Structure and criteria of doctoral dissertations

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The doctoral dissertation and related research are the most significant and extensive part of a doctoral degree. The University of Helsinki does not measure dissertations in credits, but their scope has been calculated to correspond to approximately 200 credits. A doctoral dissertation is a consistent scholarly work based on independent research that makes an original contribution to scientific knowledge. It can be a monograph or based on articles. In the natural sciences, dissertations are typically based on articles. The humanities and social sciences have traditionally preferred monographs, although the number of article-based dissertations is continuously increasing in these domains, with most dissertations already being article-based in such fields as the educational sciences.

General dissertation criteria

Article-based dissertations consist of several peer-reviewed scholarly publications or manuscripts accepted for publication as well as a summarising report on them. A monograph dissertation is a scholarly work on a single topic issued under the name of the author alone and based on previously unpublished research results. In exceptional cases, a doctoral dissertation may also take another form, provided it meets the appropriate scholarly criteria and the doctoral student’s independent contribution to it can be verified.

Regardless of the chosen format, the dissertation must always make an original contribution to scientific knowledge. The dissertation should demonstrate the doctoral candidate’s critical thinking skills and profound familiarity with the topic as well as his or her knowledge of key research methods in the field and competence in their application. The research results presented in the dissertation must be justified, scientifically convincing and sustainable in terms of research ethics. Faculties assess dissertations on consistent criteria that are announced in advance. You and your supervisors should acquaint yourselves with the criteria at the outset of your dissertation work.

The topic of your dissertation should be clearly defined so that you are not overwhelmed by an excessive workload. Remember that the dissertation is just the first step on your career path as a researcher and should not take you forever to complete. You and your supervisor should together limit the topic and content of the dissertation in such a way that you can complete the dissertation and the doctoral degree in approximately four years of full-time study.

A completed dissertation always includes a one- or two-page abstract outlining the objectives or research questions of the dissertation, as well as the key research methods, results and conclusions.

Article-based dissertations

Article-based dissertations consist of scholarly publications focusing on the same research problem as well as a summarising report.

The summarising report is the core of an article-based dissertation: it must present the background, objectives, methods, material, results, discussion and conclusions of the research. It must be a balanced work based on both the publications included in the dissertation and the research literature. Its recommended length varies by faculty, so read your faculty’s instructions before writing the report. For practical tips on how to write a good summarising report, we recommend for example this blog post by researchers from Tampere University.

As a rule, the publications included in an article-based dissertation must have been published or approved for publication. However, article-based dissertations can also contain articles that have not yet been accepted for publication. In such cases, the preliminary examiners will pay particular attention to articles that have not yet been peer-reviewed. A typical article-based dissertation includes a summarising report and three to five scholarly articles. The number of articles required depends on their scope, scientific quality and significance, and publishing forum as well as the author’s independent contribution to any co-authored articles included in the dissertation. Read your faculty’s instructions for article-based dissertations, including the sections relevant to the above, at the outset of your dissertation work.

Article-based dissertations can include co-authored publications – indeed, such articles are the rule rather than the exception in some disciplines. However, if your dissertation includes co-authored articles, you must be able to clearly demonstrate your contribution to them. You and your supervisor must together write an informal report on your contribution to each co-authored article. You are strongly recommended (and in some faculties, required) to have the report approved by the other authors of the articles in question.

Monographs

The recommended scope of a monograph is 250 pages, excluding appendices. Monographs must be previously unpublished, but doctoral students writing a monograph need not keep their findings under lock and key until the public examination. While working on their monograph, students can publish articles related to the dissertation topic and then refer to them in the completed dissertation using common referencing practices.

Other types of dissertations

Some faculties accept dissertations that differ from the format of a monograph or an article-based dissertation, provided the work otherwise meets the scholarly criteria set for dissertations. Decisions on the scope and structure of such dissertations are made by the faculty council of the relevant faculty at the proposal of a doctoral programme. As a rule, however, all dissertations must be monographs or article-based, and the acceptance of other types of dissertations is exceedingly rare at the University of Helsinki.

Faculty-specific grading criteria and additional requirements for article-based dissertations

The faculty-specific criteria for evaluating doctoral theses and the possible additional requirements placed on article-based dissertations are available on your home faculty’s external website, in the instructions aimed at the examiners of doctoral theses. Getting acquainted with the instructions aimed at the examiners is a recommendable idea in general, as it will give you a good idea of how your final doctoral thesis will be evaluated. However, do not forget that reading only the instructions aimed at the examiners is not enough – when you are ready to submit your doctoral thesis for preliminary examination, do not forget to read the instructions aimed at doctoral students about to get started with the examination process of their doctoral thesis. All those instructions are available elsewhere on this site.

More information

The general criteria for doctoral theses at the University of Helsinki have been defined in the Rector's decision 498/2017. Some faculties have additional, specifying criteria related to e.g. the evaluation of doctoral theses and the composition of article-based dissertations.