Tips for Grads: The Dreaded “Elevator Pitch”

Guest column by Olivia Harwood, PhD candidate

As a graduate student, you’ve probably been asked to give your research “elevator pitch” or “explain your research like you would explain it to your grandma.” It’s daunting to explain complex research to a lay audience, even if you have all the time in the world. After all, you spend all day every day (plus sometimes all night too!) pondering, troubleshooting, writing, gathering, and analyzing data. But many people interested in your work want you to get to the goods as simply and efficiently as possible. In the end, graduate students end up writing a thesis that will be dozens, even hundreds, of pages long. And we’re supposed to condense that to a few minutes or less?

The Three Minute Thesis® (3MT®) competition is one beneficial forum in which you can practice communicating your research to a non-specialist audience in three minutes or less. Whether you’re competing in 3MT or explaining your research to your grandma, you can learn from the 3MT® approach. Below are some challenges I encountered through my 3MT® experience and suggestions for overcoming these challenges in sharing your research.

Challenge: Explaining your research sounds patronizing, or without the field-specific details, the significance feels diminished.
Solution: Explain your research in terms your audience will understand (e.g. use a relevant analogy), rather than “dumbing your research down.”

Challenge: Your day-to-day work feels disconnected from the big picture.
Solution: Visualize your research as an upside-down triangle. You probably spend most of your time in the point, the minutiae, the “microscopic” view. But back up to the broad side of the triangle, the “3,000-foot” view. Try to answer the question: How might my research impact my audience, someone my audience knows, or society more broadly?

Challenge: You don’t have results yet. Now what?
Solution: Focus on what the contributions to the field would be if your hypothesis is correct and your research goes according to plan.

Effective research communication is a vital portion of your graduate training. I encourage you to construct, practice, and improve your (hopefully no longer “dreaded”) elevator pitch, and consider this framework when discussing your research.

Tips for Grads is a professional and academic advice column written by graduate students for graduate students at UW­–Madison. It is published in the student newsletter, GradConnections Weekly.