Thesis Defence Today!

I’m in Helsinki right now, because my student is defending his thesis (it starts in just over half an hour). I might update this post during the defence, depending on how engrossed I am.
From left to right: Crispin (the student), Mats Gyllenberg (kustos, with hat), Len Thomas (opponent)
The Finnish defence is very different to the British one. In the UK (for those of you who don’t know), the thesis is handed in, and then is examined in private by an internal and external examiner. Usually the internal says little.
The Finnish system is much more formal. When the thesis is complete, it is sent to two ‘pre-examiners’. Their job is to read it and write a report saying whether the thesis can be examined. If they say it can be defended, it is then submitted to the examiner (the ‘opponent’ for the public examination.
The examination is a formal affair. As well as the student and the opponent, there is a kustos, who sits in the middle making sure everything runs smoothly, and pouring the water. All three are dressed in top and tails, or something as fancy. When they enter, everyone stands and the kustos announces the beginning of the thesis. The student starts by giving a short talk about the main themes of the thesis, after which they invite the opponent to pass their critical opinion of the thesis. The opponent then stands and give a short summary of the background to the thesis, and where it sits in the wider scheme of things. Whilst he does that, the student has to stand to. Then the real defence starts…
The actual discussion is more or less like any other defence, but it’s in public. The public’s job is to sit quietly, and judge the quality of the defence – afterwards they decide if the opponent passes or not.
After the opponent has finished grilling the student, the kustos has to wake himself and prod the student to stand up and thank the opponent for being put through hell, and then turn to the audience and tell them that if they want to make any comment on the thesis, they should ask the kustos for the floor. There then follows an embarrassed silence, as traditionally nobody asks a question. Should someone be so fool-hardy, the tradition is that the student asks them to join the party afterwards, but that they then decline the invite.
Once the kustos has decided to end the silence, they declare the thesis over, when everyone breaths a great sigh of relief. We then all depart for coffee and cake, to compare notes and congratulate the main players.
But that’s not the end of matters – in the evening there is a formal party, called a karonkka. This is a dinner, followed by speeches which have to be in a set order (student, opponent, kustos, supervisor, anyone else in the order they were mentioned in the student’s speech). After that comes the drinking and dancing. I will not be blogging that…
So I might add some more text as the defence goes on. Whilst you’re waiting, how are thesis defences done in different countries? I know a bit about a few, but not teh whole system for many. So let’s compare notes.

About rpg

Scientist, poet, gadfly
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6 Responses to Thesis Defence Today!

  1. Richard P. Grant says:

    My fondest memory of my defence is getting out of the taxi outside St John’s, and in full sub-fusc and academic dress sweeping past a crowd of tourists–who then turned away from their guide as one, with an ensuing barrage of crick cricks.

  2. Samantha Alsbury says:

    Love it, sounds terrific.
    Presumably if the thesis has any major problems the examiners say it can’t be defended yet and the student gets to go away and work on it some more? Does that mean that as long as you get as far as defending you are pretty certain to pass?

  3. Bob O'Hara says:

    Yes, Sam. I think theses have been failed at the examination stage, but very rarely – perhaps once or twice ever in Finland.
    My student passed, by the way. The party starts in an hour,

  4. Åsa Karlström says:

    ahh Bob, it’s almost like the Swedish one (go figure). although, we don’t have coat and tails but “only” nice formal clothings for the public defense. And there is a “board”/”committee” plus the ‘opponent’. Committee is usually 3-5 people who ask harder questions about the thesis, whereas the opponent and the theisis defendant[‘respondent’] have a conversation/questions and answer discussions initiated by the opponent that usually last for at least an hour up to two…
    And then there is a party in the evening! With the opponent and the department and some family and other friends 🙂
    Hope you have a great time tonight! Fun for your student (and you!) My guess is there will be some toasts and some vodka maybe? 😉

  5. Cath Ennis says:

    Congratulations to your student! I hope everyone enjoys the party.
    We did NOT have a formal party. We just went to the pub (actually two pubs) and drank a lot of beer. At the end of the night I was completely exhausted (barely any sleep the night before, then the defense which was delayed due to the external examiner’s train being held up by snow, then a mad dash to obtain a formal letter saying I’d passed that I could send to the Canadian consulate to get my visa before I flew to Vancouver 10 days later), and I literally fell asleep standing against the bar. The friend I was staying with had to take me home while all my other friends went out clubbing.

  6. Samantha Alsbury says:

    Congrats to you and the student – enjoy the party.

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