What are the specifics of a dissertation defence at St Petersburg University? How can the candidate for a degree prepare for this procedure? Pavel Skutschas, an associate professor at St Petersburg University and researcher of Mesozoic vertebrates, has recently defended his advanced doctoral dissertation in accordance with the new regulations developed by the University for dissertation defence. He shares his observations and recommendations.

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In 2016, St Petersburg University received the right to conduct dissertation defences on its own terms. Last September, all Dissertation Councils for Awarding Academic Degrees and Titles (regulated by the Russian Higher Assessment Committee, or VAK) were closed at the University.

Doctoral dissertation is a summary of scientific activities

A doctoral dissertation eligible for defence on the University’s own terms must be a summary of all scientific activities of the candidate. The subject of my dissertation is “Early Stages in the Evolution of Salamanders and the Transition from Stem- to Crown-group Salamanders”. To put it simply, I described the evolutionary development of these amphibia from their ancient and primitive forms to modern species. I personally collected many of the specimens – ancient remains – in expeditions. In my dissertation, I reported on my long-lasting palaeontological studies and explained what results had been achieved and why it was important. Such a “summary” should not be long and mine took about 70 pages only.

The average volume of a doctoral dissertation written in accordance with the VAK rules is 300 pages. I think, such an array of text is redundant. For example, in their dissertation the candidate must enumerate all the materials they have analysed. In accordance with the University’s regulations, it is not necessary; therefore, my work does not list hundreds of specimens, but refers to scientific articles where all necessary data can be found.

The Dissertation Council is set up for a specific defence

According to the St Petersburg University rules, the Dissertation Council is established for each specific defence, and it is the University Academic Secretary determines the final composition of such a Council.

In my opinion, the Dissertation Council that was formed for my dissertation defence turned out very competent. The work was evaluated by highly qualified Russian experts who study the problems of palaeontology, evolution, and zoology. Our colleagues from the UK and Germany studying ancient salamanders joined the defence process through real-time communications.

However, in my case it was not easy to find candidates qualified for the Dissertation Council. First, he or she should be not only an advanced doctoral degree holder but a specialist and researcher in the subject of the dissertation to be defended (this is an essential requirement). In addition, he or she should not have joint scientific publications with the candidate. To find such a specialist in ancient salamanders was quite difficult (scientific communities in specific palaeontological subjects are quite small in number) but I managed the task.

Another difficulty is to find candidates for the Dissertation Council among foreign scientists. The Doctor of Sciences degree is awarded neither in the USA nor in most Western European countries, so it took time to ascertain the level of scientific qualification of a particular foreign scientist and their eligibility for the Dissertation Council.

The whole world evaluates your scientific work

In accordance with the University’s regulations, the dissertation is published in open access on the St Petersburg University website both in Russian and in English so that any person could read the work and express their opinion. Therefore, my work became accessible not only to foreign researchers from the Dissertation Council but to many others.

The doctoral dissertation, reviews of the opponents, conclusion of the Dissertation Council and video recording of the dissertation defence of Pavel Skutschas, Associate Professor at St Petersburg University and an expert in Mesozoic vertebrates, are available here.

For example, my colleague Jason Anderson, a palaeontologist from Canada, noted that the volume of my dissertation and free online access to the text make it possible to get a quick firsthand view of my studies of ancient salamanders without reading all my publications. In his review, Jason noted that he would recommend my dissertation as a workbook to his students.

By the way, right after my defence Susan Evans from England, one of the members of the Dissertation Council, received funding for the research of ancient Scottish salamanders. She will probably visit Russia to study the Siberian species, too. I hope this will be the beginning of our joint work.

The presentation takes a quarter of an hour

In accordance with the University’s regulations, the candidate for the Doctor of Sciences degree must deliver a report. Its duration is determined by the candidate himself and the members of the Council. In my case, the time assigned for the presentation was 15 minutes. It was a serious challenge to report on my scientific activities in so short a time, but I managed to get through in 13 minutes. It seems to me that the secret of success is simple: to make concise theses.

The candidate may submit his report in Russian or English. I prepared my speech in Russian since most of the documents related to the defence procedure should be read out in Russian. So far as the whole procedure is provided with simultaneous interpreting you may use any of the two languages for the presentation and discussion.

The day before the defence I worried about some possible disturbance that could ruin the plan. But the University services that maintained the procedure were quite efficient. In particular, I worried about how the virtual presence of the foreign members of the Council would be arranged but everything went smoothly: there were no glitches during the online activities and the simultaneous interpreters were equal to the task.

However, there was one unplanned situation when a British member of the Dissertation Council had confused the defence time because of the difference in time zones. But the problem was solved promptly.

You are to print out but the tea party is of individual choice

The defence of the dissertation does not require much spending. I printed out ten copies of my doctoral dissertation and bought envelopes to mail the copies forward to libraries (this is mandatory). The members of the Dissertation Council read the dissertation in electronic form; reviews were not printed out either; so the whole document circulation did not cost anything.

After the defence I arranged a modest tea party during which we were able to discuss the dissertation and defence in the informal atmosphere. However, the tea party was my initiative; it depends on the candidate’s choice.

The candidate needs a personal curator

All stages of the defence are expounded in official instructions and other documents but personal communication is lacking. In my opinion, the defence procedure would be more accessible and intelligible for the candidate if he had a curator. It’d be great to have an assigned official who could advise you of all the questions and accompany you on all stages of the defence. Such a system will help the candidate to ease the strain and avoid conflict situations. On the last stage of my defence, two or three weeks before the presentation, there appeared such a person, and it made me feel very comfortable. By the way, about the need for a personal curator: I talked to a candidate who had already passed through the defence procedure in accordance with the University’s regulations but even he could not answer all of my questions.

MAIN STAGES OF DEFENCE IN BRIEF

  1. Writing a dissertation is a registration of all scientific results obtained. For the candidate, this is probably the most pleasant of all stages, of course, besides the defence itself. The main thing is to comply with all requirements to the content and design of the dissertation.
  1. Submitting the documents. Apart from the application form and other documents, the candidate is to prepare their dissertation for publishing in open online access. At this stage, everyone can read the dissertation and decide whether the scientific achievements of the researcher allow qualifying him or her for an academic degree. There are also other requirements. For example, the candidate for the Doctor of Sciences degree must have at least 12 publications in the Scopus and Web of Science-indexed journals.
  1. Forming a Dissertation Council. Comprising the list of competent candidates, a lot of work should be done to take into account all requirements and terms of the Council formation.
  1. Preparing for the defence. It is important to prepare a most concise presentation and be ready to answer questions. Before the day of the defence, it is worth double-checking everything, to make sure that all managerial, substantial and other issues are worked out.

Pavel Skutschas acknowledges the support of Professor Alexander Averianov, the staff of the Department of Vertebrate, and his students at the University. He also thanks his mother and grandmother who approved of his professional choice in childhood. Special thanks the researcher expresses to his Canadian colleague Jim Garner who helped Pavel to write the English version of the dissertation.