech to others, such as my husband, parents, and colleagues from other fields. I asked for their takeaways and whether there were areas of the speech that felt unclear or undefined. This provided me the opportunity to communicate and receive feedback from a broader community,” offered Johnson, currently a resident of West Windsor, New Jersey, who relocated from Ohio. “[A]fter each recording [of my presentation], I would have my husband and parents critique it – and they did not go easy on me! I’m sure they were just as tired of hearing my speech as I became tired of reciting it over and over again.”

The virtual nature of the final round posed several challenges for the presenters. Both Baraniak and Johnson agreed that the desire for perfection plagued their preparation.

“One would think that finals taking place virtually makes it easier because you have as many chances as you want to make the perfect video, but as it turns out, that may not be such a great thing after all,” Baraniak remarked. “First of all, being aware that you can redo a video makes it more likely that you’ll make a mistake in your presentation. Many times, I would make a mistake almost at the end and I had to redo the entire thing. In addition to the challenge of being a student with English as a second language…, there were other obstacles[.] [T]here were times when everything was going great, and either my neighbor upstairs decided to vacuum, or the heater or the fridge in my apartment just kicked in and started buzzing in the background.”

“Initially, I thought the virtual nature would provide more ease to the final round,” offered Johnson. “For example, not having to ‘see’ a group of strangers face-to-face or forgetting parts of my speech that could possibly be noticeable with a live audience. However, the virtual nature intensified my need to perfect my speech. I had ample opportunity to ‘get it right’ versus only one opportunity during an in-person competition.”

Baraniak, who received her bachelor’s degree from William Paterson University, aspires to use her research experience toward industrial applications to advance new sciences. Johnson, who earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business administration from Kent State University, aims to be a change agent for diversity and equity practices.

"The Graduate School has re-energized its efforts around preparing our students for diverse, rewarding careers, both within and outside of the academy. By putting professional development at the center of our programmatic offerings, we are signaling to students that career readiness is among the key objectives of their graduate education," said Taja-Nia Henderson, dean of Rutgers Graduate School-Newark and acting director of the P3 Collaboratory. "We were committed to continuing this year's competition, even after in-person gatherings were no longer possible for our presenters due to COVID-19. Opportunities like the 3MT® help our students speak within and outside of their fields (and to multiple "publics") in powerful ways."

The Rutgers Graduate School-Newark and the P3 Collaboratory for Pedagogy, Professional Development, and Publicly-Engaged Scholarship plan to host the third annual 3MT® competition in 2021. More information about 3MT® is available at https://threeminutethesis.uq.edu.au/.