Conferment tradition: Symbols and glossary

Over the centuries, academic conferment ceremonies have accumulated their own symbolism, as well as a vocabulary based largely on the Latin language. By familiarising yourself with the following terms, you will be able to navigate this pinnacle of academic tradition.

Marshal’s ribbons – The Master of Ceremonies, the Head Marshal and the marshals can be identified by the ribbons they wear across their chests. The ribbon of the Master of Ceremonies is red and the ribbon of the Head Marshal blue, while the marshals wear either the colours of the Finnish flag or their student organisation. Colourful ribbons signify assistance and guidance. Traditionally, women carry the ribbon on the left shoulder and men on the right, but these days the choice is up to the wearer. 

Olive branch – A traditional symbol of peace and victory, and the symbol of the Faculty of Theology’s conferment ceremony in 2023. The olive branch was the subject of the Ramus virens olivarum hymn composed in medieval Finland, which has even been exaggeratedly called the ‘oldest Finnish hymn', or the ‘oldest national anthem of Finland’. 

Conferrer’s podium – The centrepiece of the conferment ceremony is the central podium and its decorative lectern in the University’s Great Hall. The podium symbolises Mount Parnassus in Greece, the sacred mountain of Apollo, the god of light, knowledge and beauty. In the conferment ceremony, graduands will symbolically ascend the sacred mountain, receive the insignia of their learning, and descend back amongst mortals even wiser than before. The lectern itself was manufactured for the Academy building in Turku in 1815. In its design, you can see torches symbolising the light of knowledge; the owl of Athena, the goddess of wisdom; the head of Medusa, offering protection against evil; as well as the laurel branches symbolising strife and victory. 

Silver sceptres of the beadles – The beadles, clad in blue cloaks, serve as marshals of the rector of the University of Helsinki in academic processions. They carry silver sceptres dating back to 1640, representing spiritual and secular jurisdiction. 

Doctoral hat – The highest external insignia of academic learning. The right to wear a doctoral hat is granted in the conferment ceremony, and doctoral degree holders who have not been conferred are not permitted to wear it. Today, the doctoral hat of the Faculty of Theology is purple in colour. Until 1967, the doctoral hat for theologians was black, as in most other faculties. Doctoral graduands cannot take part in a conferment ceremony without a doctoral hat, or wear the hat of other universities or faculties. The tall doctoral hat, clad in silk, stems from the hat fashion of the late 16th century in the Netherlands, but also bears a resemblance to ancient Phrygian caps, a symbol of freedom. 

Student cap – Student caps are worn on the conferment excursion. In addition, the marshals’ attire includes the student cap of the University of Helsinki throughout the conferment ceremony. Since the 19th century, a white cap has been the hallmark of all who have completed the Finnish matriculation examination, adorned by Apollo’s lyre surrounded by a laurel wreath, the emblem of the University of Helsinki. 


In absentia – Graduands who are unable to attend the conferment ceremony are conferred with their degree and title in absentia. 

Marshal – A student who provides help in the practical details of the conferment ceremony and facilitates the progress of the event, supporting the graduands and newly conferred doctors. The marshals of the conferment ceremony in 2023 have been invited from the Faculty Association for Theology Students as well as from the student nations Savo Student Nation, the Nation of Southern Finland, Tavastia Nation, North Ostrobothnia Nation and the Nation of Southwest Finland. Marshals can be recognised from the student cap and their ribbons, which signify the party they are representing. 

Doctor honoris causa (h.c.) – See ‘Honorary doctor’. 

Doctor prima/primus – See ‘Highest ranking doctoral graduand’. 

Doctor semisaecularis – See ‘Jubilee doctor’. 

Doctor ultima/ultimus – See ‘Second-highest ranking doctoral graduand’. 

Master of Ceremonies – The Master of Ceremonies ranks second among the conferment officials. This individual ensures the smooth progress of the conferment ceremony. They can be identified by a red marshal’s ribbon and a large staff. In the conferment ceremony of 2023, Professor of Church History Tuomas Heikkilä serves as the Master of Ceremonies. 

Honorary doctor – The title of honorary doctor (doctor honoris causa) is the highest academic honour. The Faculty confers honorary doctorates on individuals whose work it particularly values. The honorary doctors to be conferred in the 2023 ceremony have been selected on the basis of both social and humanitarian merits.  

Conferment booklet – Before the conferment ceremony, a conferment booklet edited by the conferment committee will be published, also serving as an official invitation to the ceremony. The booklet contains the personal details of honorary doctors and graduands. 

Official – An official appointed by the Faculty for the conferment festivities. Officials include the Conferrer, the Master of Ceremonies and the Head Marshal. 

Highest ranking doctoral graduand – The Faculty appoints the doctoral graduand with the highest grade awarded for their doctoral thesis as the highest ranking doctoral graduand (doctor prima/primus). In the conferment ceremony, they answer a ceremonial question, serving as a symbolic representative of all the doctoral graduands.  

Conferment ceremony – The heart of the conferment festivities: a celebration where graduands are conferred with the title of doctor. The conferment ceremony in 2023 will be held in the Great Hall of the University on Friday, 9 June. 

Conferment committee – The committee is responsible for organising and running the conferment festivities. The committee includes the officials and their deputies, the conferment secretary and other members. The members of the conferment committee can be identified by the silver branch they wear on their lapels. 

Conferrer – The most important person in the conferment ceremony, who presents the doctoral graduands with a doctoral hat and a diploma, the insignia of their new title. Usually the Faculty’s most senior professor serves as the Conferrer. In the conferment ceremony of 2023, Professor of Old Testament Studies Martti Nissinen serves as the Conferrer. 

Graduand – A master’s or doctoral graduate to be conferred with their academic title. The Faculty of Theology confers doctoral degrees only.  

Jubilee doctor – Doctors conferred 50 years earlier will be conferred with the title of jubilee doctor (doctor semisaecularis). In 2023, this encompasses those who were conferred the title of doctor between 1968 and 1973. 

Ceremonial question – The final test for doctoral graduands. The supervisor of the highest ranking doctoral graduand’s doctoral thesis poses a scholarly question, to which the graduand answers on behalf of all the graduands. Since the highest ranking doctoral graduand represents all of the graduands, the conferment ceremony will only continue if the answer is accepted.  

Second-highest ranking doctoral graduand – The second-highest ranking doctoral graduand (doctor ultima/ultimus) holds the second honorary position among the doctoral graduands. Alongside the highest ranking doctoral graduand, they symbolically represent all of the doctoral graduands. 

Head Marshal – The Head Marshal is the third-highest ranking official. This individual ensures the smooth progress of the conferment festivities together with the Master of Ceremonies, and leads the marshals. They can be identified by a blue marshal’s ribbon. In the conferment ceremony of 2023, Professor of Practical Theology Auli Vähäkangas serves as the Head Marshal.