Defending the Doctoral Thesis

Advice and instructions for doctoral candidates on the public defence of their doctoral dissertations

Dear Doctoral Candidate,

Here is some advice on how to behave on D-day (D for Dissertation Defence).

1 No contact between doctoral candidates and opponents before the public examination

According to the strict academic code, the doctoral candidate and the opponent are not to meet until just before the public examination. It is totally inappropriate to arrange to have dinner together, or to have other social contact. The idea behind this rule is that the candidate must be totally unprepared for the questions the opponent will ask. All contacts with the opponent are therefore handled by the Department or the Custos.

2 Black and white are the colours of academia

The doctoral candidate chooses how he/she will dress and the opponent follows suit. Gentlemen wear tails or a dark suit. Tails require a black waistcoat. In Finland, you should not appear at your public examination in a jacket or a sweater. For ladies, the basic rule is a black dress or suit. A white blouse and other white accessories are suitable. It you wish to be hypercorrect, pearls are the only acceptable jewellery, being white.

The opponent(s) and the Custos bring their Doctor's hats to the proceedings. On entry, the hat is carried on the left arm, the emblem pointing forwards, and it is then placed on the table, the emblem facing the audience.

The candidate's family, friends and colleagues usually dress up to some extent, and usually sit in the front seats. Since it is a public occasion, anybody can attend, regardless of dress. People who do not know the protagonists, or who plan to leave before the end usually sit further back, in order to be able to sneak out unnoticed.

3 The order of entry

The audience usually gathers punctually, and the doctoral candidate, the Custos and the opponent(s), in this order, enter an academic quarter later, the audience rising. The opponent who is on first - the "first opponent" - precedes the "second opponent" in the order of entry.

4 The Custos opens the proceedings

All having sat down, the Custos, standing up, opens the proceedings. If he/she leans towards indolence, he/she will just say: "I declare this public examination open". It is much nicer for everybody involved if the Custos briefly introduces the protagonists: "Today we're here to examine Mr/Ms so-and-so's dissertation on the subject of so-and-so, entitled so-and-so. Mr/Ms from the university of so-and-so will act as opponent, appointed by the Research Council."

5 The public examination

Doctoral researchers at Hanken have a few options for the form of the defence: online, hybrid or fully on site.

Online defences are held with the doctoral researchert, custos, opponent and audience online. It is in this case advised that all participants attend from their own computer in their own room. The doctoral researcher makes sure the light and sound are optimal for the audience and the internet connection is stable. The opponent and custos do the same for their part. This option is advised when the doctoral researcher and / or custos can not come to Hanken in person on the date of the defence.

The second option is a hybrid defence. Hybrid defences are by default held in the auditorium Futurum in the main building of Hanken in Helsinki and in the auditorium V142 in Vaasa. The opponent and the audience have the choice to attend in person or via teams. If the opponent attends online he / she will be seen by the doctoral researcher via the second screen in the back of the auditorium. After the official defence, the doctoral researcher has the possibility to take a moment and be congratulated by friends and family online, possibly by asking them to turn their camera on when congratulating.  

The third option is to have the defence in the traditional way. The doctoral researcher, custos, opponent and audience all in person at Hanken, without the possibility to attend via stream. In this case also another auditorium then Futurum can be chosen.

During online and hybrid defences the department assistant will keep an eye on the online participants to react in case technical issues or disturbances occur.

In Finland, the proceedings begin with a so-called lectio, an introductory presentation by the doctoral candidate. It should not be longer than twenty minutes, but not very much shorter either. It will usually be a written text which the candidate delivers standing. The contents should touch on the complex of problems dealt with in the dissertation, but should be detached from it. The lectio begins with the greeting: "Mr/Madam Custos, Mr/Madam Opponent, Ladies and Gentlemen."

After the lectio, the candidate turns to the opponent(s), asking him/her (them) to present their views. The usual wording is: "Mr/Madam Opponent (Messrs/Mesdames Opponents), I call on you to present the comments you think my dissertation calls for". The candidate remains standing.

The opponent is free to choose the layout of his/her commentary. Some begin with a summary of the whole dissertation, intended as an introduction for the audience, and as their first question ask whether the candidate considers the summary correct. Others choose a more direct approach. Some begin with minor imperfections or the bibliography, while others deal with matters of principle first. There is a wide variety of approaches. (Mentioning misprints is considered unnecessary. The candidate may, either at the public examination or earlier, supply a so-called Errata, a list of misprints discovered after printing). During the introductory stage of the opponent(s) examination, the opponent and the candidate both remain standing. When the opponent proceeds to specific questions, both he/she and the candidate sit down. The Custos remains seated throughout. If there are two opponents, the two introductory talks, one after the other, should precede the detailed exabreakminations. The order of events has to be mutually agreed.

It is essential to realise that public examinations of doctoral dissertations are conducted by the opponent(s). The candidate answers direct questions, but is not allowed to ask counter-questions. The Custos acts as a supervisor. He/she should intervene if the discussion deteriorates into dispute or if a member of the audience disturbs the proceedings. He/she also gives the floor to "extra opponents" and concludes the examination (see below).

The parties involved agree to use either the polite or the familiar form of address. Regardless of which form is chosen, "Mr/Madam Custos", "Mr/Madam Opponent" and "Mr/Madam Candidate" are used. If "Mr/Madam" feels stilted and clumsy, it can be dropped. Just say "Could the candidate tell me …" or "I don't quite agree with the opponent".

The opponent(s) may take a maximum of four hours for the examination. If the proceedings continue for much more than two hours, it is advisable to adjourn for about 20 minutes. The Custos, the opponent(s) and the candidate exit the room first and then re-enter in the same order. If refreshments are available during the break, they are usually appreciated by the audience: as a rule, they are at the candidate's expense. The Department should see to it that there is mineral water on the protagonists' desks. If there is a break, the Custos is responsible for keeping to the schedule. When everybody has returned the Custos says: "The examination will continue". When the opponent has arrived at his/her concluding statement, he/she stands up, and so does the candidate. The Custos remains seated.

It is considered very inappropriate for doctoral candidates to answer journalists' questions during the break of the defence. Candidates and opponents should concentrate on their respective tasks until the examination is over. If the maximum four hours is used for the examination, additional time must be allowed for possible "extra opponents" (see below) a maximum at two hours.

When all the questions asked by the opponent(s) have been answered, the candidate stands up to express his/her thanks, and then turns to the audience to invite comments or questions. The customary wording is: "I now call upon those esteemed members of the audience who wish to make comments concerning my dissertation to ask Mr/Madam Custos for the floor".

Anyone present has the right to ask for the floor to put a question to the candidate, who is obliged to reply. A person asking for permission to speak in this way is called an "extra opponent". However, he/she is not allowed to deviate from the subject. If that happens, the Custos has the right to interrupt. Extra opponents stand up when addressing the candidate. Public examinations are open to all and sundry, in order to prevent cheating, among other reasons. If a candidate has plagiarised another researcher's work, stolen research findings or similar, the cheating must be exposed on the spot.

When there are no more extra opponents asking for the floor or if two hours have been devoted to extra opponents, the Custos stands up and declares the public examination closed. The candidate is congratulated by the opponent and the Custos, and thereafter by family, friends, colleagues and others present. Those invited to the doctoral dinner (see below) may present flowers or gifts in the evening, others do so after the defence. A warm hug and a "well done!" will also do. All the participants leave the examination room in no particular order.

6 Awaiting the evening

Public examinations are usually held around noon or in the morning. This means that there are a few hours to kill before the evening - which those involved spend as they like. The custom that the candidate, the Custos and the opponent have a (late) lunch out together lives on in certain faculties. It is more practical (and humane) for everyone to be given the chance to rest before evening. The Custos and the Department have the special responsibility of hosting the opponent.

7 The doctoral dinner

Nowadays, the doctoral celebration is not always a real sit-down dinner, and may take the form of a party arranged to suit individual preferences and purses. The candidate - by now "Doctor in spe" - is free to choose how he/she feels about speeches, welcoming addresses and similar issues. The candidate is free to choose between organising the doctoral celebration in the form of a dinner in great style with many invitations or a dinner/late lunch with limited invitations (minimum the opponent(s), the Custos and the supervisor).

Regardless of how the occasion is organised, it is customary to send written invitations. They may be informal and sent through the internal mail, or they may be more elaborate. The time and place and the dress code should be stated. According to an ancient, but rather forgotten, rule, tails/evening dress is compulsory if the invitation does not expressly state otherwise, so please be precise. If you choose tails, a white waistcoat is required in the evening. Holders of doctoral degrees are, strictly speaking, required to arrive wearing their Doctor's hats, but this custom is sinking into oblivion.

The classic formula for a doctoral celebration is roughly as follows: the candidate welcomes all the guests and asks them to take their seats at the table (or to help themselves at the buffet). When everybody has finished their main course (or their first buffet plate), it is time for the candidate's speech, in which he/she thanks those who have helped him/her along the way. The doctoral dinner is actually a celebration in honour of the opponent, and the candidate therefore has to thank him/her first. After that, it is appropriate to thank the Custos, the degree supervisor and other colleagues and friends who have contributed to the research work behind the dissertation. When the "academic lot" have been sorted out, it is time to thank family members, relatives and friends for their various kinds of support.

According to an old unwritten rule, all those mentioned in the candidate's speech should make their own speeches in reply, in the same order in which they were mentioned. This means that the opponent's speech comes first, followed by the Custos etc. Friends and relatives wait until the research colleagues are finished. Those bringing presents may end their speeches by handing over their gifts. Those who do not intend to make a speech present their gifts or flowers on arrival at the venue. At this stage, speeches do not have to be serious, in fact they should be funny and may well reveal secret and amusing characteristics of the candidate. If the celebration is a sit-down dinner, the guest seated on the hostess's left should thank her for the meal on behalf of everybody.