A little over two weeks ago, around five years of cumulative effort reached its zenith when I defended my doctoral thesis in a public examination in the LahiTapiola lecture hall of the Turku School of Economics. For this reason, I was invited to write a blog post on the event. This is that blog post.

As one might imagine, after all of build up over the last few months, I am now suffering with a bit of fatigue in relation to talking about my thesis, though if you are interested, you can read more about it here. Instead, I thought I might use this opportunity to delve into the tradition and history of the public defence process and ceremony as it is practiced by Finnish universities.

If you are not familiar with the tradition, the day of the defence (in my experience) proceeds like this: In the morning, if you are male (though I am sure females are not denied this pleasure) you stuff yourself into a penguin costume – a tailcoat, waist coat, and white bowtie ensemble originating from the 18th century. While not being the most comfortable form of clothing, it does make you feel fancy and encourages you to maintain a dignified posture. The formal proceedings begin with a light, cold lunch with your supervisors and your opponent. For the doctoral candidate, the food serves more as something just to stare into rather than as a form of nourishment. You are soon joined by a representative of the faculty for congratulations and encouragement (in my case the Head of the TSE Doctoral Programme). Also for encouragement, the University provides a fine bottle of cognac and a bottle of sherry to take the edge off your nerves (a single nip usually suffices, though you can sneak another while nobody is looking). After the lunch there is a brief photo session with University Communications. Each step of the way you are separated from your opponent by your custos, (a guardian role held by one of your supervisors) who is your last line of defence in case things get violent.

Then the public defence begins. The opponent, the custos, with doctoral hat in hand, and finally the doctoral candidate all file into the lecture theatre. The custos briefly opens the proceedings and then the doctoral candidate delivers his or her opening speech, or lectio praecursoria, of approximately twenty minutes. Following the lectio praecursoria, the doctoral candidate invites the opponent to deliver his or her criticisms, the opponent delivers a brief statement, and then the fun part begins as the opponent and candidate engage in a sometimes lively discussion that can last up to four hours (though in most cases, – mercifully, for both the candidate and the audience – the defence will not go longer than two).  The opponent challenges various aspects of the dissertation, or the broader topic on which the dissertation was written, and the candidate responds as best they can in the hopes of not embarrassing themselves in front of their friends, family, colleagues, and members of the general public who are their out of curiosity or, perhaps, for the cake and

coffee served at the end. Having attended a number of public defences over the course of my doctoral research, I can say with confidence that every defence is as diverse as the personalities of the opponents and candidates that take part in them, and no two defences are the same.

Unfortunately, my research into the origins of the custom of the public defence in Finnish academia did not take me very far. Extrapolating backwards from its current form, I would like to imagine that early public defences in Finland were conducted with participants donning full medieval armour. The opponent would ask a cutting question while delivering an equally cutting blow from a broadsword and the candidate would respond with a witty rejoinder and a parry, all the while the custos, a shield in each hand, desperately attempting to keep the two apart. Such displays of intellect combined with physical prowess are these days only to be found in the chess boxing arena.


The public defence ends with a final statement by the opponent, where he or she delivers his or her verdict on whether or not the dissertation should be accepted. In Finland, unlike in some other countries, that the dissertation will be approved by the opponent tends to be given, with any severe issues being addressed during the pre-examination process, and it would be a dark day, indeed, were this not to be the case (though I have heard whispers down darkened corridors of just such occurrences).

Once the opponent’s statement is complete, the candidate can wipe the nervous sweat from his or her brow, thank the opponent, and then ask the custos to open the floor to questions from the public. It is known among the academic community that, just like when a priest asks “speak now or forever hold your peace”, this is just a formality, and protocol dictates that the public should not in fact expected to ask any questions. The public, however, do not always know this, so the custos is usually quick to stand and conclude the proceedings before a particularly inquisitive individual is able to form the words to their burning question. If, however, a member of the audience is quick enough to the draw, and is able to their question, formality dictates that doctoral candidate should then invite that individual to the evening celebration, or Karonka, which is held in honour of the opponent. Formality also dictates that the questioner should politely decline this invitation. Of course, if one is unaware that they should not ask the question, it stands to reason that they would most likely be unaware that they should turn down the invitation to dinner. Sadly, I have not yet heard of any case when a hapless member of the audience has accidentally invited themselves to someone’s Karonka celebration.

After all the dust has settled following a doctoral defence, inevitably every fresh doctor must then consider what to do next.  While some already have new research, lectureships, or positions in industry lined up, and others return to their full time employment (or retirement), for people like myself, who were so focused on reaching the top of the mountain that we did not take time to consider what would be on the other side, the future is less certain. No matter how misty the view from the other side of the mountain may be, however, one must remember that achieving a doctorate is just a beginning, and a challenging but exciting path lies ahead.

D.Sc. Jonathan Mumford