Guidelines for the examination of doctoral dissertation

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.

This document contains all relevant information on examining dissertations for the examiners and opponent. The instructions for the doctoral candidate are in Flamma.

Viikki PhD study services help you in all matters related to doctoral dissertations. You may send your questions and all the correspondence to the address viikki-phd@helsinki.fi.

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dissertation); or it must be a scholarly work in the name of the doctoral candidate alone and based on previously unpublished research results (a monograph).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:

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

Structure

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 dissertation

Aticle-based dissertations consist of scholarly publications discussing a single group of issues as well as a summarising report written by the doctoral candidate. The summarising report of an article-based dissertation must present the background, objectives, methods, material, results, discussion and conclusions of the research. 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 a) scope, b) scientific quality and significance and c) publishing forum as well as d) 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 degree. Typically, the number of articles ranges from three to five.

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 draft 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 draft of 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 and to the preliminary examiners, opponent and custos at a later date. The report may also be included in the summarising report or an article included in the dissertation.

At the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine an article-based dissertation consists typically of 3 - 5 articles. The doctoral candidate must be the first author in at least two of the articles. Furthermore two of the articles should be published or accepted to be published in peer-reviewed journals The rest of the articles included in the dissertation have to be submitted.

Monograph

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.

Dissertations other than monographs or those based on articles

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 Faculty Council decides on granting permission to defend the dissertation in a public examination based on the preliminary examiners’ statements. 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 professor in charge of the discipline will prepare a proposal on the preliminary examiners using an e-form designed for this purpose. The proposal must be signed also by doctoral candidate to confirm that he or she does not have any objections to the proposed pre-examiners.

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.

Pre-examiners must be from outside the doctoral candidate’s faculty and generally from outside University of Helsinki.

A pre-examiner can not be:

  • A person, who has or has had collaboration with the doctoral candidate during the dissertation project
  • A person, who has had close research collaboration with the supervisor, e.g. co-authored/published articles with the supervisor in the past three years
  • A close relative of the doctoral candidate
  • The immediate superior or subordinate of the doctoral candidate or the supervisor
  • A member of the thesis committee

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.

Before the preliminary examiners are appointed, the doctoral candidate submits the dissertation manuscript and other required documents to the Viikki Campus doctoral study services: viikki-phd@helsinki.fi or P.O.Box 65, 00014 University of Helsinki. The instructions are in Flamma.

The preliminary examiners should determine the merits of the manuscript, propose corrections and suggestions for improvement, and submit a reasoned written statement to the Faculty recommending that permission to defend the dissertation be either granted or denied within two months of accepting the assignment.

The preliminary examiners must submit to the faculty a separately or jointly written statement in which they either
a) Recommend that the doctoral candidate be granted permission to publicly defend the dissertation in its current manuscript form or with minor corrections that the supervisor can approve
b) Find that the manuscript contains deficiencies that are serious enough for them not to be able to recommend that the doctoral candidate be granted permission to publicly defend the dissertation

A preliminary examiner may also require that the doctoral candidate make corrections to the manuscript which the preliminary examiner then approves before providing a statement recommending the granting of permission for the public defence. After approving the corrections, the preliminary examiner must submit to the faculty his or her final statement on the manuscript. The doctoral candidate’s report on the corrections made must also be sent as additional information to the other preliminary examiner and be appended to the preliminary examiners’ statements when permission for the public defence is granted. In such cases, the preliminary examination may take up to six months in total. However, even then the status of the preliminary examiner is not equal to that of the supervisor.

Cancellation of preliminary examination

If differences of opinion between the preliminary examiners, or shortcomings or errors discovered in the dissertation, prevent the preliminary examination from being concluded with a statement recommending that the doctoral candidate be granted permission to defend the dissertation in a public examination within the deadline set for the preliminary examiners’ statements, or within a reasonable time extension, the preliminary examination procedure must be cancelled, unless the doctoral candidate wishes to refer the matter to the faculty council for a decision. The faculty council must be informed of cancelled preliminary examination procedures.

In the event of the cancellation of a 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 or the supervising professor recommends that the preliminary examination procedure be restarted.

The preliminary examiners must submit to the faculty a separately or jointly written statement in which they either

a) Recommend that the doctoral candidate be granted permission to publicly defend the dissertation in its current manuscript form or with minor corrections that the supervisor can approve
b) Find that the manuscript contains deficiencies that are serious enough for them not to be able to recommend that the doctoral candidate be granted permission to publicly defend the dissertation

A preliminary examiner may also require that the doctoral candidate make corrections to the manuscript which the preliminary examiner then approves before providing a statement recommending the granting of permission for the public defence. After approving the corrections, the preliminary examiner must submit to the faculty his or her final statement on the manuscript.

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. However, the preliminary examiners are not dissertation supervisors. 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. If the preliminary examiner proposes corrections or additions to the dissertation, the Faculty policy is that the preliminary examiner also verifies that they have been made. The preliminary examiner may outline or summarise the corrections and additions required in his or her statement. The dissertation should not contain any significant deficiencies in the theoretical premise, methods or empirical section.

After the preliminary examiners have been appointed, Viikki PhD study services inform the pre-examiners and doctoral candidate  of the decision. The pre-examiners are delivered instructions on the examination and dissertation manuscript.

The preliminary examiners must submit a written statement within two months of accepting the assignment. The statement may be written either jointly or separately, explicitly recommending that the doctoral candidate be granted or denied permission to defend the dissertation in a public examination.

The preliminary examiners’ and the opponent’s statement must include a detailed assessment of at least the following:

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.

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.

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.

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.

Knowledge of the research field: The doctoral candidate’s knowledge and use of literature in the field as well as the scope of the literature covered.

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.

The pre-examiner has to recommend explicitly whether the doctoral candidate is granted or denied a permission to defend the dissertation in a public examination. E.g. "I recommend that the candidate is granted a permission to defend her/his dissertation in a public examination."

The Faculty Council appoints a dissertation grading committee for the public examination on the basis of the proposal of the supervising professor (e-form). The proposal must include a written statement by the doctoral candidate confirming that he or she does not object to the appointment of the Opponent.

Members of the committee include the Custos, the Opponent(s) and one or two Faculty representatives. The faculty representative must be a professor or a member of the research and teaching staff who has the qualifications of a docent. If the Custos has supervised the dissertation, he or she will have the right to speak but not to vote at the committee meeting. In this case there must be two Faculty representatives because the committee must include at least three members entitled to vote.

The Custos is responsible for communicating with the dissertation grading committee.

The grading committee must propose to the faculty council a grade for the dissertation. The proposal must take into account not only the scientific value of the dissertation, but also the doctoral candidate’s ability to defend the dissertation at the public examination, which is why all members of the grading committee must attend the public examination. The proposal must also consider the preliminary examiners’ statements.

When selecting the Opponent, particular attention should be paid not only to his or her expertise but also to his or her impartiality in relation to the dissertation in question. The Opponent must have the qualifications of at least a docent or equivalent academic qualifications and he or she must be from outside the doctoral candidate’s faculty and generally from outside University of Helsinki. A preliminary examiner of the dissertation may not act as the opponent.  Same principles of disqualification apply to the Opponent and pre-examiners.

Custos is a professor at the faculty. Also an Associate Professor can be appointed as a Custos. The professor in charge of the discipline who has served as one of the dissertation supervisors or has co-authored one or more of the publications included in it may serve as the Custos. In this case, 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.

The Opponent should pay attention to the same issues as the preliminary examiners in his or her statement. In addition, he or she should assess the doctoral candidate’s performance in defending the dissertation in the public examination. The Opponent should clearly indicate in his or her statement whether he or she recommends that the dissertation be approved or rejected.

The Opponent’s statement must be submitted to the Faculty within two weeks of the public examination to Viikki Campus doctoral study services viikki-phd@helsinki.fi, or P.O.Box 65, 00014 University of Helsinki

More detailed information of 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 theaudience 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.

More detailed information in the page Welcome to the public examination

Doctoral dissertations are graded on a scale of Fail, Pass, Pass with Distinction. Most dissertations receive the grade of Pass. 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 grade Pass with Distinction does not exceed 15% at the University level.

The opponent must submit to the faculty a reasoned written statement on the scientific value of the doctoral dissertation within two weeks of the public examination. If two opponents have been appointed, they may also submit a joint statement.

The grading committee proposes to the faculty council a grade for the dissertation. The proposal must take into account not only the scientific value of the dissertation, but also the doctoral candidate’s ability to defend the dissertation at the public examination, which is why all members of the grading committee must attend the public examination. The proposal must also consider the preliminary examiners’ statements.

Before the grading of the dissertation, the doctoral candidate must be provided with the opportunity to object to the opponent’s statement. Doctoral candidates 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).

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 5–10% of all dissertations passed annually in the Faculty.

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).