A Connoisseur’s Guide to the Etiquette and Enjoyment of Finnish Doctoral Defences

Written by Jaakko Stenros

The Finnish doctoral defence is a wonderful academic show. In these public examinations two people, the candidate and the opponent, who are both leading experts on the topic at hand, discuss the matter for as long and in as much detail as is needed. The audience listens in silence as no one can interrupt, except the third person on stage, the custos, who can declare a toilet break every two hours. In practice, the questioning usually cannot go over four hours – and a duration of two and a half hours is quite standard. But for that duration, this is an exercise in, and a celebration of, academic discourse.

I’m a connoisseur of doctoral defences, especially if they relate to my own field of game studies. I love learning from people who are at the top of their game, but I also just love the ritual. There is a lot of etiquette, pomp, and ceremony involved in doctoral defence, which means that it is one of the few places that have not been streamlined into empty efficiency. However, to fully appreciate all the intricacies of a defence, some background information is needed.

I have witnessed a few dozen defences in Finland mostly as an audience member, but I have also been a candidate and an opponent. For over a decade I have also provided live commentaries on defences on my Facebook wall. Drawing from this, in this text I explain the choreography and the etiquette of a Finnish doctoral defence in a way that will hopefully help audience members appreciate it more – and maybe also help future candidates and opponents better prepare for the event. This is how you enjoy one of the few old style academic ceremonies we still have left.

Note that the etiquette varies between universities and even faculties, but this is how it generally works based on enjoying defences at ten different Finnish universities. For a good alternative take, check out the description of events offered by Hanken.

Structure of the event

The doctoral defence, on paper, starts on the hour. The most common starting time is at noon, at 12:00. This is when the audience should be in the room. Sometimes they can pick up a copy of the printed thesis as they go in, although this is rarer nowadays. However, the thesis is almost always available freely and openly on the university library’s website. For the audience the ritual starts with waiting, as the doctoral candidate, the esteemed opponent, and the custos do not walk into the room until fifteen minutes after the announced time, following the tradition of the academic quarter of an hour.

Candidate Usva Friman (left) listens to the opening statement by opponent Emma Witkowski. Riikka Turtiainen is seated in the middle as custos.

As the candidate, the opponent, and the custos walk in, everyone in the audience stands up. The trio take their places in the front. After this the custos declares the discussion open. This is when the audience can sit down.

The candidate then has 20 minutes to present their thesis for the general audience. This is called lectio praecursoria. It is supposed to be fairly accessible and understandable, giving an overview of the thesis and motivating its meaning and importance. The lectio should not go overtime.

After the lectio the opponent gives their opening statement standing up. The candidate listens, also still standing. This is usually a fairly short, less than five-minute descriptive statement on the thesis. It is not supposed to be an in-depth investigation of the thesis (like, for example, in Sweden), nor is it supposed to be an over assessment of the work as that would be a spoiler (assessment is only at the end).

Candidate Jani Kinnunen and opponent Tanja Sihvonen discuss while custos Frans Mäyrä observes.

And then, after the preliminaries, the opponent and the candidate sit down and the discussion starts! The structure here is quite simple: The opponent asks questions, and the candidate answers. Usually there is a warm-up question or two (something like “What drew you to this topic?”) before diving into key concepts, theoretical structures, methodological concerns, specific clarifications, and such matters. The etiquette here is strict. The candidate should answer the questions, but they should not ask questions from the opponent. Indeed, they should not even comment on the questions in an assessing manner (“That’s a good question.”) as it is not their place to evaluate the opponent’s work. Still, these kinds of comments are common as they are usual conversational flourishes – and they fill the silence while the candidate ponders the question. The opponent and the candidate are also supposed to refer to each other either as “esteemed opponent” and “candidate” or by their titles and last names. However, it is nowadays quite common that the opponent announces that they have agreed to use each other’s first names. (Personally, I find this a shocking corruption of manners, but while I’m clutching my pearls, I do understand that it can make the situation less scary for the candidate. Even so, Finns use names so rarely anyway that such an agreement is moot.)

After a few hours the discussion is brought to a close. The opponent and the candidate stand up again, and the opponent reads their closing statement. This statement is an assessment of the work, highlighting its strengths and, if necessary, pointing out some weaker areas. The statement usually ends with the opponent proposing the dissertation is accepted.

Candidate Heikki Tyni defends his dissertation on Zoom.

After the closing statement the candidate offers the audience the chance “to ask the custos for the floor” to ask questions. This should not be mistaken as an invitation for a general Q&A. Only if audience members have questions that fundamentally shake the foundations of the work should they, through asking questions, assume the role of secondary opponents. This happens very rarely. (Of course, to complicate things, in some technical fields and in legal studies it is possible for the audience to just ask questions they are interested in at the end, but this is not done in game-related fields.) And thus, usually, after the candidate has asked this question, the custos waits for a few seconds – and then declares the discussion closed. The event has ended, everyone in the room stands up, the audience watches the trip exit, and then they can also leave the room. Usually there is coffee and cake as well as a possibility to congratulate the candidate and thank the opponent and custos.

Note that technically the candidate is not yet a doctor. Even if the opponent proposed the dissertation be accepted, the process still requires a formal assessment meeting, and that assessment needs to be formally accepted by the faculty council, usually a few weeks later. The title of the candidate after the defence is “doctor in spe” (or, in Finnish, the old master’s level title followed by “(väit.)”). The Latin “in spe” means “in hope” or “hopeful”.


There are five roles available in the drama that is the Finnish defence. While I have only served in three of these, I’ll do my best to offer tips to every role.

Candidate Tanja Välisalo delivers her lectio praecursoria while opponent Elizabeth Evans and custos Raine Koskimaa listen.

The star of the show is the candidate. Years of academic work culminate on this day. Few people ever get here – and almost always it is a once-in-a-lifetime event. It is quite terrifying being the centre of attention and being tested in such a public fashion. At the same time, everything in the defence is put together for them. They will get to talk about the thing they know the most about. I think the goal should be to try to enjoy the situation. If the candidate can overcome the anxiety and relax, then the defence will be awesome for everyone.

The key reason why the candidate can relax is because it is the opponent who is running the show. The candidate can only answer the questions the opponent asks, which means that the opponent is the dramaturg of the event. The best tips for the opponent that I have seen come from Susanna Paasonen, who has compared the role of the opponent to that of the professional dancers in Dancing with the Stars:

the opponent is the professional researcher who needs to come up with a choreography that makes it possible for the candidate – who is not yet quite professional – to show off her skills. This fails if the choreography is too easy but also if it’s too difficult. However, it’s crucial for there to be an element of challenge. It’s up to the opponent to ensure that this will be a good show.

The defence is mostly for show also for the reason that in order to get the permission to defend the thesis, the written thesis needs to have passed through pre-examination by two experts in the field. It is very rare that a thesis gets to this stage without being good enough. Even so, it is the opponent’s job to make the public examination of the thesis feel a little dangerous. But not too dangerous.

I have not yet served in the role of the custos. However, while the role of the custos seems particularly ceremonial and unnecessary – their job on stage is to keep the process going, and, historically, to stop the candidate and the opponent from physically fighting. This means that mostly they—do nothing. Indeed, watching the custos can be a lot of fun, since sometimes they are almost falling asleep, sometimes they very clearly would love to jump in and join the conversation, and sometimes they are a million miles away. However, the custos is the architect of the whole thing. Usually, this role is given to the primary supervisor of the candidate, which means that they are an important mentor of the candidate. If the thesis fails, then this is very much a mark of the custos-supervisor failing. They have also probably participated in the choosing of the opponent, and it is their job to brief the opponent. If the opponent does weird things, like spends 20 minutes giving a presentation or structures their questions to help the candidate shape the dissertation into a book (as is common in some countries, in Finland the dissertation is “the book”), then that is on the custos. However, if they have done their job well, during the defence they have almost nothing to do.

Doctoral defences are open events; anyone and everyone is welcome to join. No invitation is needed. Audience members are expected to arrive on time, sit calmly, and not ask talk during the proceedings. They stand up twice, once when the trio arrives and once when they leave. There is no official dress code for the audience. It is not unheard-of that people close to the candidate dress up, but it is more common to see people wearing something smart casual. (I have seen people show up even in sweatpants, but I did silently judge them.) If an audience member needs to slip out before the end, that is entirely possible, if ever so slightly rude. If it cannot be helped, position yourself close to the door and try to close the door silently. If you want to be extra courteous, ask the custos for permission to do this ahead of time. To have more fun in the audience, it is nice to set up a digital back channel with other audience members. While talking at a defence is not okay, it is completely okay to chat online.

The last role is rarest one: the extra opponent! At the end of the discussion, the candidate asks people in the audience to “ask the custos for the floor” if they have questions. If you have foundational issues with the work at hand, now is your time! The extra opponent stands up and gets to askes their questions after the custos has given them permission. I have never seen this happen, but it does happen from time to time. (Extra bit of etiquette: As the closed evening party after the defence, the karonkka, is organised in honour of the esteemed opponent, the candidate should invite the extra opponent also to the karonkka. And, importantly, the extra opponent must decline!)

How to Have Fun

I really love attending doctoral defences. Watching two knowledgeable academics talk about a topic on a very high level for as long as is needed is exciting and aspirational – even when, or even especially when, I cannot follow every part of the discussion. The explicit discussion usually interests me. However, I most enjoy a defence as an audience member if I get to geek out on the experience while it is happening and analyse it in real time with other. For this purpose, for years now I have had a comment thread on Facebook on, where I document the discussion, analyse everything from opponent’s questioning style to the candidate’s hair. Done this way, a defence can be enjoyable even if the explicit content goes over my head or is particularly dry and boring.

Five example snippets of moments captured from defence commentaries on Facebook.

(Obviously, there are ethical issues in relation to this kind of back channels. Since my commentaries theoretically reach over a thousand people, I ask for permission from the candidate and try to be respectful even when irreverent in the commentaries. So, think about who sees the commentary.)

It is interesting to track what names are being dropped in a defence. Especially the first name drop is usually very telling. Some years ago, game studies defence audiences would measure Time-to-Huizinga, as often the historian with an interest in play, Johan Huizinga, was the first name mentioned – and often very early in a defence. However, Katriina Heljakka’s record from year 2013 remains unbeaten. Her Time-to-Huizinga was minus 13 minutes, and she mentioned him in a slideshow that was playing for the audience as they were waiting for the trio to walk in. Cheeky, and fun way to play with the format! In the last five years the name that most commonly comes up seems to be Canadian game scholar Mia Consalvo – who has also served as opponent in Finland many times.

Candidate Jaakko Stenros and opponent Miguel Sicart have moved to the white board. Previous to this, the opponent asked permisson from custos Frans Mäyrä if he could introduce fake mustaches as part of his line of questioning.

During the corona years remote defences also became a thing. It took a moment for the form to adapt to the online environment. It used to be that defences were not filmed; the ritual was an ephemeral thing, to be experienced as it happened and never to be seen again. After the zoom defences of the pandemic, nowadays live streaming is common. This means that there is more technical problems (are the cameras, microphones, and speakers working), which means more work for the custos (and additional tech staff). It is also wonderful to see the tension between the efficient and quotidian online meeting – and the formal defence. Having the opponent in full regalia on zoom just seems odd, which I find wonderfully entertaining. Also, the opponent needs to stand up at the beginning and end. This can be done by standing behind one’s desk, but then the camera angle is all wrong. I still fondly recall how René Glas stood up slowly and also lifted up his electric table. It created a wonderful ritualistic moment as everyone was silently waiting as the table (and the camera mounted on it) slowly lifted and hummed as it did so.

Candidate Kati Alha and opponent Kelly Boudreau discuss on Zoom. On a back channel defence afficionado Jukka Särkijärvi analysed the opponent’s environment: “Dr Boudreau’s bookshelf game is solid. The backdrop is… a game bookshelf! The digital game is positioned as an object of information and learning. They have not, however, supplanted the books, which are placed within easy reach – The Art of Game Design (Schell, 2008) is prominent. The traditions of academia, the diploma and the research literature, are on the close wall to her right, while the modernity and whimsy of game studies loom behind. In lieu of the traditional anthropologist’s decoration of the African mask, it appears we have Vault Boy.”

As every part of the defence is ripe for analysis, it is also interesting to see what is behind the people as they participate in a remote defence. Is there a bookshelf on display? What is on it? Or is there a background image? What does it communicate?

Candidate Joseph Macey (standing) defends his dissertation in a discussion with opponent Zsolt Demetrovics (on Zoom). Juho Hamari serves as custos. The opponen’s chosen background image was througly deconstructed in back channel analysis

Finally, as every aspect of the show can and should be appreciated through analysis, there is the dress code. While the audience can show up in whatever clothes they like, the dress code for the trio onstage is very strict. In the posh, older universities in the capitol area of Helsinki, and the former capitol of Turku tend to go all in with an academic white tie. This means that dudes and other people leaning into a masculine vibe wear white tie (tailcoat, frakki in Finnish). Women and others going for a feminine look wear a black dress, possibly paired with a white blouse. Accessories and jewellery should also be white, but only the hyper correct snobs would accept only pearls. And, it goes without saying, that as defences take during the day, people putting on a tailcoat will wear a black vest instead of the much more usual white vest, and people wearing a black dress will cover their shoulders. In addition, the custos and the opponent will carry in their hand (and not on their head as we are indoors) their doctoral hats. (The official dress code does not offer non-binary options at the moment, but it seems that in practice elegant black clothes with white or silver accessories is the way to go.) In the newer (and historically redder) universities it is common to downgrade from white tie to dark suit or pant suit. It is the candidate that usually gets to decide how post the dress code is. (All candidates usually also have great styling, hair, and make-up at their defences!)

The wonderful wild card in dress code is the attires of the international opponents. They wear the full regalia of their own university, with capes and gowns and even indoor hats. To a Finnish eye these often have a Hogwarts quality, which is obviously awesome.


All in all, there is a lot to appreciate and get excited about in a Finnish game studies doctoral defence. Of course, this can all also seem a bit much and the etiquette can feel like gate keeping. That is one reason why I wanted to write this text: to help demystify the event. I still remember, as a baby scholar confused by the intricacies of the defence, when Olli Sotamaa took me aside and excitedly explained the proceedings to me. His enthusiasm and love for defences was contagious. So, this is me paying it forward.  

There is power in knowing etiquette – because then you can transgress against intentionally and deliberately. Knowing the etiquette helps in noticing when other people have decided to break with tradition. This is not unheard of in game studies, and I like that. Playing around is fun, but it is better to know the rules before breaking them.

See you at the next doctoral defence! Let’s celebrate scholarship, knowledge, perseverance, bildung, and academic debate!

Doctor Stenros, Doctor Nummenmaa, Doctor Montola, Doctor Honoris Causa Paananen, Doctor Kultima, Doctor Koivisto, and Doctor Harviainen at the last doctoral conferment ceremony of University of Tampere.

(Last note: If you came here looking for information about the Finnish doctoral swords, I’m sorry to disappoint you. They are very much a thing, but they do not come out until the doctoral conferment ceremony (promootio in Finnish) where on the first day of the three day ritual the swords are sharpened with a whet stone and champagne.)

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