Ma thèse en 180 secondes – Three Minutes of Scientific Thrills

Ma thèse en 180 secondes – three minutes of scientific thrills

One thing that I learned to love early on about doing a PhD here in France is the rich offer of extracurricular activities that early-career scientists can engage in. Courses, programmes, competitions – if someone tried, they could spend all three years of their PhD without ever actually doing any work on their subject. (And – feeling slightly guilty here – it /can/ be pretty easy to lose your focus with such fantastic opportunities right in front of you.) 

Early on, I wanted to take advantage of as many additional offers as I could – making my PhD experience extraordinary was at the top of my list of priorities. And so I ended up signing on for the auditions for ‘Ma thèse en 180 secondes’, ‘My Three Minute Thesis’. 

The challenge for this particular competition appealed to me – presenting the contents of your research to a lay audience in a very short amount of time. And make it captivating while you’re at it. Whew! I’d pretty much kicked myself in the rear a few weeks earlier when I realised I’d narrowly missed the registration period for the English version of the competition. When the invitation to join the French equivalent came along through a mail by the École Doctorale, I jumped at the opportunity. 

Now, full disclosure: my French was still sort of shaky. While I’d spent a few months in early 2018 on an internship in France, I’d just managed to become somewhat fluent in everyday conversations. A scientific presentation? Even one aimed at a general audience? I was pretty much terrified. 

I still went in for it. 

Years ago, a friend once told me that life starts outside your comfort zone. Joining a French speaking competition was going /way/ beyond mine. Still, I enlisted the help of my best friend – a native speaker, merci dieu – for writing and practising my pitch. Two weeks later, I was running around the inner city, trying to find the building where the audition was being held. 

Looking back, I don’t know how many candidates there were – but auditions lasted all morning, with hopefuls being led in front of the jury in groups of five every fifteen minutes. Listening to the pitches of the other participants in my group was probably the hardest thing about the whole audition – I was basically struck dumb by how much better and much more well-prepared they were. When it then turned out that the e-mail with the slide I’d prepared as a backdrop for my presentation had never arrived, I mentally signed off on the whole thing. Practically shaking, I stumbled through my presentation, going several seconds over my time. Once it was over, I silently thanked whatever deity might have been listening that the jury didn’t just laugh me out of the room. 

The next day I got an e-mail informing me that I’d made the regional finale. 

Not daring to question my good luck, I skipped to the three-day rhetorics seminar that was supposed to help prepare the participants for the final competition. And what preparation it was! The École Doctorale had hired three professional coaches to show us the ropes of public speaking and polish our pitches. 

At the beginning of February, we were in the final rehearsal. Standing on the stage of the Salle Molière at the Opera Comédie, heart racing at a hundred miles a minute, I fervently wished to be back in my comfort zone. I hadn’t known that the finale would be held /here/! A lecture hall at the university? That, I’d have expected. A baroque-style theatre, seating several hundred, replete with heavy velvet draperies, gold-leafed reliefs, and statues of the Greek muses watching from above? That was a little heavy. I would have been more comfortable reciting Shakespeare. 

The Opera house at the Place de la Comedie
The Salle Moliere, where the competition was held.

Then, curtain-up rolled around, and it was time to face the limelight. The nervousness didn’t go away. Many of the words still felt heavy and foreign in my mouth. But I did manage to muddle through and stick to my time. That in itself was a triumph for me. 

I didn’t end up winning – neither did many of the other participants who I thought were much better than me. (Because, really, the people who did make first and second prize and went on to the national finals were absolutely fantastic.)

But at the end of the evening, during the reception in the opera building, I still felt giddy with happiness. Not that the whole thing was finally behind me – though that was a relief as well – but that I’d managed to scrape together the courage to go through with it. Also, I reflected, sipping at the excellent rosé the doctoral school had provided for the occasion, I’d ended up meeting a bunch of amazing people. And after all – that’s what’s at the core of making any experience extraordinary, including my PhD. 

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