Examination process of a doctoral dissertation
A doctoral dissertation is a solid, scientific presentation based on an independent research with new scientific knowledge. It may be article based or a monograph.

Preliminary examiners are appointed by the Faculty Council. Based on the preliminary examiners’ statements, the Faculty Council appoints the Opponent, Custos and Grading committee in accordance with the guidelines below.

The examination of dissertations is an integral part of quality assurance within academia It is vital that both the preliminary examiners and the Custos are impartial experts in their fields.

All the relevant information for the examiners and opponent on examining dissertation can be found below on this page. The instructions for the doctoral candidate are on Instructions for students.

 

A doctoral dissertation must consist of peer-reviewed scholarly publications or manuscripts accepted for publication, as well as a summarising report on the said documents (an article-based dissertation); or it must be a scholarly work in the name of the doctoral candidate alone and based on previously unpublished research results (a monograph). The doctoral dissertation may also take the form of another work that meets the appropriate scientific criteria, provided that the doctoral candidate’s independent contribution to it can be verified.

All doctoral dissertations should meet the following scholarly criteria and they must:

  1. contain new scientific knowledge,
  2. demonstrate critical thinking on the doctoral candidate’s part,
  3. demonstrate profound familiarity with the field,
  4. demonstrate mastery of research methods and their application,
  5. be scientifically convincing
  6. contain justified results, and
  7. demonstrate scientific integrity and adhere to the ethical norms of research.

The doctoral dissertation must have a brief abstract of one to two pages, providing a summary of the dissertation and its key results. The abstract must outline the doctoral candidate’s objectives or research questions as well as the core research methods, results and conclusions.

Article-based dissertations

Article-based dissertation consist of scholarly publications (typically, the number of articles ranges from three to five) discussing a single group of issues as well as a summarising report written by the doctoral candidate.

The summarising report is the core of an article-based dissertation. The background, objectives, methods, material, results, discussion and conclusions of the research should be presented in the summarizing report. The summarising report must be a balanced work based on both the publications included in the dissertation and the research literature.

A doctoral dissertation may include not only articles that have been previously published or accepted for publication, but also articles that have not yet been accepted for publication. In such cases, the preliminary examiners must be instructed to pay particular attention to the unpublished articles. The number of articles required depends on their

  1. scope,
  2. scientific quality and significance,
  3. publishing forum as well as
  4. the author’s independent contribution.

The number of articles may vary between disciplines, but the number must be determined by taking into account the equal treatment of doctoral students and the target duration of four years for completing the

At the Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences At least one of the component articles included in an article-based dissertation must be published, or accepted for publication, in a refereed international scientific series before the pre-examiners can be appointed. This publication may not be a review article. The doctoral candidate must have played a distinct, major role in formulating the scientific results and in writing that publication and he/she should be the first author. In particular cases, the Faculty Council may, however, make an exception on the first author requirement if it considers that the doctoral candidate has acquired sufficient publishing experience in the light of the dissertation as a whole.

At the Faculty of Biological and Environmental sciences systematic review articles comparable to original publications may be included in a dissertation.

The objective of doctoral education is that the student will be well-versed in his/her own field of research and possess the knowledge and skills needed to independently apply scientific research methods and produce new scientific knowledge. To achieve this objective, knowledge of the publication process as a whole is highly important. The acceptance of a work by a refereed series also demonstrates the quality and scientific significance of the study, meeting the highest international standards. The dissertation research must be of high international quality. Therefore it is recommended that all articles are published in international well-regarded refereed scientific series.

Article-based dissertations may include co-authored publications. The doctoral candidate’s input in these must be clearly demonstrable. One co-authored publication may be used in several dissertations by different authors. To determine the doctoral candidate’s independent contribution to co-authored publications, the doctoral candidate and his or her supervisor must write a statement on the doctoral candidate’s contribution to each publication. If the co-authored publication has been used in another dissertation, this must be mentioned in the report. The doctoral candidate should deliver the report on his or her contribution also to the other authors of the publication. The doctoral candidate must deliver the report to the faculty when submitting the dissertation for preliminary examination. The report may also be included in the summarising report or an article included in the dissertation. The matter of including same co-authored publication or article manuscript in a doctoral dissertation or Licentiate thesis of more than one student is decided on a case-by-case basis with consideration given to the clarification of author contributions.

Monographs

A monograph is a scholarly work in the name of the doctoral candidate alone and based on previously unpublished research results. Previously published texts cannot be accepted as monographs. Before completing the dissertation proper, however, the author of a monograph may publish articles on related topics and refer to these in the dissertation. The maximum recommended length of a monograph is 250 pages.

Supervisors of monographs must take particular care to ensure the quality of the manuscript before it is submitted for preliminary examination.

Other types of dissertations

The faculty council shall decide, based on a proposal by the relevant doctoral programme, on the scope and structure of dissertations that take a form different than a monograph or article-based dissertation. In such cases, supervisors must take particular care to ensure the quality of the manuscript before it is submitted for preliminary examination. The vast majority of doctoral dissertation at the University of Helsinki are monographs or article-based. Recognising any other structure of dissertation is extremely rare.

When the dissertation manuscript is ready for pre-examination the Faculty Council will appoint a minimum of two preliminary examiners, who must have the qualifications of at least a docent or equivalent academic qualifications. The coordinating academic will prepare a proposal on the preliminary examiners (linkki) using an e-form. The form should be printed out and signed by coordinating academic and doctoral candidate.

At the Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences at least one of the component articles included in an article-based dissertation must be published, or accepted for publication, in a refereed international scientific series before the pre-examiners can be appointed. This publication may not be a review article. The doctoral candidate must have played a distinct, major role in formulating the scientific results and in writing that publication and he/she should be the first author.

At the Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences the coordinating academic should not make the proposal if he/she is also a supervisor and co-author in an article or articles included in the thesis. In that case he/she should ask another professor (from the same research programme) to make the proposal for pre-examiners.

Proposal for the appointment of the preliminary examiners (e-form)

When choosing the preliminary examiners, particular attention should be paid not only to their expertise but also to their impartiality regarding the dissertation in question (doctoral candidate and supervisors). The disqualification principles specified in section 28 of the Administrative Procedure Act (434/2003) will be taken into consideration in the examination and grading of doctoral dissertations. The pre-examiners must be from outside the doctoral candidate’s faculty and research unit (e.g. independent institute or state research institute) and as a general rule also from outside the University of Helsinki. If proposed pre-examiner is from the same organisation, e.g. from UH, coordinating academic must give written reasons for this. Docents who do not work at the Faculty are not considered disqualified and they may act as pre-examiner.

Pre-examiner, Opponent or member of a grading committee can have no relationship with the doctoral candidate, the doctoral dissertation or another party involved that may compromise his or her impartiality. Consequently, the following persons cannot serve as a preliminary examiner, an Opponent or a member of a grading committee:

  • A person who has co-authored at least one of the articles in the doctoral dissertation
  • A person who is currently engaged in research cooperation with the doctoral candidate or was engaged in such research cooperation during the dissertation project
  • A person who has been engaged in close research cooperation with the dissertation supervisor during the three years prior to the preliminary examination of the doctoral dissertation
  • A close relative to the doctoral candidate
  • The immediate superior or subordinate of the doctoral candidate
  • A member of the follow-up group of the doctoral candidate

The pre-examiner’s task is to assess the scientific value of the dissertation, and they may provide suggestions for corrections and improvements. The pre-examiners should give their written statement of the manuscript within 2 months of their nomination. In their statement they either recommends granting, or denying, the permission for a public examination. The statement may be given jointly.

In their statement(s) the pre-examiners either:

  • Recommend that the doctoral candidate is granted a permission to defend the dissertation at a public examination. The pre-examiner may suggest minor corrections to be made to the manuscript before printing it. The corrections are approved by the supervisor.  

OR

  • Decline the permission in case the manuscript is incomplete or if there are formal errors.

The pre-examiner may require corrections to the manuscript before recommending a permission to defend the dissertation at a public examination. In this case the pre-examiner gives their statement only after the corrections are done. The doctoral candidate must write a list of the corrections and inform the other pre-examiner about the changes. The list of the corrections will be attached to the pre-examiner’s statements. In case one or both pre-examiners require corrections the pre-examination may take maximum of six months. However, it must be kept in mind that the preliminary examiners are not dissertation supervisors.

The process of pre-examination expires if the pre-examiners cannot recommend that the doctoral candidate is granted a permission to defend due to significant deficiencies in the theoretical premises, methods or empirical section. Or if the two examiners do not agree on the quality of the work.

In general, if either one or both pre-examiners give a declining statement the process of pre-examination expires. The Faculty Council is informed of the expired process. The doctoral candidate may give her/his response to the statements and take it to the Faculty Council hearing.

Expired pre-examination may be restarted when all the demanded corrections have been made and the supervisors and coordinating academic recommend starting the pre-examination. The Faculty may nominate the same pre-examiners or find other experts to pre-examine the manuscript. The process is the same regardless of whether there has been previous pre-examination or not.

The Faculty Council decides on granting permission to defend the dissertation based on the preliminary examiners’ statements. Hence, it is vital that the preliminary examination be thorough and that the author be required to make the necessary corrections and additions before the statement on the permission to defend the dissertation is prepared. In the case one of the publications is a finished manuscript and not submitted for publication, the preliminary examiners should pay particular attention to the quality of this article in their assessment. However, the preliminary examiners are not dissertation supervisors.

After the preliminary examiners have been appointed, Viikki PhD study services inform the pre-examiners and doctoral candidate via e-mail of the decision. The pre-examiners receive instructions on the examination and the dissertation manuscript and relevant appendices in the same mail. The preliminary examiners must, within two months of accepting the assignment, submit a written statement, either jointly or separately, explicitly recommending that the doctoral candidate be granted or denied permission to defend the dissertation in a public examination, e.g. “I recommend granting a permission to defend”.

The pre-examination is done according to Faculty’s Evaluation criteria (see below).

The examination report should be sent to Viikki doctoral study services: viikki-phd@helsinki.fi

At the Faculty of biological and environmental sciences pre-examiner’s statement may either be written in free form or the pre-examiner may use a report form for delivering the statement.

Pre-examiner’s statement form (Word)

The Faculty Council appoints a dissertation grading committee for the public examination on the basis of the proposal of the coordinating academic. The doctoral candidate must confirm that he or she does not object to the appointment of the Opponent and grading committee member.

At the Faculty of biological and environmental sciences, if the pre-examiner has proposed corrections and transferred the responsibility to see that they are taken into consideration to the supervisor, the supervisor and the doctoral candidate must deliver a signed explanation of the corrections to the Faculty Council.  

At the Faculty of biological and environmental sciences, the responsible academic may not make the proposal for a grading committee if he/she is a supervisor of the doctoral candidate. In that case the responsible academic has to ask another professor from the same research program to make the proposal.  

There should be a minimum of two members who are allowed to participate in grading: The Opponent and the Custos and one or two Faculty representatives. Custos can participate in the grading of the dissertation, if he/she is not a supervisor of the dissertation. In this case the Grading Committee includes the Opponent and the Custos. Another Faculty representative may be appointed if needed.

The coordinating academic makes a proposal for the appointment of a grading committee using the form designated for this purpose. The form is printed out and signed by the coordinating academic and doctoral candidate.

A proposal for Grading committee members -form (e-form)

Opponent

When selecting the Opponent, particular attention should be paid not only to his or her expertise but also to the impartiality in relation to the dissertation in question. The Opponent must be a docent or doctoral degree holder with equivalent academic qualifications. The Opponent must be from outside the doctoral candidate’s faculty and research unit (e.g. independent institute or state research institute) and as a general rule also from outside the University of Helsinki. If proposed Opponent is from the same organisation, e.g. from UH, coordinating academic must give written reasons for this. Same principles of disqualification (see above) apply to the Opponent as to the pre-examiners. A preliminary examiner of the dissertation may not act as the Opponent.

Custos

A Professor or an Associate Professor at the faculty is appointed to act as the Custos in the public examination. The primary supervisor of the thesis who holds the title of docent and is employed by the faculty could also be appointed as a Custos. If Custos has served as one of the dissertation supervisors or has co-authored one or more of the publications included in it, he or she may not participate in proposing a grade for the dissertation. However, he or she will serve as the administrative chair of the grading committee, who assists the committee in its work and ensures that the committee has sufficient operational resources.

Faculty representative

Faculty representative must be professor or docent of the University of Helsinki, or members of the university's teaching and research staff with the academic qualifications of a docent. The faculty representative must be well acquainted with the grading criteria and regulations related to the examination of doctoral theses in use at the University of Helsinki. Custos can act as a faculty representative, if he/she is not a supervisor of the dissertation or otherwise disqualified.

 

The dissertation will be examined at a public examination. The Faculty Council appoints one or two opponents for the examination.  The doctoral candidate delivers the dissertation to the Opponent(s), well before the defence to give them time to get acquainted with it.

The public examination begins with an introductory lecture (lectio praecursoria) by the doctoral candidate. After the lecture the doctoral candidate asks Opponent to give her/his comments of the research. Then the Opponent stands up and briefly evaluates the significance/relevance in the research field. After the Opponent’s comment both Opponent and doctoral candidate sit down and the examination begins.

In the examination the Opponent goes through the research work starting from the title and continuing to the methods, references and conclusions. The doctoral candidate answers Opponent’s questions and defends her/his research. After the Opponent is satisfied he/she announces that the examination is completed and gives the final statement with a remark that he/she proposes that the Faculty accepts the dissertation (it is very rare that the Opponent does not propose accepting). The Opponent and doctoral candidate stand up for the final statement.

If the audience has no comments nor questions, the Custos stands up and closes the public examination. The overall duration of the public examination may not exceed six hours, and the event lasts typically approximately two hours.

The Opponent is requested to submit a free-form report on the public examination of the doctoral dissertation within 2 weeks of the examination to Viikki doctoral student services: viikki-phd@helsinki.fi. The report should assess the scientific value of the dissertation as well as the performance of the candidate during the public examination according to Evaluation criteria (see below) of the Faculty. The Opponent should clearly indicate in his or her statement whether he or she recommends that the dissertation be approved or rejected.

Proceedings of the public defence is described in more detail on the page Welcome to the public examination

Custos (kustos) is Faculty-appointed chair of the public examination. Custos, Opponent and doctoral candidate agree on the date of the public examination as well as the dress code and the examination's degree of formality.

The Public examination starts when the participants enter the hall. The doctoral candidate first, Custos second and Opponent last.  The Custos and the Opponent, provided that they are doctoral degree-holders, will carry their Doctor's hats in their hands when entering and leaving the auditorium. During the public examination, they will place the hat in front of them on the table with the lyre emblem facing the audience.

The Custos introduces the doctoral candidate and the Opponent to the audience and opens the examination. If the examination is likely to take a long time, the Custos may interrupt it by announcing a break. The public examination may take maximum of six hours. After the examination is done, doctoral candidate asks the audience to make comments and pose questions. The Custos will ensure that the doctoral candidate has the opportunity to reply to each comment and that the comments do not digress from the topic in hand.

Finally, the Custos will stand up to announce that the examination is completed. The participants will leave the auditorium in the same order in which they entered: first the doctoral candidate, followed by the Custos and the Opponent. The audience may congratulate the doctoral candidate once he or she has left the auditorium and has had the opportunity to thank the Opponent and Custos.

Proceedings of the public defence is described in more detail on the page Welcome to the public examination

The grading committee proposes to the faculty council a grade for the dissertation. See the Evaluation criteria below. The proposal should assess the scientific value of the dissertation as well as the performance of the candidate during the public examination and therefore all the members have to attend the public examination. The proposal must also consider the preliminary examiners’ statements. The grading committee is requested to submit the proposal within 2 weeks of the examination.

  1. Research topic and formulation of the research problem: The theoretical background of the research and the doctoral candidate’s familiarity with the field. The originality and scientific significance of the topic. The research approach, the theoretical basis of the study and its suitability for the topic at hand. The definition and clarification of the research objectives and research problem. The doctoral candidate’s knowledge and use of literature in the field as well as the scope of the literature covered.
  2. Material and methods: The selection of material and methods. The applicability of the material to the examination of the research problem and the feasibility of the methods in terms of the material and problem-solving. A sufficiently detailed description of the material and any measurements to enable the relevant parts of the research to be repeated. An analysis of the material using an appropriate, efficient method that supports and is compatible with the research problem and approach.
  3. Research results and their presentation: A report of the results obtained and their scientific significance. A clear and concise report of the results, including any reservations.
  4. Discussion and conclusions: The rigorousness of the consideration of the results and their relationship to other research in the field. The scientific justification of the conclusions made. A critical and extensive section analysing prior literature and the results at hand.
  5. The independence and maturity of the author. In the case of article-based dissertations, attention should be paid to whether the publications form a cohesive entity and to whether the doctoral candidate’s independent contribution to planning and implementing the research can be verified. Maturity refers to the author’s scholarship, mastery of the research approach and ability to analyse scientific problems as demonstrated by the dissertation.
  6. The clarity and polish of the dissertation: The structure, title and sub-headings of the dissertation. The clarity, accuracy and readability of the language. The information content, clarity and intelligibility of graphs and tables.

The Opponent and the grading committee must submit their statements to Viikki doctoral study services viikki-phd@helsinki.fi within two weeks of the public examination.

Before the grading of the dissertation, the doctoral candidate must be provided with the opportunity to object to the Opponent’s statement and other documents related to the grading.

The Faculty Council decides on approving and grading the dissertation based on the Opponent’s statement and grading committee’s proposal. Doctoral dissertations are graded on a scale of Fail - Pass - Pass with Distinction. When the Faculty Council decides on the grade it has to evaluate the theoretical background and the scientific significance of the research. Furthermore, the independence and originality of the topic as well as maturity of the author should be taken into account.

If a doctoral dissertation is highly distinguished and ambitious in the light of all essential assessment criteria, it may receive the grade Pass with Distinction. The grading committee must be unanimous when it proposes “Pass with distinction”.

The grade Pass contains no significant deficiencies in the theoretical premise, methods or empirical section. The research conducted for the dissertation must relate to a well‑founded complex of problems which has scientific importance. Moreover, the research must produce new, important knowledge for theory building in the field or for practical application. No serious deficiencies can be apparent in the phrasing of the research questions, the presentation of the theoretical background, the selection of material and methods, and the presentation of results and conclusions.

The grade Pass with Distinction is given for pioneering dissertations of exceptional quality. The research topic must be scientifically important, and the theoretical foundations, the methods used and the empirical section must meet the highest academic standards. In addition, the results must have considerable scientific importance, and the observations and conclusions must be novel and significantly promote theory formation or practical applications in the field. A dissertation approved with the grade of Pass with Distinction shows commendable scholarly maturity and independence on the part of the author and demonstrates his or her originality and exceptional innovation as a producer of scientific knowledge. In addition, the doctoral candidate must defend the dissertation successfully in the public examination. This grade is usually awarded to approximately 10-15% of all dissertations passed annually at the Faculty. If the grading committee proposes the grade of passed with distinction, all committee members must support it unanimously and outline solid grounds for the proposal.

Grounds for rejecting the dissertation (Fail) may include, e.g., the following: The research problem has been formulated vaguely or incompletely. The research materials are particularly brief or biased in terms of the nature of the problem and the objectives of the research. The methods used are not suited for examining the problem at hand, but yield erroneous or insufficient answers to the questions posed. There are serious shortcomings and inconsistencies in the structure and title of the work. In addition, the dissertation may be rejected during the preliminary examination or grading process due to research ethical reasons (such as academic fraud).

If the doctoral candidate is dissatisfied with the grading of their doctoral dissertation may appeal in writing to the Academic Appeals Board within 14 days of the receipt of the grading decision (section 64 of the Regulations on Degrees and the Protection of Students’ Rights at the University of Helsinki).

Instructions for scientific licentiate degrees are available in Instructions for Students.

Licentiate thesis examiners are appointed by the Faculty Council. Licentiate theses are examined in accordance with the same guidelines and principles as doctoral dissertations. Proposal for pre-examiners form is used when proposing Licentiate thesis examiners.

A proposal for pre-examiners (e-form)

Same evaluation criteria and description of the grades (see above) is applied as for doctoral dissertations. The Faculty Council grades the thesis on the basis