Five things I learned under a doctoral dissertation

Before sharing my main key learnings about a doctoral dissertation, I want to disclose that this is my first time being in an audience of a doctoral defense. Hence, some of the findings may be obvious to some readers. The following are the key learnings from Sarasvuo, Sonjas doctoral defence on her doctoral thesis in Marketing “Coherence or diversity in corporate identity? – Varying perceptions of the company as sources for corporate branding” on the 18th of March:

1. What a Doctoral defense is

If you are just as new to the world of academia as I am, it is good to start this blog post off by explaining what a doctoral defense is and how it is executed. The thesis defense is one of the last steps of graduating as a doctoral candidate. It is an oral presentation that allows the student to present their research and defend their thesis topic in front of a panel of professors. In Sonja’s thesis she discusses how the perception of different stakeholders (customers, employees etc.) of the company affects its branding.

You can find the complete doctoral thesis here:

2. Who is who and who does what

A Doctoral defense is a hierarchic process that includes several people with different titles. To get a bit of clarity I thought that it would be a good idea to go through the titles and further explain their role.

Sylvia von Wallpach, Copenhagen Business School was the opponent for this doctoral defense. An opponent is an expert in the specific field of the thesis and is usually someone who lacks formal professional relation with the respondent.

Custos (Latin for keeper, custodian or guard) means in a doctoral defense a professor or an Associate Professor at the faculty (in this case Hanken) that is appointed to act as the “chair”, or you could even say as the host in the public examination. Their role is to make sure that the questions asked to the doctoral student are on topic as well as introducing the doctoral candidate and the opponent to the audience. During Sonja’s defense, Jaakko Aspara acted on behalf of Hanken as custos.

In addition to the Custos and Opponent, the grading committee needs to attend the public examination. The grading committee then proposes to the faculty (again, in this case Hanken) a grade for the dissertation.

3. There is a dress code

Even though the doctoral dissertation took place online, the opponent, custos and doctoral candidate were formally dressed. Aspara dressed in a suit with a bowtie, whilst the opponent and doctoral candidate were dressed in the colors of academia: black dresses with white accessories. Saravuo had even followed the jewelry recommendation and could be seen wearing pearls. White headphones could be seen as a part of the accessories which under these Covid-19-times acts as the cherry on top of the cake. Candidates’ family, colleagues or friends are not obliged to follow the same dress code. Still, when the defense is not held online, the audience tends to dress up.

4. There is a time limit

The public examination proceeding starts with a so-called lectio, an introductory presentation by the doctoral candidate. A lectio should be a short introduction of the problems dealt with in the dissertation and should be around 20 minutes. One could compare a lectio to a walk through the thesis.

After the lectio the opponent may take up a maximum of four hours for the examination. In Sonja’s doctoral dissertation it did take under 2 hours meaning there was no need for a break. The opponent’s talking turn should not exceed four hours.

5. Formality

There’s an option to not address the opponent and custos by usual formalities. This means that the doctoral candidate doesn’t need to use madam or mister. before addressing them. Under this public examination, first names were even used.


I hope that the things I picked up during Saravous’ thesis defense gave an insight on how a thesis defense is built up. Even though the findings may be obvious, I wish to bring up this as an opportunity to apply for our PhD-studies at Hanken. For more information of how to apply click on the link below.


Wilhelmina Syrenius
Coordinator at CERS, Hanken