Defend Dissertation With Distinction

By Cali Greksa

Last week, I successfully defended my honors thesis! The process of preparing for the defense was one that taught me a lot. Honors defenses differ slightly from department to department, but in the sociology department, I was expected to give a 10 to 15 minute presentation describing my project, which would be followed by a question and answer session with my three committee members. The whole thesis defense was scheduled to last an hour in total. One of the most challenging parts of preparing for the honors thesis defense was deciding what to talk about in just 15 short minutes. My entire thesis document ended up at a whopping 94 pages. So, my principal challenge was whittling away this monstrosity in order to touch on the main important points in my defense presentation. I decided to focus on my main findings including the pathways to atheism (background factors), precipitating factors (moments that spark a questioning phase), and experiences with an atheist identity. I also mentioned the role of college as more of an institutional moment that “crystallized” atheist “orientations” into identities for those participants who had not achieved an atheist identity until college (the minority of my 14 interview participants) or as a supportive normative context where participants were able to surround themselves with like-minded people and form in-groups where they felt relatively comfortable and accepted.

            I also added the limitations of my project, which included the setting (Boulder is one of the least religious cities in the U.S.) that could have played a major role in how accepted participants felt. Other limitations included the fact that the project included interviews, which have their own way of describing social phenomena at one point in time. I linked these limitations to indications for future research, which included performing interviews at multiple colleges or universities in a variety of geographical locations in order to see if atheists experienced less (or more) acceptance in other areas. Also, a longitudinal study (a study performed over a longer length of time) would be useful in determining whether my participants maintained their atheism even after leaving the university setting.

       I composed a 15-minute presentation including the above material and practiced it several times to prepare for my actual defense. On the day of my defense, despite my nerves, I gave a coherent presentation based on what I had practiced as well as the comments and feedback from my committee members. After my presentation, my committee members asked my questions about my project. Many of the questions challenged me to think about my project in different ways. For example, one member asked me to expand on the notion of spirituality and how the idea of being spiritual but not religious fit (or didn’t) with an atheist identity. Other questions challenged whether or not an atheist identity in a college setting really is a stigmatized one, especially since it seems as if atheists are able to find certain in-groups where they feel relatively accepted. I found it challenging to think on my feet, but managed to pull from my thesis document, my interviews, and the literature I read to try to carefully and completely answer the questions. Despite my nerves, the question and answer section of my defense was very enjoyable. My committee members treated me like the expert on my project, and asked questions more to spark a discussion rather than to stump me (which I appreciated), resulting in lively conversations.

After the question and answer portion of my defense, I was told to leave the room while my committee members discussed my honors designation. Overall, the entire defense process was quite enjoyable, and I learned quite a lot from the actual defense as well as the preparation.

The Faculty Council decides on the approval of the dissertation. It also decides on the grade of the dissertation after hearing the grade committee. The grading is based on the opponent's and preliminary examiners' statements.

The opponent is required to submit to the Faculty Council a reasoned written statement on the dissertation within two weeks of the public examination. If there is two opponents they can give a joint statement. The grading of the dissertation must also take into account the doctoral candidate’s defence of the dissertation at the public examination.

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

The Faculty Council appoints the dissertation grading committee after the proposal from the supervising professor (form). The grading committee consists of 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. The committee must include at least three members entitled to vote.

The grading committee makes a proposal of the grade of the dissertation. The proposal should take into account the scientific value of the dissertation and the doctoral candidate’s defence of the dissertation at the public examination. The proposal shoul also take into account the preliminary examiners' statements.

Assessment criteria in the faculty of science

The University of Helsinki, and thus also The Faculty of Science, assesses doctoral dissertations using the grades Pass with Distinction, Pass and Fail. Doctoral dissertations are graded by the Faculty Council. The dissertation grading committee proposes the grade. The documents that serve as the basis for the grading of doctoral dissertations include statements by the preliminary examiners, the opponent and the dissertation grading committee.

The approval and grading of doctoral dissertations is governed by Section 44 of the Universities Act (Act No 558/2009) and Sections 42–44 of the Regulations on Degrees and the Protection of Students’ Rights at the University of Helsinki. To supplement the above regulations, the Faculty of Science issued on 4 December 2012 instructions entitled “The doctoral dissertation and its preliminary and public examinations, approval and grading” as well as this decision on the Faculty’s dissertation assessment criteria and grade descriptions.

According to Government Decree No 794/2004 on University Degrees (Section 21), the objective of scientific  postgraduate education is that the student

  1. becomes well-versed in his or her own field of research and its social significance and gains knowledge and skills needed to apply scientific research methods independently and critically and to produce new scientific knowledge within his or her field of research;
  2. becomes conversant with the development, basic problems and research methods of his or her own field of research; and
  3. gains such knowledge of the general theory of science and of other disciplines relating to his or her own field of research as enables him or her to follow developments in them.

According to the Faculty’s decision, a doctoral dissertation is a consistent scholarly work based on independent research that makes an original contribution to knowledge. The author must master the most salient rules of academic writing and demonstrate an ability to produce independent and critical work. The research must be scientifically convincing and the results well-grounded. The research must be scientifically honest and meet the norms set for research ethics.

  • The significance and status of the research within the research field
  • The doctoral candidate’s contribution to the attainment of the dissertation’s research results
  • The scope of the work and adequacy of the research material
  • Application and development of the research methods
  • The deduction of results from the material studied
  • The consistency of the structure of the work
  • Familiarity with and use of the literature
  • The composition of the dissertation (presentation, style and language)
  • The doctoral candidate’s ability to defend his or her research at the public examination

The grade of Pass with Distinction will be awarded only to dissertations of exceptional quality under the assessment criteria. The purpose of the Faculty’s preliminary examination procedure is to ensure that the dissertation can be approved after its public examination. However, a dissertation study authored by a doctoral candidate who has been granted the right to defend his or her dissertation at a public examination must be failed if, in the light of the assessment criteria, the dissertation has serious deficiencies and cannot be deemed to fulfil the minimum requirements set for doctoral dissertations

A dissertation cannot be accepted at a Faculty Council meeting before the Faculty Office has received a written statement from the doctoral candidate, indicating that

  • the doctoral candidate has read the opponent’s statement
  • the doctoral candidate does not wish to object to the opponent’s statement or the grade proposed for the dissertation (Alternatively, the doctoral candidate can list his or her objections to the opponent’s statement and the proposed grade.) The Faculty has a form for this purpose.

The Faculty Office notifies the doctoral candidate of its decision on the acceptance of the dissertation.

According to the Regulations on Degrees and the Protection of Students’ Rights at the University of Helsinki, students dissatisfied with the grading of their Licentiate thesis or doctoral dissertation may appeal in writing to the Academic Appeals Board within 14 days of the receipt of the grading decision.  The Board can refer the grade back to the Faculty Council for reconsideration.

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