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Photo: Ilari Järvinen

    An academic tradition: the public examination of a doctoral dissertation

    Paul Fogelberg


The public examination of a dissertation has long traditions in the Finnish academic world. It is a procedure that conforms to democracy, academic freedom and transparency. The idea is that the candidate (called the Respondent) shall be tested on his or her ability to defend the ideas and research results presented in the dissertation, and that anybody who has some criticism to present shall be given the opportunity to do this.

The faculty nominates an expert in the field to act as the Opponent at the public examination, and another person to act as chairperson, called the Custos. It is also possible to have more than one official opponent. The Custos is usually the person who has acted as supervisor of the respondentÕs doctoral studies and dissertation research. He or she is responsible for the whole procedure and also reports to the faculty about the outcome and proposes the grade of the dissertation.

Ten days before the public examination the thesis shall be "nailed" to a board in the University Main Building. The nailing is probably a tradition inherited from Martin Luther, who tacked his 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg in 1517. Certain universities still use a symbolic nail, but in the University of Helsinki the dissertation is simply hung on a hook.


A tight protocol

The public examination traditionally starts at 12 o´clock, nowadays alternatively at 10 o´clock. Formal dress is a rule for the members of the panel. Gentlemen usually wear a tailcoat with white tie and a black waistcoat, or if agreed, just a dark suit, and ladies wear a black dress without a hat. A priest wears his or her clerical dress, and a military officer a uniform. An Opponent and/or a Custos with doctoral degrees from universities where graduation hoods or gowns are used may wear these outfits. The doctor´s hat is carried in the hand when entering and placed on the table when seated.

For the whole occasion there are a number of rules to be followed. For the uninitiated this may seem very formal, but mostly the atmosphere is friendly, and jokes and laughter are not uncommon. Guidelines, advice and rules for the candidates and the others involved are available from the PR and Press Office of the University of Helsinki in five languages: Finnish, Swedish, English, French and German. During past centuries the language that was used at a public examination was Latin; nowadays it is mostly the language of the Opponent that determines what language is spoken. Since Opponents are increasingly non-Finnish, English has become very common.

The examination starts cum tempore, a quarter past the time announced. The members of the panel enter the auditorium: the Respondent first, then the Custos, and finally the Opponent(s). After the opening of the session by the Custos, the Respondent delivers an introductory lecture, lectio praecursoria, lasting normally 20 minutes. Then, according to the protocol, the Respondent remains standing and says: ŅMr/Madame Opponent, I now call upon you to present your critical comments on my dissertationÓ. The Opponent then stands up to give a short talk on the scientific significance of the dissertation topic or other general aspects of the subject matter. After the talk, both the Opponent and the Respondent seat themselves, and dialogue between them begins. First, questions of a more general character are presented, and then a more detailed examination follows. In principle, the Respondent has just to answer the questions, and is not allowed to ask anything, except for clarifications of a question. The audience is not allowed to intervene, and normally the Custos also just listens.

The maximum length of the whole procedure is four hours, but very often much less time is needed. If needed, there can be a break after the first two hours. After finishing the detailed criticism, the Opponent stands up to deliver his or her final summary of the examination. The Respondent listens to it standing, and says a few words of thanks to the Opponent. Then the audience is offered the opportunity to take the floor for presenting criticism. Nowadays, there is very seldom anybody who wants to use this opportunity. If there happens to be anybody, the convention states that he or she shall be invited to the celebration party in the evening Š but the unwritten rules state that this invitation must not be accepted. Finally, the Custos stands up to announce that the examination is completed. Afterwards, the Opponent submits a written evaluation statement to the Faculty, which at its following session decides about the approval of the dissertation and the conferment of the degree. This decision is based on the OpponentÕs statement and the report of the Custos.


The "karonkka"

The traditions also include a celebration in the evening . For this celebration the word karonkka is used in Finnish and in Swedish (written karonka, but this word is not used and not even known in Sweden). The origin of the term is probably Russian, koronka being the diminutive of korona (meaning crown). Celebrating this important step towards the doctoral degree undeniably has some association with a coronation (Russian koronovanije).

The karonkka is mostly organized in a restaurant, often with just the members of the examination panel and a few colleagues, supervisors or friends present, but sometimes it may be a bigger party. The dress is often formal, with the tailcoat (but now with a white waistcoat!) and a similar dress as earlier during the day for the women. Optionally, the gentlemen just wear a dark suit. The Respondent is the host, and the Opponent is the guest of honour. Speeches adhering to a certain scheme form an essential part of the tradition. The first speaker is the Respondent, who may talk in retrospect about how his or her scholarly interests have developed and how the dissertation research advanced. In this speech first the Opponent and then a number of other persons are mentioned, mostly with words of gratitude for the part the person in question has played in aiding, supervising or supporting the Respondent. Then, all the persons mentioned, and in the order they were mentioned, stand up and deliver their own speeches. All these speeches are very informal, and they mostly end with a toast to the doctor in spe.


Living traditions

In Finland the public examination of a dissertation has preserved a much more ceremonial character than in Sweden, even if the academic traditions originally were mainly taken over from the University of Uppsala to the Royal Academy at Turku, the present University of Helsinki, founded in 1640. This concerns both the protocol and the dress, the Swedes tending to be less formal. Nevertheless, it is important to note that the ceremonies are not just pomp and circumstance; they form the frame of the event, not the substance. The substance of a public examination of a dissertation is the intelligent criticism presented by the Opponent, and the response from the candidate. On such an important day it is worth dressing elegantly, and not to show up wearing jeans and a worn-out pullover, something that has been occasionally the case in Sweden.

The traditions at the University of Helsinki, originally and partly dating from the 17th century, differ from one faculty to another, but on the whole they are similar. It is interesting to note that whereas in many countries academic dress such as gowns and hoods form an important and visible element in academic life, Finland like Scandinavia on the whole has preferred less colourful and less spectacular ceremonies: gowns are worn only by the rector magnifices, and the only hats used are the doctorÕs hats. Exactly as the oldest university in Finland took over many traditions from its mother university at Uppsala, the newer universities have inherited their traditions largely from the University of Helsinki. In the years of student radicalism in the 1960s and 1970s many traditions and ceremonies were at the risk of disappearing, but now the development has been more or less reversed: traditions are seen as important values that one should cherish rather than abolish.

Paul Fogelberg is Professor Emeritus in Geography since September 1998. He acted as Vice-Rector of the University 1992-98.