By Cally Guerin
The 2012 Three-Minute Thesis Trans-Tasman Competition (3MT) final has just been held at the University of Queensland, displaying the range of extraordinarily talented individuals doing PhDs all across Australia and beyond. If you haven’t seen what the presentations are like, do check it out. It’s a wonderful competition at every level – from the local presentations in Schools and Faculties, through the University finals, and onto the Trans-Tasman event. PhD students get to show off their capacity to speak fluently to a lay audience about their amazing projects. Watching students at every stage of preparation this year has made me notice just how valuable it can be to talk about what you are writing about.
The enormous benefit of participating in the 3MT (regardless of how far you might go in the competition) is learning to step back from the detail of the research and think about the bigger picture. The long, intense project of doctoral research often goes off on lots of relevant and irrelevant tangents, and the task of finding a structure for the resulting complex arguments can be more than a little daunting (in fact, it can seem just about impossible at times!). The exercise of trying to explain it succinctly to someone else is a really valuable way of finding out where the focus needs to be. Was it really Einstein who said that if you can’t explain it simply, then you probably don’t really understand it yourself? Patrick Dunleavy, advising doctoral students, uses words to that effect too, in his book Authoring a PhD (2003 – check our Library for details).
When the writing gets stuck, it is sometimes much easier to talk about it to someone else (if your listener is a little reluctant, I’ve found it helpful to do this on a long car trip when they are trapped in the seat next to you…). After that, you can translate the verbal explanation into a written form – preferably reduced to just a few sentences. Going a step further, try to write the central argument, the main point you want the reader to get, in just one sentence. Narrowing of the focus like this can make a huge difference to creating a coherent thread of argument within a section, and also throughout the whole thesis.
Another useful approach my colleague uses is to think about writing as a verbal presentation when planning the outline for a chapter. You can imagine or actually create a powerpoint slide show. What will be the topics for each of your slides? What order should they appear in? What does your audience need from you in order to follow the steps of your argument? If you think about the slides as representing a paragraph each, that also helps to block out the steps of the argument. And, of course, slides are easy to move around when you realise the sequence isn’t quite right, or to add an extra slide to make the transition clearer from one point to the next. Imagining yourself talking to the audience encourages a bit of objectivity about what’s interesting in the presentation, too.
I guess the final reason to talk about your writing is also to help you realise that writing is really a social activity (Lee & Boud 2003), not something that has to happen in isolation with you locked away with your computer in a dank, dark room somewhere in the depths of your university building. It’s all about communication of ideas, after all. You’re not doing it just for yourself, but to get those ideas out to a wider audience in your discipline. Personally, I have some sympathy with those who say that research is meaningless if it just stays inside your own head.
What other techniques have you found useful in talking about your writing? Any further tips or suggestions from supervisors and academic developers on how to get students talking in ways that focus the writing? It would be great to share your stories with our readers – and maybe help more doctoral writers get their message out. So, if you’re not already doing it, start talking about your writing.