Two new doctors – and some notes on the procedures at a Swedish PhD defense

Dr Griekspoor Berglund and Dr Stedt. In the background is the department's coffee machine - a vital instrument for the completion of a thesis.

Dr Griekspoor Berglund and Dr Stedt. In the background is the department’s coffee machine – a vital instrument for the completion of a thesis.

By Jonas Waldenström

Last Friday, my student Johan Stedt* defended his thesis. And three weeks ago, Petra Griekspoor Berglund** did likewise. Two great students – now Dr Stedt and Dr Griekspoor Berglund! – each with an excellent thesis and a great final performance at the dissertation.

Listening to your student’s PhD defense is a great moment in a supervisor’s academic life. You can’t do anything – actually you are forbidden to even open your mouth – you just have to sit down, relax and enjoy the show. Of course, most of the suspense, the bottled-up anxiety lies with the student, but it is also nerve-wracking for the supervisor(s). You want the student to have a great show, so that they can really show the world how skilled they are in their subject field.

Each graduation system is different. In Sweden it is a public event. The auditorium consists of both family and colleagues, sometimes numbering up to a hundred. It is like a mini rock concert, with the student and the opponent on stage.

Typically, the student starts with a short introduction to his/hers studies, giving some backgrounds, aims and a glimpse on how the stuff was actually done. Then comes the faculty opponent, who should be an authority on the subject, and summarizes the content of the thesis in the light of the research field as a whole. So far so good – but then the questioning starts…

The opponent can ask all the questions he or she likes, from the broad strokes to the tiniest details in Table S12 in the appendixes. When it is good it is an enlightened discussion among peers, but when it is bad it is a pain that has to be endured. Usually it is somewhere in between. For Johan and Petra it was good, really good – a real pleasure to listen!

In the Swedish system the opponent is not part of the formal examination. This is instead done by a board of three academics, associate professors or full professors chosen to represent the width of the research field. When the opponent is satisfied with the questioning (after an hour or two), the committee is free to pepper away with a new set of questions. Sometimes it is only a question per panel member, but at times it can be a new fairly long session. Once they are finished the audience can also chip in with questions or comments.

Once everyone is happy, the chairman closes the session and the panel convene and discuss whether the thesis will pass or fail. And in fairness, they nibble on fruits and drink coffee too. Meanwhile the student perspires and waits.

Once the verdict has been delivered it is time for the party – the best part of it all! If it wasn’t for the headaches the day after…

A great shout out for Dr Griekspoor and Dr Stedt! You were amazing – as I knew you would!

The exhausted supervisor after two PhD defenses in three weeks' time-

The exhausted supervisor after two PhD defenses in three weeks’ time.

* Johan’s thesis was focused on antibiotic resistant bacteria in free-living gulls, where he investigated to what extent gulls can be used as sentinels for dissemination of resistant bacteria into the environment from human and food animal sources. Examples from his research can be found here and here in previous posts.

**Petra’s thesis was on host ecology and evolution of the zoonotic bacterium Campylobacter jejuni. Humans primarily acquire infections from contaminated food, in particular poultry products. However, wild birds – such as thrushes, gulls, shorebirds and ducks – are carriers too. By investigating the genetic relationships between isolates from different sources, Petra could show remarkable patterns of host associations in C. jejuni from wild birds. An example of her research can be found here.


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2 thoughts on “Two new doctors – and some notes on the procedures at a Swedish PhD defense

  1. Pingback: The “opponent” system: my experience at a Swedish PhD defence | Scientist Sees Squirrel

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