Defence day

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Purpose of a public doctoral thesis defence


A doctoral thesis must always be defended in public (section 22 of the Government Decree on University Degrees). There are three main goals for a public doctoral thesis defence:

  • To publicly and as reliably as possible verify that the doctoral candidate has personally written a thesis whose academic value corresponds to the general requirements for doctoral theses.
  • To offer the official opponent and any other people interested in the subject matter the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the contents of the doctoral thesis by listening to the author, offering the author their observations, asking questions from the author and discussing the thesis with the author
  • To celebrate the published research results in a visible manner that deviates from the day-to-day routines of the university

The doctoral thesis defence should be an event where two (or three) academics, who are experts in their field, discuss the subject matter of the doctoral thesis. An enlightened layman should be able to follow the main themes of the discussion and understand the subject matter.
The opponent and the discussion at the doctoral thesis defence do not influence the quality of the doctoral thesis, but they do influence the approval and grade of the thesis. The thesis defence is a way to study how well the author is able to justify his/her choices and views, and analyse the links between the research presented in the thesis and the discipline in general.

Language of the doctoral thesis defence

The custos will determine the language to be used at the thesis defence after having discussed the issue with the doctoral candidate and the opponent. The language must be Finnish, Swedish, or the language in which the doctoral thesis was written. The doctoral thesis defence may also be held in a language other than these, provided that the doctoral candidate agrees to this. Based on a separate agreement, the opponent and the doctoral candidate may also use different languages at the thesis defence.

Progress of the doctoral thesis defence

These instructions are based on the doctoral thesis defence traditions of the University of Oulu, but they have been revised to reflect the current practices. The custos provides instructions to the doctoral candidate and the opponent on what will happen during the thesis defence.

  • The thesis defence will start 15 minutes past the hour, unless otherwise determined for a justified reason (such as due to the thesis defence being for a double degree or a degree involving several universities with a video connection to the partner university), at which time the audience will already be seated.
  • The doctoral candidate will enter the hall first, followed by the custos and the opponent. The people seated in the lecture hall will stand up to honour them. The custos and the opponent – if their degrees have been conferred by a Finnish university – will hold their doctoral hat in their right hand when entering and exiting the hall. A custos or opponent who has graduated from a university outside of Finland may use their own doctoral outfit and hat. The hats must be placed on a table with the lyre emblem turned towards the audience for the duration of the thesis defence.
  • As a general rule, the opponent should be addressed formally, but the opponent may propose a less formal approach, for example at the beginning of the thesis defence.
Opening the doctoral thesis defence

When all parties are settled (with the doctoral candidate to the left of the custos), they will stand up, and the custos will welcome the audience with a free-form speech and briefly present the opponent(s) and the doctoral candidate. Next, the custos will officially open the doctoral thesis defence by saying:
“As the custos appointed by the University of Oulu Graduate School, I hereby declare the doctoral thesis defence of ‘title name xx ‘opened.” After these opening words, everybody except for the doctoral candidate will sit down.

Doctoral candidate’s speech (lectio praecursoria)

The doctoral candidate will give the lectio praecursoria, or presentation of the doctoral thesis, standing up. During the lectio praecursoria, the doctoral candidate describes the background of the research and its connections to academic or practical problems. The lectio praecursoria should last between ten and twenty minutes. If the opponent does not speak Finnish, he/she should be given a translation, or summary, of the lectio praecursoria. Out of courtesy, the members of the audience enter the hall before the thesis defence starts, and do not leave during the lectio praecursoria. The doctoral candidate will start the speech by saying:
“Mr./Madam custos, Mr./Madam opponent, ladies and gentlemen.” At the end of the speech, the doctoral candidate will say: “Dear Professor (Doctor, etc.) xx, as the opponent named by the University of Oulu Graduate School, I now call upon you to present your critical comments on my doctoral thesis.”

Opening speech of the opponent

The opponent stands up and gives a brief opening statement in which he/she will discuss the subject matter of the thesis, its position and its significance in academia, and its possible practical relevance. The candidate remains standing during the opponents opening speech. The opponent then announces that he/she will now review the thesis in detail. The opponent and the doctoral candidate will then both sit down. If there is more than one opponent, they should agree on the division of their duties and announce it during the opening speech. As a general rule, the more senior academic of the opponents gives the opening speech and starts the review of the work.

Examining the doctoral thesis

The opponent will then examine the doctoral thesis, first paying attention to general issues – such as the selection of the research theme, research methods and data – and then going into the details. The candidate should defend his/her thesis to the best of his/her ability, as the success of the defence will be reflected in the opponent’s statement issued later. The total duration of the doctoral thesis defence should not exceed four (4) hours. The opponent may use a maximum of three (3) hours for his/her examination of the thesis. If it appears that the event will last more than three hours, a break will be taken. The custos will announce the break.

Concluding speech of the opponent

After completing the examination of the thesis, the opponent gives a summary in which he/she evaluates the significance of the contribution of the doctoral thesis to the discipline. Having concluded the examination, the opponent (and the candidate) stands up and gives the concluding statement. The opponent will then sit down. The candidate remains standing.

Concluding words of the doctoral candidate

Having listened to the opponent’s statement, the doctoral candidate thanks the opponent and turns towards the audience to say: “I now cordially invite anybody who has comments regarding my doctoral thesis to offer their comments by asking the floor from the custos.”

Possible extra opponents

All persons present at the event will then have the right to ask to take the floor from the custos. A person asking for permission to speak in this way is refered to as an extra opponent. The custos gives the floor to the extra opponents and presides over the ensuing discussion(s).
When giving the floor, the custos asks the extra opponent to first introduce him-/herself by stating his/her name and title. The extra opponent is then permitted to state his/her question, comment, or criticism.  The doctoral candidate must be given the opportunity to answer each criticism immediately after the criticism has been made. The opponent may also participate in the discussion if he/she wishes.

A maximum of one hour may be allocated to interventions by the extra opponents. In order to keep the discussion within the set time limit, and to provide all extra opponents the opportunity to express their comments, the custos ensures that each intervention is brief, relevant to the subject matter, and substantive. If necessary, the custos may ask an extra opponent to terminate his/her speech if the comments, or the discussion resulting from them, are not substantive. The custos may invite an extra opponent to submit possibly extensive or multi-dimensional comments on academic or ethical issues in writing, within two weeks. Such written comments may provide more background or further detail. For each extra opponent, the custos uses a dedicated form (can be found in forms and instructions library) to record the name, title, and contact information, and a summary of the key content of the comment and eventual subsequent discussion. If necessary, the custos may ask the extra opponents to summarise their key criticisms at the end of their address.

The custos ensures that hard copies of this form are available for use at the thesis defence venue, or the form must be readily available in electronic format. After the event, the custos submits the completed forms to the Academic Affairs Lead Specialist , who will forward them to the Doctoral Training Committee and the opponent. The opponent takes the observation(s) of the extra opponent(s), and the response(s) of the candidate, into account when preparing his/her final statement, and assesses whether they should influence the statement.

Concluding the doctoral thesis defence

The custos will conclude the event by saying: ”I declare the public defence of the doctoral thesis to be concluded.” The doctoral candidate should remember to invite the audience to the cocktail/coffee event. The custos and the opponent(s) will then pick up their doctoral hats and the participants will leave the room in the same order as they came in: first the doctoral candidate, followed by the custos and, finally, the opponent. The audience will not clap their hands or applaud in any other way during this event. The audience will wait until the doctoral candidate, custos and opponent have left before leaving the room. Congratulations will not be expressed until after leaving the room and after the doctoral candidate has had time to thank the opponent and the custos.

Cocktail event and acknowledgements to the doctoral candidate

It is customary for the doctoral candidate to receive congratulations and flowers outside the doctoral defence venue. The doctoral candidate usually offers cake and coffee/sparkling wine after the doctoral thesis defence to everybody who attended the event. In this event, speeches addressed to the doctoral candidate are given and the candidate receives gifts from the faculty or department, for example. The official speeches are reserved until the thesis defence party.

Each unit and team has its own practices and traditions on how to congratulate the doctoral candidate. The most common practice is, for the doctoral candidate’s colleagues collect money from amongst themselves to buy a collective gift. Cash or a gift voucher to buy a doctoral hat is a good and traditional gift. If the research team or other unit of the doctoral candidate wishes to congratulate the candidate, a reasonably priced gift that complies with the legislation and the financial rules of the unit may be given.

The unit may give the doctoral candidate a gift from the university’s gift collection or a bouquet of flowers that is kept at the venue for the duration of the thesis defence. The maximum price of such a gift may be €50. The flowers must be purchased from a supplier with whom the University of Oulu has an agreement, and the supplier must send an invoice directly to the university. You should also keep in mind that there is no obligation to give any gift, and the traditions of the research teams and faculties vary.

Last updated: 11.8.2020