Examining a PhD dissertation in Finland: observations and tips

As my PhD examination spree for the spring is coming to a close, here are some observations and tips for those acting as opponents in Finnish doctoral defences in the humanities and social sciences.

1. When explaining the local specificities to opponents from other countries, I have compared the role of the opponent to the role of professional dancers in Dancing with the Stars: the opponent is the professional researcher who needs to come up with a choreography that makes it possible for the candidate – who is not yet quite professional – to show off her skills. This fails if the choreography is too easy but also if it’s too difficult. However, it’s crucial for there to be an element of challenge. It’s up to the opponent to ensure that this will be a good show. Choreography needs to match the skills of the candidate, as presented in the dissertation, and it’s performed together.

2. The examination is a public event with an audience, dress code and ceremonial lines to be delivered. It’s more formal than in most places. Not all members of the audience have read the work and not all of them work within the academia. Take the audience into consideration when formulating the opening statement (that can be descriptive) as well as when formulating your questions and discussing the work. Especially with questions of the more conceptual and theoretical nature, it’s good to explain where they’re coming from and why they’re being addressed. This helps the audience as well as the candidate.

3. Try to make the candidate speak more than you. Do not answer the questions for the candidate if she hesitates, and give her time to think before answering. You can always rephrase the question or present a follow-up question if the candidate finds your points hard to address.

4. The point of the examination is not to butcher the candidate – she is after all the star of the dance –  but to discuss the work in order to evaluate how successful it is and what its merits are. Since candidates by default find the situation stressful, and since the opponent is called an opponent, questions may be interpreted as attacks even if their point is to discuss the decisions made.  If possible, help the candidate relax and adjust your questions according to situation. Ideally, the defence provides a good debate.

Finally, select tips for the candidate:

  • Read the evaluation criteria beforehand. This will give you a good idea as to what themes may be addressed. Be prepared to start with the title of the thesis and the central concepts it entails.
  • If feeling nervous, write down the key points of your dissertation in order to recap them at some point during the examination.
  • Avoid overt defensiveness. Do not dismiss any of the examiner’s questions. This easily comes across as arrogance, and is not desirable. Be open to discussion and debate.
  • The examiner is an expert in the field but you know more about the research project discussed. Consider the defence as a possibility to discuss your work with a senior academic who has thoughtfully read it. For better or for worse, it’s unlikely that such an opportunity will repeat itself in the near future so take advantage. It’s your moment to shine.

And this is how formal it gets: http://www.utu.fi/en/research/dissertations/guidelines-for-the-doctoral-candidate/Pages/procedure-and-dress-code.aspx.


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