A Dissertation Defense, Finish Style

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Paul Richardson

by Paul Richardson (VIMS technician)

After many years of graduate school, students are expected to defend all of the work they’ve done before they receive their degree. Doctoral defenses in the States are pretty intense and generally consist of a public lecture followed by public and private questioning session that can last for hours. I’d been told that European defenses can be much more elaborate and so, when I heard that one was scheduled for a Finnish student here at Åbo Akedemi I decided that I must go! Camilla, a graduate student here helping with the ZEN work, invited me with the instructions to bring my dress pants and dancing shoes. And my new Swedish language skills as the defense would not be in English. So, I woke up early and rode my borrowed bike in my dress pants with my backpack the 10 km to the little town on Korpo Island to catch the bus for the two hour ride to Åbo Akedemi’s Bio City in Turku.

Once I got to Turku I went to the Domis, which is Åbo Akademi University’s housing for guests.  The Domis is a very Spartan grey concrete institutional building with more locks that Fort Knox (a military base in the USA).  Once I penetrated the outer perimeter I met the very friendly Anita Bruman Tott who checked me in.  One of the first things I recall her asking me was, “hey, are you the TV guy?” I guess my cameo on the Finnish TV talking about seagrasses has made me slightly famous here!

The fee for staying at the Domis was quite reasonable at 30€.  It turns out the room was just as Spartan as the rest of the building and the bathroom was a little cramped, but the bed was very comfortable, the view was pleasant, and later that night, I slept like a baby.

Since the defense was a formal affair, I recognized that I was grossly underprepared in the wardrobe department The only suit I’d brought with me was my wetsuit and, despite the fact that we are marine ecologists, showing up to the defense salty and smelly probably wasn’t the best way to go, even if it would have been funny (and uncomfortably hot!). Christoffer let me raid his closet and I came up with a tie and a slightly too small sport jacket. In need of a dress shirt, after checking into Domis I went straight to the mall.  The salesman had a good laugh when I came out of the dressing room with the brand new shirt on (with all of the tags still attached) under the tie and sport coat.  He cut the tags and rang me up.

All dressed up I headed downtown toward Bio city, grabbing a snack along the way as I had been warned that the defense would take several hours.  Realizing that the defense would be starting soon, I picked up the pace. Camilla called me and, after asking where I was, told me to quickly get on a bus as I wouldn’t make it in time. They are very punctual here in Finland and if I was even a minute late I risked being locked out of the “proceedings!” So, I backtracked quickly to a bus stop and crossed my fingers that the first bus I hopped on was the most direct one to the university.

Thank goodness for the effective mass transit of Turku!  , I made it just in time. The door closed right as I sat down. Right away, three well groomed gentlemen walked inside wearing very nice suits – one even had a top hat!  Everyone in the auditorium stood. We stayed standing until someone gave a signal to sit and everyone sat in unison. I started to wonder – is this a dissertation defense or a court of law? Cameras started clicking away, preserving this momentous occasion, and so I went to get mine. That’s when I realized that I’d left it on the bus! That was bummer. Luckily Camilla had a camera and shared her photos with me.

Grand entrance of the candidate, professor and challenger in Finland

Before I forget, the student defending his defense was Matias Scheinin. His advisor,  Johanna Mattila, was wearing the top hat. The third gentleman was the “challenger,” an external reviewer flown in to test the student’s knowledge, from Sweden, Peter Eklöv.

After introductions, Matias launched into the formal hour-long presentation of his work on the “Patterns and processes of littoral zooplankton composition in relation to the trophic state of the environment.” The defense was in Swedish, but luckily for me, the presentation slides were in English. His work on the zooplankton ecology of the Baltic was very interesting. One of his experiments involved natural mesocosms, which consisted of coves in islands (called flads) that had varying communities with varying levels of predation by different fishes including roach (Rutilus rutilus) and perch (Perca fluviatilis). The take home message from that experiment for me was that differences in vegetation (presence or absence of submerged aquatic vegetation) affected the feeding rates of perch, but did not affect roach feeding.  I’d seen a lot of roach around the docks at the field station, so it was very interesting to learn more about their ecology.

Graduate student Matias answers questions at his PhD defense

After the formal presentation the challenger, Peter Eklöv, critiqued Matias’ dissertation for the next two and half hours in front of the entire audience! This was very different from the defenses I’d seen back in the States where the professors grill the student in a closed door session after the public presentation.  All of the interrogation was in Swedish, so it was difficult for me to follow. Eventually  the whole thing was adjourned and we went to begin the celebrations – Matias had passed the exam and was now going to be a PhD!


Celebrating the new PhD!

In close vicinity to the auditorium the toasts began. In English we say cheers, but in Swedish they say skål (pronounced skole or skull). Then everyone dispersed and met back at the reception hall a few hours later.  At the reception there was another toast outside in the lavish entry lobby and then, once again, the well-dressed crowd walked in and stood behind their chairs until given the signal to sit and the toasts resumed.  Then there was an introduction to the buffet menu, which included rostad sik med pepparratssmörsås och honungsrostad rödbeta (roasted whitefish with peppercorns and honey roasted beetroot) for the main course and a wonderful äppelpaj med kardemummås (apple pie with cardamom) for dessert.  Dessert was served with a selection of Scotch whiskies and cognacs and coffee, plus many more toasts, roasts, skits and power point presentations.  Matias experienced a thorough hazing, all in good humor of course.

After dinner Matias’ brother-in-law and his all physician rock band played many great tunes ranging from the Rolling Stones, to Parliament, to Alanis Morrissette interspersed with very good Finnish rock songs (I couldn’t understand the words but they totally rocked!).  Ultimately things wound down around 1:30 AM . While the others headed off to the “after-party” celebrations, I carried my old bones back to my Domis room to sleep.

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