Liz Mahon speaks into a microphone at 3MT Nationals next to her slide.

Liz Mahon presents at the Three-Minute Thesis National Competition.

Photo Credit: Alyssa Canelli

January 5, 2024

Ayla Cordell | Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

This past December, Liz Mahon finished the fall semester with a bang by traveling to the nation’s capital to try out her three minute thesis on a new audience. Accompanied by Alyssa Canelli, Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs for GSAS, and by Ollie the Owl, Liz was ready to compete in the finals for the North American 3MT Competition, hosted by the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS). In the fifth year of her PhD in Psychology, Liz has been spending a lot of time with her research, but the Three Minute Thesis Competition (3MT) continued to present new and different opportunities to effectively disseminate her research. Originally created by the University of Queensland, 3MT challenges its participants to present their research in three minutes, with one visual slide, to a wide audience. According to Liz, “3MT has also helped my research, because you need to know how to talk about it in an astute, concise way. It helps you figure out and work through mind blocks that you don’t necessarily see when you’re so deep in your work. Writing and revising my talk helped me to finalize certain elements of my research, and I’ll keep the communication skills for the rest of my career.”

Liz Mahon holds up Ollie the owl (a stuffed toy) in front of a Council of Graduate Schools Sign. Text reads, "Ollie says hi from 3MT Nationals! Washington, D.C."

After winning Brandeis’ 2023 3MT competition, and then going on to win Regionals, Liz recognized one of the hardest parts of moving forward to Nationals was not changing things, since she clearly was doing something right. “It’s more about simplifying the choreography written into the script for yourself.” Walking along the National Mall, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Liz practiced her talk, headphones in and ready to go. The rest of her time at the CGS Annual Conference was spent attending panels about graduate student experiences in higher education, where Liz gleaned new ideas for teaching and mentoring, career opportunities, and more.

Looking back at Nationals, Liz is more cognizant of the audience composition over the three stages of the competition and of how her presentation was shaped by her audience members and their collective interpretations of her talk – “I felt confident at each performance, but I notice I am most comfortable at Brandeis.” Able to have eye contact with her Psychology professor, to animate her speech to her undergraduate research assistants, with whom she practiced her presentation for weeks prior, Liz felt more at ease presenting with fellow Brandeisians. She was grounded by their presence, and her strategy for Nationals considered her different, largely unknown, and bigger audience, and that her competitors were not familiar students. Liz made sure to rewatch the recorded talks of those who made it to the Finals, to help mitigate intimidation and nerves during the event.

Those who competed at Nationals were expressive and immersive in their storytelling. As Liz knew from her own talk, it is a delicate–but essential–task to personalize complex research ideas to find emotional resonance with the audience. Liz, as evidenced, effectively and energetically struck that balance, and she enjoyed connecting with others who cared just as much. She has maintained contact with several of them through LinkedIn – “It’s special to make those connections with other academics…we might cross paths again, and it was great to meet people who are similar to me in their enthusiasm for what they do.”

The enthusiasm Liz brought to the competition has kept its fervor – “I’ve learned that I enjoy sharing important global issues on a larger stage, and that’s something I’d like to incorporate into my career, so that in the future, people in the audience might be inspired to create innovative projects and collaborate worldwide.” Her confidence is remarkably different than before, she noted: “I’ve seen my own evolution through five years here at Brandeis. In my fourth year, it felt like it all clicked, I really got it. 3MT contributed a lot to that.” Liz noted that 3MT is the biggest public speaking event she’s ever done, and presented an opportunity to prove those skills to herself. “My self-esteem, knowing what I am capable of, and my potential career shot up and I felt many doors fully open.” Something Liz has cherished most from 3MT is the experience developing her talk, where she got to discuss a different sort of project than usual with her professor, organize her thoughts with her lab, stand atop a picnic table to rehearse with her undergraduate research assistants as audience– “Everyone in my life is a part of what I’m doing, and contributing to this piece of my work and learning from it.”

Three 3MT competitions later–from Brandeis to Regionals to Nationals–Liz can offer some words of wisdom to those who are considering the 2024 Brandeis competition. She emphasized the importance of visualizing success – something that translates far beyond the competition itself. “If you believe you can and will succeed, it raises your chances and makes a difference in how you portray yourself to the audience.” That’s really what it’s about, Liz made clear. Success, in these terms, is not about the final outcome, but the process of discovery, vulnerability, and skill cultivation that benefits anyone who competes. “If you’re considering it, do it. Don’t hold yourself back.”

(Photo credit for image of Liz Mahon with Ollie the Owl: Alyssa Canelli.)