3 Minute Thesis- What made me enter!

Elisabeth is a final year PhD student studying astrophysics. In her research she aims to detect planets orbiting other stars, and understand how these interact with debris dust – similar to the Asteroid and Kuiper belts in our own solar system. When not worrying about writing a thesis, she enjoys running and playing the flute.




I’m in the unusual position of having given three minute pitches of my PhD four times: twice with the University’s Three Minute Thesis competition, and twice through a similar Three Minute Wonder competition run by the Institute of Physics. I was lucky enough to compete in the Three Minute Wonder final, where we spoke at the Royal Institute in London. Having grown up watching the RI Christmas Lectures I was pretty star-struck by that experience – and it’s not every day that you get to speak on the same stage where Faraday and Dirac have delivered lectures.

I would definitely recommend this competition to anyone, since it’s a really unique and exciting way to be able to share your research. For me there have been several clear benefits.

Firstly, it’s opened doors: I’m passionate about science communication, and I’ve been offered science communication opportunities as a direct result of these competitions. In September the IoP invited me to spend a week touring the South West and visiting schools to deliver science talks: I delivered 16 talks, to over 1000 kids, and had a brilliant time in the process. I was also invited to give an academic seminar at Bristol by someone who had seen my 3 minute piece, which is of course useful for forging academic connections.

Secondly, it’s a huge confidence builder. The competition feels like a very high pressure form of presentation because of the precise time limit (and the huge clock!). The first time I performed a pitch, I literally froze in on stage and my brain went blank. That was pretty horrible experience – but by repeatedly going through the process I’ve become much more comfortable presenting my science, which has been hugely beneficial at conferences and when giving seminars. If I had to freeze somewhere, I’d much rather it be at a relatively low-stakes competition like Three Minute Wonder than at a conference where there might be potential employers in the room!

I love my research, and I love talking about all things exoplanets – and events like this have given me more understanding of what the public do and don’t know about my field, and how I can simultaneously make my subject accessible and avoid dumbing it down. I really value that this means I can speak about my work in a more casual setting, and that my friends and family can start to understand what I do with my time. I am also excited by research more generally, and watching the other competitors – and talking to them afterwards – was a fascinating overview of some of the diverse research happening across the university – from microchips to autism.

Finally, I recently had a postdoc interview where the opening question was “So how about you just give me a two minute summary of your research so far?”. Interviews terrify me, and this one was at a very highly ranked university so I was definitely feeling the pressure – but I think managed to get garble a decent two minutes out, and I’m sure that my Three Minute Thesis and Three Minute Wonder experiences helped me to do so. And you know what? I got the job.

Written by: Elisabeth Matthews