Guidelines for doctoral thesis opponents and defence committee members

General requirements for Doctoral Thesis

A doctoral thesis in Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech) is an independent scientific work that demonstrates the candidate’s ability to conduct independent research. The scientific quality and amount of work should be approximately comparable to that of Nordic universities (Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark).

According to the quality insurance treaty of Estonian universities, a doctoral thesis has to be based on at least 3 peer-reviewed research papers (published or accepted for publication).

A doctoral thesis is an independent research paper that presents a novel solution to a significant problem in the research area of a doctoral study programme. A doctoral thesis shall be written either based on research papers or as a monograph.

General procedure

A doctoral student, who wishes to defend his/her thesis first gets an approval from the supervisor and submits the thesis to the Dean of the School of IT. The thesis will be then assessed by the Quality Assurance Committee of the School of IT. After the Quality Assurance Committee has approved the work, the Dean appoints opponents, defence committee and sets the tentative time and place for the defence.

The opponents are requested to send their brief pre-assessment of the quality of the work to the staff member of the Dean’s Office appointed by the Dean within one month after receiving the manuscript.

The thesis has at least two opponents and the pre-assessment will be treated as a „blind review“. The name of the opponent will not be disclosed when assessment is sent to the supervisor and the doctoral candidate.

Suggestions for revision can only be included in the thesis before the defence. After the thesis has been defended, it is no longer possible to make any changes to the thesis document.

If both opponents agree that the quality of the work is sufficient for awarding the PhD degree, the thesis will be published at least one month prior to the defence.

Role of the opponents

According to the regulation of TalTech, two external opponents are appointed by the School. Usually both opponents are from outside of Estonia although the regulations require only one foreign opponent. The opponent of the thesis is an internationally recognized expert in the area of the topic of the thesis. The opponents should not have conflict of interest with the candidate, they are independent unbiased experts.

The role of the opponents is to scrutinize the scientific work of the candidate to demonstrate that the candidate meets the quality criteria of the PhD degree. In particular, the Opponent should assess:

• Significance of the problem, clearness of the problem statement;
• Candidates mastery of his/her field of research including knowledge of the literature, excising research methods, technical skills for conducing the research;
• Quality and significance of the results;
• Candidate’s ability of critical thinking, including interpreting the results and drawing conclusions upon the results, assessment of his/her own quality of work and work process, ability to interpret the work in a wider context;
• Representation of the work, both in writing and orally.

As most of the publications in the School of IT are joint publications, it is also important to find out, what has been the candidate’s personal contribution and level of independence in the thesis’ work.

During the public defence the opponents are requested to conduct an academic dispute with the candidate. The dispute should clarify candidate’s ability to explain and critically assess his/her work, knowledge of the discipline, possibly also in a wider context, and independent thinking.

The communication prior to defence between the candidate and the opponent is not regulated as long as it assures unbiased judgment of opponents. It is not forbidden to submit some questions in advance (e.g. if they need additional analysis, checking facts or are simply too demanding to be answered without preparation), although this option is seldom used.

Role of Defence Committee Members

The Defence Committee is appointed by the Dean and consists of at least 6 members. Usually the two opponents are part of the Defence Committee. Traditionally, at least one Defence Committee member is from outside of TalTech.

The role of the Defence Committee is to make a decision about awarding the PhD degree to the candidate. While the main responsibility of examining the PhD candidate is on the two opponents, all Defence Committee members are free to rise concerns, ask clarifying questions, require more details or anything else that would help them with the judgment.

Defence procedure

Defence of a Doctoral thesis is a public event in Estonia. Its’ place and time will be announced on the university’s website one month prior to the defence. The final version of the thesis will be available in the TalTech library online at least one month prior to the defence.

In certain occasions the Dean can approve closed defence with only pre-registered participants (e.g. if the thesis contains classified material).

The defence procedure is led by the Chairman of the Defence Committee. The language of the defence has always been English but the tradition is that the Chairman will first start in Estonian and asks the permission from the Defence Committee to conduct the defence in English.

In the beginning the candidate will give a presentation of his/her work, which normally takes about half an hour. The candidate is advised to keep it on a rather general level to be understandable to the whole audience.

The defence procedure will then continue with the dispute between the opponents and the candidate. It is up to the two opponents to decide in which order they want to examine the candidate or do they do it intermittently. There is no fixed length of the dispute but it is recommended that it takes at least 45 minutes to permit examining the candidate with a sufficient scrutiny. It is up to the opponents to decide if they want to have the dispute standing or sitting. Usually the candidate is standing.

After the dispute between the candidate and the opponents, the rest of the members of the Defence Committee examine the candidate. While the main responsibility of examining the candidate is on the opponents, Defence Committee members clarify matters that are left uncovered by the opponents or not covered in sufficient depth according to their opinion. The time for examining the candidate is not limited but it is usually expected that every Defence Committee member will ask at least one question from the candidate.

After the Defence Committee has finished examining the candidate, questions and comments from the audience are taken.

The decision to award the Doctoral degree is made by the Defence Committee by secret majority voting immediately after the public defence and on a short closed meeting.

The duration of the defence is not limited but if it takes more than 4 hours, the Chairman will announce an interval. Usually the defence does not take more than 2 hours.

The dress code of the defence is business formal.

For more information see The Regulations for Doctoral Studies ch. 7 and 8.