Welcome to the public examination

The public examination, where the doctoral candidate defends their research results in front of an audience, is the time-honoured cherry on top of a long research project. The procedures and formalities have evolved in the course of several centuries. Today, there are different views on the level of formality. Some observe old traditions, while others aim for a more conversational atmosphere.
To start with

On this page, you will find information on the protocol and traditions of public defences at the University of Helsinki. The page is meant for both doctoral candidates and their opponents, as well as all defence participants and others interested in academic traditions.

If you are a doctoral candidate, an opponent or a member of a grading committee, please acquaint yourself also with these:

Dress code

The dress code of the public examination should match the dignified nature of the event. The most common variations of the dress code are:

  • A tailcoat and a black waistcoat. When wearing a tailcoat, black socks and shoes (not patent leather) should be worn. A white pocket handkerchief should not be worn with a black waistcoat.
  • Dark suit, clerical attire or a military uniform.
  • A long-sleeved, high-necked short black dress or two-piece suit. Hats and prominent jewellery should not be worn.

The University also stocks some doctoral gowns, which may be reserved from the portier of Porthania, tel. 02941 22561. Foreign opponents may use the gown of their own university or may borrow one from the University of Helsinki. The doctoral candidate, the Custos and the Opponent should decide on the dress code.

The Custos and the Opponent will carry their Doctor's hats (if they have one) 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. Porthania portiers have a few hats which can be borrowed.

There are no guidelines for the audience dress code at the public examination. As the examination is public, it is open to everyone. It is thus perfectly acceptable to attend the examination in everyday clothing. However, guests invited by the doctoral candidate usually wear a dark suit or other more formal clothing.

To preserve the festive nature of doctoral defences, we recommend following the traditional dress code also at remote access defences, when possible.

Forms of address and terminology

At the public examination, the form of direct address to the opponent is "Honored Opponent".

The doctoral candidate and the Custos may discuss in advance the examination's degree of formality.  Pre-formulated modes of expression are not obligatory, only traditional.

Respondent – the doctoral candidate

Opponent – the person debating with the doctoral candidate at the public examination

Custos – Faculty-appointed chair of the public examination

Lectio praecursoria – introductory lecture by the doctoral candidate

Post-doctoral party ("karonkka") – an evening party in honour of the Opponent


The public examination will begin when the participants enter the auditorium and the audience rise from their seats. The doctoral candidate will enter the auditorium first, followed by the Custos and the Opponent, in this order.

The Custos will introduce the doctoral candidate and the Opponent and will open the examination by saying, for example:

"As the Custos appointed by the Faculty of ....., I declare this public examination open."

The audience will then take their seats.

The candidate will stand up to deliver their introductory lecture (lectio praecursoria) of at most 20 minutes. In the lecture, the candidate will introduce their doctoral thesis and the research methods used. The introductory lecture may begin, for example, with the following words: "Honored Custos, honored Opponent, members of the audience". The lecture is usually given in the language of the doctoral thesis.

After the introductory lecture, the candidate will turn to the Opponent and will say: "Honored Opponent/Professor/Dr NN, I now call upon you to present your critical comments on my dissertation."

The Opponent will stand up to make a short statement about the scientific status and significance of the doctoral thesis and about other general issues. After the statement, the Opponent and the candidate will take their seats.

In the actual examination, the Opponent will discuss the dissertation, commencing from its title and proceeding to the methods, sources and conclusions. The candidate will respond to the comments made, defending his or her choices, conclusions and results.

The Opponent may spend at most four hours on the examination, since sufficient time should be reserved for questions from the audience. If the examination is likely to take a long time, the Custos may interrupt it by announcing a break.

At the conclusion of the examination, the Opponent and the doctoral candidate will stand up. The Opponent will then make a final statement and will (usually) announce that he or she will propose to the Faculty that the dissertation be accepted.

The doctoral candidate will remain standing to thank the Opponent.

After thanking the Opponent, the doctoral candidate will ask the audience to make comments and pose questions: "If anyone present wishes to make any comments concerning my dissertation, please ask the Custos for the floor."

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 total amount of time spent on it may not exceed six hours.

The Custos and the Opponent will carry their Doctor's hats when leaving the auditorium in the same order in which they entered: the doctoral candidate will leave first, followed by the Custos and the Opponent.

The audience must not applaud or cheer during the public examination. Congratulations will be extended to the doctoral candidate once he or she has left the auditorium and has had the opportunity to thank the Opponent and Custos.

Remote access defences follow as much of the regular protocol as possible. However, please note that it might be best to sit down during the sections of the events traditionally held standing (e.g. lectio praecursoria). If you wish to stand during these sections, please check before the event that your face is visible in the camera and your voice can be heard through the microphone even when standing up.

Other matters to note

Doctoral candidates are sometimes given flowers and gifts after the public examination. The candidate should make advance arrangements for their transportation or agree with the guests that flowers and gifts, if any, will be delivered directly to the candidate's home.

To allow the doctoral candidate to focus on defending their research and receiving congratulations after the fact, it's a good idea to agree in advance that for example one the doctoral candidate's friends will look after the flower, presents and other practicalities.

After the defence, the doctoral candidate can take the opponent and custos to lunch, if they so wish. In addition to the post-doctoral evening party, the doctoral candidate can also arrange a coffee service for the audience after the event, should they so wish.

It's good to reserve plenty of time between the defence and the evening party, to make sure stress and sense of haste don't ruin the big day. It's nice to have time enough in between for lunch, a pit stop at home to change your attire and perhaps even take a well-deserved afternoon nap.

Post-doctoral party (karonkka)

The post-doctoral party is an academic tradition. The Finnish word for the celebration, karonkka, derives from the diminutive form (koronka) of the Russian word korona, which means ‘crown’. The Finnish term karonkka is thus related to the Russian word koronovanije, signifying ‘coronation’. The post-doctoral party marks the end of the dissertation process and is arranged by the doctoral candidate to thank the Opponent, the Custos and others who contributed to the work. Nowadays, doctoral candidates may invite friends and family along with members of the academic community to this party. What follows is a short description of practices and traditions related to post-doctoral parties.

As formal decisions on the doctoral dissertation are not made until the conclusion of the public examination, invitations to the post-doctoral party were traditionally not sent in advance. In the past, the doctoral candidate contacted the Opponent before the public examination to enquire whether the doctoral candidate could make dinner arrangements, and after obtaining a positive response, the candidate "hinted" at the successful outcome to the guests to be invited.

Nowadays, however, doctoral candidates send invitations in advance. Permission to defend the dissertation in a public examination, given by the Faculty, is sufficient indication of the quality of the dissertation. The doctoral candidates themselves formulate the wording of their invitations, but it is recommended that the invitations contain information on the dress code, especially if the doctoral candidate prefers the guests not to wear tailcoats and evening dresses, as is the custom, or wishes to suggest alternative styles of dress.

In addition to the Opponent and the Custos, the invitees to the post-doctoral party should include professors working in the field of the dissertation and others who have aided in the dissertation work. The additional opponents, that is, persons who ask questions or make comments at the public examination, were previously invited to the celebration, but, according to an unwritten rule, they were not to accept the invitation.

The post-doctoral party may be arranged at home, in a restaurant or in the facilities of a student association (osakunta) or one's own department. Choose a place that fits your budget and ask for tips on good locations from friends and senior colleagues who have already had their post-doctoral party.

The usual dress code for the post-doctoral party is tailcoat and a white waistcoat (a black waistcoat at the public examination) or an evening dress (black, if you are the doctoral candidate). The traditional colour used in academic celebrations is black, but other colours have also become common. Instead of a tailcoat / evening dress combination, dark suits and a short formal dress are also often chosen as the dress code.

You can also choose a dress code that differs from traditions. Whatever you do, don't forget to choose a dress code and mention it in the invitation, so your guests don't have to wonder whether they should wear a tailcoat, dark suit, or something else entirely.

The doctoral candidate is the star of the day, but at the post-doctoral party, the Opponent is the guest of honour, seated immediately to the right of the doctoral candidate. If there are two opponents at the public examination, they will be seated on both sides of the doctoral candidate. The next guest in the seating order is the Custos, seated to the left of or opposite the doctoral candidate. The other guests then follow, usually in the order of their academic achievements.

The doctoral candidate offers food, drinks and possibly other forms of entertainment to the guests invited to the post-doctoral party. The candidate starts by welcoming all those present before dinner is served.

Speeches are made after the meal when coffee has been served. The doctoral candidate thanks the Opponent and others who have aided in the work. The Opponent's answer is usually light-heartedly dignified rather than too solemn or formal. Next, the Custos may address those present.

After this, other guests may speak in the order in which they were mentioned in the doctoral candidate's address. If the doctoral candidate wishes to thank his or her family members, this should be done at the conclusion of the candidate's address.

It's a good idea to keep the speeches short – tradition dictates that every speech should be responded with a speech of equal length.

On the history of public examinations

Participation in public examinations of doctoral dissertations was originally a formal part of studies. The objective was, to quote the Finnish scholar Henrik Gabriel Porthan (1739-1804), "to train the students in grasping matters quickly, stating their arguments clearly, examining matters from a variety of perspectives and distinguishing between issues of primary and secondary importance." The professor wrote a dissertation manuscript, which was then defended and debated by his students.

For students at the outset of their studies, these examinations were private, while the examinations of more experienced students were public. Sometimes a professor would discuss a given matter in several succeeding dissertation manuscripts, but the candidate was required to be familiar only with the primary issues and contents of the dissertation in hand so as to be able to defend it independently.

The degrees of Master of Philosophy and Doctor of Philosophy were not separated until 1828 when new university statutes were issued. Subsequently, students had to write their own dissertations to obtain the doctoral degree. The candidates also had to give one (in most cases) or more lectures. This tradition is reflected in the introductory lecture (lectio praecursoria) currently given at public examinations of doctoral dissertations.

Conferment ceremony (promootio)

Persons who have completed the doctoral degree are automatically awarded the title of Doctor. The right to use the doctoral insignia, that is, the Doctor's hat and sword, is traditionally awarded in a solemn conferment ceremony, in which doctoral degree-holders may participate either in attendance or in absentia. However, these days it's quite acceptable to purchase a Doctor's hat directly after the defence, should you so wish.

Conferment ceremonies (promootio) are celebrations organised by faculties lasting several days, where the new master’s and doctoral degree holders graduated after the previous conferment ceremony get to celebrate in prestigious surroundings. By participating in the conferment ceremony, the newly graduated doctoral degree holder will receive a right to wear the insignia associated with their academic degrees: a doctoral hat and sword.

Conferment ceremonies combine solemnity with riotousness and tradition with youthfulness.  Conferment ceremonies are celebrations for the whole university community, and the participants include University leadership, the government and leading social figures, newly graduated masters and doctors, jubilee masters and doctors as well as young students working as heralds.

Conferment ceremonies are organised every four years, sometimes more often. Conferment committees established for the organisation of the ceremony ensure that all doctors and masters graduated after the previous conferment ceremony are informed of the upcoming conferment ceremony well in advance. The conferment ceremony is a unique academic tradition, which provides an opportunity to celebrate the completed degree once more with your fellow students.

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