Definition of a doctoral dissertation
A doctoral dissertation is a consistent scholarly work based on independent research that makes an original contribution to knowledge. Besides being in the form of a monograph, the dissertation may also be a compilation of several separate scholarly articles (see below). The manuscript submitted for preliminary examination must be written in the same language as the final version of the dissertation.
Examination process and preliminary examiner’s role
The examination of doctoral dissertations is a two-stage process: first, dissertations are examined in a preliminary examination, and then, in a public examination.
After the public examination, the Faculty Council approves and grades, or rejects, the dissertation based on the documents compiled during the examination process and on its expertise. The members of the Faculty Council have access to the preliminary manuscript (preliminary examination) and the dissertation (final approval and grading or rejection) before they make their decision.
The preliminary examiners have great responsibility in ensuring that incomplete dissertations are not allowed to go forward to public examination. It is highly problematic in terms of students’ legal rights if it is not discovered until the public examination that the dissertation does not meet the minimum requirements set for dissertations.
The Faculty Council appoints at least two preliminary examiners as well as a faculty representative who oversees the entire process from preliminary examination to public examination.
The preliminary examiners are expected to provide a reasoned written statement in which they explicitly recommend either that the doctoral candidate be granted permission to defend the dissertation in a public examination or that the candidate be denied this permission. In other words, the duty of the preliminary examiners is to assess whether the manuscript fulfils the minimum requirements for a doctoral dissertation in its present state or after minor revisions that the thesis supervisor can approve. The recommendation must not be conditional, meaning that the examiner must not recommend granting the permission for a public defence after certain corrections have been made.
- Choice of topic, research problem, refining of research task and research questions: The topic should have significant information value. The research task should be appropriately refined. The Faculty recommends that a monograph be no more than about 250 pages long, excluding appendices.
- Acknowledgement of previous research: The work must serve as an appropriate continuation of previous debate or introduce a completely new initiative. Previous research must thus be acknowledged, but not repeated as such.
- Conceptual clarity, definitions and theoretical knowledge: The reader must be able to fathom what the research is about.
- Methods: The methods used must be presented and justified.
- Material: The material must be qualitatively relevant and quantitatively sufficient.
- Results and conclusions: The scientific significance of the results and conclusions should be neither exaggerated nor underestimated. The analysis must be logical and include different points of view. Interesting prospects for follow-up research can be considered as a merit, as can the social relevance of the research.
- Format: The structure of the dissertation must be logical and the language clear. The basic idea must not be overwhelmed by a mass of information.
- Critical attitude: The writer should demonstrate a critical attitude towards previous research, theories, methods, material, sources and the scientific significance of his or her own work. In other words, good research is original and independent.
The assessment criteria has been confirmed by the Faculty Council of the Faculty of Arts on December 12th, 2017.
A positive or negative statement?
The preliminary examiners must recommend in their statement that the doctoral candidate be denied permission to defend the dissertation in a public examination if it is clear that the dissertation is not a consistent scholarly work based on independent research that makes an original contribution to knowledge. The preliminary examiners should also consider rejecting the dissertation if there are other serious deficiencies in the dissertation, such as the following:
- The theoretical framework has serious deficiencies.
- The research material is clearly too limited for a doctoral dissertation.
- There are serious deficiencies in the writer’s knowledge of literature in the field.
- The dissertation is otherwise obviously incomplete, especially in light of the above criteria.
A positive statement is not, however, necessarily prevented by deficiencies that can be remedied by simple revision, the need for additional material that can be acquired with moderate effort or the need for further reading of research literature that requires moderate effort.
A negative statement usually means that the preliminary examination is discontinued upon the student’s request or the Faculty Council’s decision. The Faculty Council makes its decision on the basis of the preliminary examiners’ statements and its own deliberations. The members of the Faculty Council have access to the manuscript before they make their decision.
After the discontinuation of the preliminary examination, the doctoral candidate may request a new preliminary examination once the changes recommended in the preliminary examiners’ statements, or other changes, have been made in the dissertation manuscript and the supervisor(s) and the student's responsible teacher recommend that the examination process can be restarted. In these cases, the Faculty Council can, depending on the case and the schedules of the examiners, either ask the same preliminary examiners for the task again or search for new ones.
Dissertations written in a non-native language
A dissertation manuscript submitted for preliminary examination has not usually been revised by a professional language reviser. After the preliminary examination, the doctoral candidate must have the language of the dissertation revised to a publishable standard. The Faculty supports the language revision of doctoral theses written in a foreign language, but typically the language revision is done to the final version of the manuscript before the final thesis is printed. Thus the preliminary examiners need not revise the language of the dissertation, but may comment on the language from the perspective of the dissertation’s scholarly value in such key areas as incorrect specialist terminology, translation errors or structural issues that hinder understanding.
A doctoral dissertation may also be a compilation of several (between three and five, depending on their scope) separate scholarly publications or manuscripts accepted for publication and of a summarising report on them. The dissertation may also include one article manuscript that has not yet been accepted for publication. The summarising report must introduce the topic, present the objectives and methods of the publications and evaluate the significance and applicability of the published results at the time of publication of the summarising report. The scholarly value and academic standard of an article-based dissertation must correspond to those of a monograph.
Co-authored publications may be included if the author’s independent contribution to them can be demonstrated. An article-based dissertation may not contain articles from a previous doctoral dissertation by the same author.
The preliminary examiners should assess the academic standard of the entire dissertation (both the summarising report and the articles) irrespective of whether or not the articles have been published. In their statement, the examiners should evaluate whether the various sections form an adequately consistent whole of sufficient scope to meet the criteria set for a doctoral dissertation.
Doctoral candidates will submit the published articles or articles accepted for publication without editing or revision. Consequently, minor overlaps and repetition due to the close relationship of the topics of the articles can be allowed. Article-based dissertations are thus to be assessed using different criteria than for monographs.
The Faculty of Arts places great emphasis on the impartiality and transparency of the preliminary examination of doctoral dissertations. Even though the examiner may initially be contacted by the doctoral candidate’s supervisor, the examiners are experts appointed by the Faculty. Thus in order to avoid legal problems, the examiners must submit their statements to the Faculty only. During the examination process, the examiners will communicate only with the Faculty of Arts Doctoral Student Services or the faculty representative overseeing the examination process, and the examiners will thus not submit their statements to the doctoral candidate, the doctoral candidate's responsible teacher or the supervisor, nor will they discuss with them the contents of the statement or any other matters related to the dissertation.
The preliminary examiner must not supervise the doctoral student or accept revised versions of the manuscript or any other material related to the dissertation except through the Faculty's Doctoral Student Services.
In the appointment of preliminary examiners, the University of Helsinki regulations on the disqualification of preliminary examiners must be taken into account. The preliminary examiner can have no relationship with the doctoral candidate, the doctoral dissertation or another party involved that may compromise his or her impartiality. Consequently, e.g. the following persons can never be named as preliminary examiners:
- A person who has co-authored at least one of the articles used in an article-based 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 of the doctoral candidate
- The immediate superior or subordinate of the doctoral candidate, or the supervisor
- A member of the doctoral dissertation monitoring group, in cases where such group has been appointed
The Faculty strives to clear up any issues related to ineligibility before the examiners are officially appointed. However, should the examiner be unsure of his / her eligibility fot the task after having been appointed, we ask the examiners to immediately contact the Faculty's Doctoral Student Services (firstname.lastname@example.org). Any questions related to ineligibility should also be mentioned in the statement with a brief description of their prior cooperation or any other factors that may affect other people’s judgment of the impartiality of the statement.
The Doctoral Student Services will deliver copies of the statement to the doctoral candidate, the doctoral candicate's responsible teacher, the supervisor, the other preliminary examiner and members of the Faculty Council as well as (once permission to defend the dissertation has been granted) to the opponent and other members of the dissertation grading committee.
The doctoral candidate can lodge his or her objection to the preliminary examiners’ statements with the Faculty Council before it decides on the permission to defend the dissertation in a public examination. The statement will be enclosed with the minutes of the Faculty Council meeting in which it decides on the permission to defend the dissertation, after which the statement will become a public document.
According to the regulations of the Faculty, the time limit set for the preliminary examiner’s statement should not exceed two months, unless for special reasons. The Doctoral Student Services must be informed if the preliminary examination exceeds the time limit. The recommended length of the preliminary examiner’s statement is between two and five pages.
Preliminary examination statements should be written in either Finnish, Swedish or English. In cases where the doctoral candidate's mother tongue is not Finnish, we recommend that statements be written in English, if possible.
The statement may contain suggestions for corrections and improvements, but should also explicitly indicate whether the examiner recommends that the doctoral candidate be granted permission to defend the dissertation in a public examination, or whether the candidate should be denied this permission. Should the examiners wish to comment on minor errors, such as spelling mistakes, they may enclose a separate list of corrections with the statement, or return the manuscript with their written comments to the Faculty's Doctoral Student Services. The Doctoral Student Services will forward the list or manuscript to the doctoral candidate. If the examiner has not written any comments on the manuscript, it need not be returned.
An undersigned, scanned copy of the statement should be sent to the Faculty's Doctoral Student Services (email@example.com).
If you are unable to scan the document, we ask that you send the statement as an email attachment (e.g. a Word-file) to the aforementioned email address and also send us a signed hard copy by post to the following address:
Doctoral Student Services
Faculty of Arts and Faculty of Theology
P.O. Box 24
00014 UNIVERSITY OF HELSINKI, FINLAND
Pre-examiners receive a fee for their work. For further information and the fee form, please see the bottom of the page.
Final stages of the examination process
When the Faculty Council grants the doctoral candidate permission to defend the dissertation in a public examination, it will also appoint a dissertation grading committee (the opponent, the custos and the already appointed faculty representative and possible second faculty representative), and the candidate may then begin the practical arrangements for a public examination of the dissertation. The Faculty Council will make a final decision on the approval or rejection of the dissertation and on its grading after the public examination. The preliminary examiners have no right or obligation to supervise the revision of the dissertation; the responsibility for this lies with the doctoral candidate and the supervisor, and in the last instance, with the opponent. The Faculty may ask a preliminary examiner to act as the opponent as well.