Applying for PhD defense at Karolinska Institutet

So you are nearing the end of your PhD at KI, and need to start planning and applying for defense. Maybe you are in a group that has done this process 50 times, in which case you might not need this help. However, when I found myself at the time that I needed to apply for defense, I realized I am the first PhD student in my group, and so navigating the application process included a bit of “figuring things out”. Some things are clear and well documented, others are rather mysterious. None of it is hard, but around this period we are usually freaking out, so even small hurdles can cause stress, and it’s really not needed when someone can just tell you how it works. Now that all the application stuff is over, I’ve had multiple fellow-PhD-defenders contact me to clarify things. So, I figured there are probably more of us out there, freaking out about the ins and outs of the application process, and I decided it could be useful to write a guide based on my own experience. Additionally, I’ve also been a student representative in the dissertation committee (the ones you send your application to), and I think it will be helpful for both you and the committee if you have an idea of how it all works. So, here we go!

What this guide is NOT:

  • How to write your thesis, but there are seminars on this topic organized by KI library. The ones coming up now are in March (Solna) and May (Flemingsberg).
    All their workshops can be found here.
  • How to prepare for the defense itself (tips for presenting, etc). I’m sure there are books and sites out there about that too.


What it IS:

  • A rather bullet-point-style and still very long post with tips to navigate the administrative part of applying for defense.
  • Additional info to the official guidelines by KI. This website has the official info, so follow it! I just found that some things weren’t clear or explained, and hopefully this post can clear that up.
  • A suggestion based on my experience, applying in fall 2018. I’m sure that things can change and links can break, so use at your own risk 🙂


Confusing terms: committee vs board

Based on what KI used on the website about defense, this post uses the following definitions:

  • The dissertation committee is a group of professors and other representatives (like PhD students) who look at the defense application documents, and check if you fulfill all official requirements. They decide if you are allowed to defend.
  • Your dissertation board is made up of the people you select to judge your papers, thesis and defense. They decide if your defense was successful and if you get to be a doctor (the PhD type at least).


So, what do I need to defend?

  • Credits for courses and other activities: The rules change sometimes, which causes a lot of confusion. The rules that apply to you depend on when you were registered as a PhD student, and can be found here.
  • Assuming you are in my generation, meaning you fall in the group of PhDs admitted between the 1st of July 2013 and the 31st of December 2017, the rules for you are that you need minimum 30 credits, as follows:
    • Compulsory: min 7.5 credits (you should have had this by halftime)
      • Statistics: min 1.5
      • Research ethics: min 1.5
      • Others like writing, presenting, bioinformatics (see document for full list): remaining to get up to 7.5 total credits
    • Possibly compulsory for you: (depending on your individual study plan)
      • Science of lab animals: 4.5
      • Human physiology or pathology: 3
    • Other courses: min 9 credits
    • Other credit bearing activities: min 6 credits
      • Presentation (poster/oral) on international conference: min 1.5, max 4.5
      • Exchange to another lab: max 6
      • Seminar series and journal clubs: min 1.5, max 6
      • Teaching: max 3
  • Papers: the current rules are in the fittingly named document “Rules for doctoral education at Karolinska Institutet”
    • At least 2 original (not review) papers, published or accepted for publication (without conditions), of which you are an author.
    • All papers and manuscripts together should be equivalent of 4 years of work
  • 800% activity by time of defense (equivalent to 4y full time)
  • Exceptions might be made, but need argumentation, depend on the circumstances and you can expect that it will take more time to try to make it happen than if everything perfectly follows the requirements
  • A last thing you need before you defend, not because you have to from KI but because it is useful for you, is getting stuff in order so you can get unemployment benefit in case you defend and don’t have a now job lined up already. To get this, you need to be part of a union and pay A-kassa for minimum 1 year before you will need the unemployment benefit. More info by the postdoc association at KI can be found here, and more general info by KI here.



Let me start off with my main tip: Start planning way ahead, and include time for things to go wrong! Now, chances are you are already halfway down the process and think “Gee, thanks Ayla, would have been useful to know that 6 months ago!”, in which case I guess you’ll just have to make to best of it 🙂
The idea is that you can only put in an application when you fulfill all requirements, so plan for when you think that will happen, and add some buffer time. The earliest defense date will depend on that, so check the overview of committee meetings and dates.

A rough and messy timeline could look like this (organized around when you will fulfill requirements and can and want to defend)

  • Decide on papers
  • Collect all needed ethical permits (if you don’t have them you can’t use the papers)

(Continuously during this time, now that you know your content: write thesis)

  • Come up with possible opponents and board members, check conflicts of interest
  • Look for room availability around desired date
  • Ask possible opponent and board members
  • Settle on a date, have some back-up dates and board members if you can
  • Book a room
  • Find a date for the nailing
  • Set up a “Må spikas” date
  • Contact printer to get a time-plan, based on “Må spikas” date (though there is still a change that your application is denied, so it’s not sure yet)
  • Get courses approved and credits transferred
  • Fill out application
  • Get signatures from supervisors and department (book time with them in advance)
  • Submit application (remember: these titles, location, time,… specified in this application need to be kept, unless you apply for change)
  • Get green light from committee
  • Now you are relatively sure about your defense, so contact or conform with printer
  • Share thesis, papers, application (form 9) and form 10 with board (the version of the papers you share now is the one that needs to be printed, even if you have continued working on your manuscripts)
  • If you haven’t heard from the committee 2 weeks after sharing your documents with the board: Contact your handläggare (contact person for your case) in the committee to remind the board to send their answer
  • Get green light from board
  • Finish thesis
  • Submit test thesis to printer +  pick up (same day)
  • Make needed changes
  • Submit final thesis to printer
  • Upload kappa for e-nailing
  • Get thesis delivered from printer
  • Må spikas
  • Nailing
  • Send out thesis
  • Defense

This whole thing probably took about 6 months for me, but I made the time plan about a year before defense. Also, this is the amended version, some of the steps I did a bit on the later side, or in “the wrong order”, so this suggestion would be more comfortable I think 🙂 KI also provides some timeline versions, have a look at them here and here.


Selecting papers

  • As said before, you can use any paper that creates new data/content (not normal reviews etc) of which you are an author (don’t need to be first author!), but all papers you include you will need to defend, so make sure you have something to say about them!
  • Of course, discuss with your supervisor and the first/last authors of the papers.
  • Collect copies of ethical permits (full application and approval) in time, if they are not in order the paper(s) can’t be used for defense.
  • You need min 2 papers published or accepted for publication (not “accepted if you change this and that”) by the time you put in your application.
  • In addition to those two, you can add manuscripts (not published or accepted) to show what work you have done, and that it is equivalent to 4y of PhD.
  • Note: using papers can influence other PhDs using it for their defense (as you need to let the committee know if the paper has been or will be used again in a PhD dissertation). It’s not that it can’t be used twice, but it will still be looked at.


Selecting board, opponent and chairperson

  • Which topics need to be covered? Do you use a specific method? Study a specific disease? If the committee finds that not all relevant fields are covered, they might ask you to switch board members, and this means you lose time.
  • Board members need to be at least Docent, opponent needs to at least hold a PhD. There are exceptions, where you can argue that a person is the equivalent of Docent, but be aware that if the committee doesn’t agree, you will lose time and have to come up with another board member.
  • Check conflicts of interest before you ask people! Search all combinations of [you or any of your supervisors] with [opponent or any committee members] in PubMed. There can’t be any hits for the last 5 years, and no “big amount” (e.g. double digits) before that. Multi-center studies can be allowed (if there really was no collaboration, but you just ended up on the same big paper), but they need to be explained in the application! Any supervision-supervised relationship counts as conflict for life, for example: an old supervisor or supervisee of one of your supervisors can’t sit in your board.
  • Keep in mind: we often see the opponent as the most prestigious position, which might be true as this person plays a very active role, but this is not the one who will actually decide if you pass, that is the board.
  • Now that you have people who have the right credentials and don’t have conflicts of interest, who is willing and available? You will probably need to contact multiple people who can “cover the same topic” (e.g. your main method or biological system) to put together a set of people that cover all topics and can all come on the same day. It takes time!
  • When asking if they want to take part, send out info for board an opponent, especially if it is the first time they take up this role and/or are not from Sweden and might not be aware of what is expected.
  • Remember that you might have to book and pay flights and hotel if opponent comes from abroad.
  • About selection and more details on conflict of interest, KI writes things here.



Book a room

  • Check the availability of rooms in advance! There are rooms you might be able to book for free in your building, otherwise there are rooms that can be rented, which can be booked by people in your admin who have access to TimeEdit. Rentable rooms overview here.
  • Consider if your opponent will give a seminar the day before (or after or whatever) your defense, and see if you can book/rent a room for it.
  • If you change the room you put in the application, you need to apply for a change, otherwise you might have problems during the “Må spikas” step!


The application

  • Goal: the committee will check that you fulfill all requirements for defense
  • Dates for deadlines and committee meetings.
  • You apply by filling out form 9. The form itself has all the info you need, what to write in the different sections etc, but it might be useful to clarify some things.
  • Technically the filling out of the form is done by your supervisor, often it is done together. The part that really, really needs to be written by your supervisor is the section where they need to discuss the progress you’ve made. You’re not supposed to and it’s just too awkward to write it yourself! The intended learning outcomes stated in your personal study plan can be a good base to write about.
  • For every paper there is a section where it needs to say what you’ve done, and what other authors have done. Take this seriously. The committee will look at this for real, and the most important thing is that they can see what you did, and what possible other PhD students who will use or have used this paper for defense have done. Of course, please discuss all authors, but make sure that the distinction between you and other users of the paper is clear. If it’s not clear you will not get approved and you will lose time!
  • Make sure you have all needed courses and seminars, and that your credits are visible in Ladok now. It used to be that you needed to add to Ladok overview to the application yourself, but now it’s possible that it’s done by your admin. Check with the educational administrator at your department. This is also the person who gives you the credits for the seminars and presentation at conferences etc, for which you need form 16, and performs credit transfers for courses taking outside KI, for winch you need form 13. In case the links break, the main link for all forms is this one. Give your administrator two weeks to fix all credit things before you need to submit your application.
  • If there is any reason why it might look like there is conflict of interest, but you think there isn’t (recent multi-center studies, old first-last authorship between board and supervisors that might look like old supervision even if it wasn’t, confusion for co-publication that’s actually a different person with the same name, etc), add a letter of explanation! The committee will find these, and either you will be delayed because you will need to get back to them and clarity, or you will just frustrate the committee, which is never kind nor a good idea.
  • You will need signatures from all your supervisors and from the department. Book times with people so you’re sure you will get them. You need all supervisor signatures before you can get the one from the director of doctoral education, and that one you need before getting the one from your department head. If people are abroad or otherwise unable yo physically meet with you, you can email then the full application (so they can check the details, who will be in the committee etc), have them sign the page and send you a scanned and signed page, which you add to the application documents. The signatures can be on multiple pages. You can always check with the dissertation committee if you run into technical issues like this (
  • Again, make sure you have all ethical permissions, both the full applications and the signed approvals, and clearly state them in the forms so the committee knows which papers they belong to.
  • Aim to apply for an application deadline well before the last one you can use to keep your defense date. I mean, if the website says that for your desired defense date the last application is at a certain date for a certain committee meeting, aim to apply for two meetings before that, so you can amend and reapply if needed, without needing to change your date.
  • You can expect an answer a couple of days after the committee meeting
  • If there is just a small issue with your application, it will not be accepted, but not totally declined either, you will be “deferred” or get “bordläggning”. This means you need to solve the issue and communicate with the committee when you did, but don’t need to reapply and so there is no issue for your time plan. If there is a bigger issue, your application will get declined, and then you need to reapply, send in a reworked form again and your application will be taken up on a new committee meeting, meaning your time plan is altered. If you had some space planned for this, you probably don’t need to change your defense date, unless the issue can’t be solved in time. KI’s info page here.
  • You can apply for defense as many times as you like, and don’t have to wait a certain amount of time between applications.
  • Generally: try to make it easy for people taking the time to look at your application
  • Keep in mind that you will need to apply for change if you make changes, otherwise you will have issues at the “Må spikas” step
  • Make sure you keep a digital version and/or physical copy of your application, you will need it at the “Må spikas” step


Pre-check by board

  • Goal: see if the works you apply with are equivalent of 4y of work and if quality is fine.
  • My documents were pretty big in size, so I made a KI box folder, put them there, and then shared a link in the email to the board.
  • You should not have contact with the board while they are making the assessment. They need to fill out form (form 10) to say they are OK with your papers, and send it to the committee within 2 weeks of receiving them, then the committee will inform you. If you haven’t heard from the committee in 2.5 weeks, contact your handläggare at the committee and then they will remind the board.
  • The relevant KI info page is here.


Get permissions for reprint

  • If you use figures or tables from other publications, you will need to ask for reprint permission. Each journal works a bit different, but usually there is an option for “Reuse” or “Permissions” or something similar on the journal’s webpage where you access the publication. Most often, this will send you to a RightsLink page for that publication, where you can specify that you want to use it for a dissertation, which part you want to use, etc. Remember that your kappa will be published online and printed. You don’t need to order a special high resolution version, you can often open the publication in Adobe Illustrator or something similar and save it as PDF or EPS or some other format that will be good enough for print. Usually the permission will be free of charge, you just need to do it so you have proof you had the right to use it.
  • Assuming you’re writing a compilation thesis, like most KI theses, you will need reprint permission for your own papers (as you give the copyright to the publisher when it gets published). For many journals you won’t have to do anything, but read what your journal has to say about reuse of your own papers for thesis or dissertation. I just googled it and could find what the journals had to say about it.



  • The KI website and info-mails you get during the application procedure say to “contact the printer if you haven’t done so”. I found this a bit confusing, and only found “the printer” by googling “print KI thesis” or something, and ended up at Eprint. It might be that KI can’t suggest you to go to a specific printer, and neither can I probably, so you can look it up for yourself if you like, and make your own choice! You can ask around if you have people who defended recently.
  • You will probably have to fill in a form with details on your thesis, like how many pages, copies, etc. I first thought I could only fill this out once everything was finished, as I could only give the correct answer then. But, it turns out it is better to fill it out in advance and use a bit of an estimate instead of waiting until you are sure about everything.
    • The only thing that needs to be really right is when you need your thesis, which is best to be a week or so before your “Må spikas”, just to make sure stuff goes right. After you apply, you will get a time plan based on this date, the printer will have you in their schedule and you will know the last day by which to send in your documents.
    • Think about who you want to give a copy of your thesis, like colleagues, friends and family, but don’t forget all supervisors and board member, opponent, yourself, the nailing copy, the 7 issues for the library… I’ve heard people ordering anything from 40 to 200 copies. The number that you write in the form can still change until the final print day, but it does include all copies!
    • If they ask how many “opponent copies” you want it’s good to know that this is a version that is printed one-sided, and has rings for easy flip-through. You might want to order one for the opponent and one for yourself.
    • I gave up my work address as the delivery address, and when the printer contacted me that the thesis was printed, I dropped them a pin on google maps and kindly asked them to call me when they are there, and I picked them up. Maybe you trust your delivery address at work, but since we just moved this year I was a bit suspicious 🙂
    • Point is: there will be multiple opportunities for you to update the info you give in the print-form, just do it so you have a plan and are in their system.
  • Once you have applied, you will get a time plan, will probably get contacted regarding the design for your cover, and will get a quote of the expected price, based on the estimates you gave them.
  • Cover and other layout rules and templates can be found on KI info pages. You can definitely use pictures or illustrations, just make sure you have permission to use them, and official rules say that you always need to keep room around the KI logo.
  • Make sure your thesis has an ISBN number. You need to put it in the thesis (there is space for this on one of the first pages of the thesis template provided by KI). As mentioned on the relevant KI site, you can get an ISBN number by the link they provide. Then you fill out some info like the title of your thesis and… That’s it. You get a number and you put that in you thesis. Very underwhelming, I thought I made a mistake, that’s how simple it was.
  • Test print: A week before the final print you will be able to do a test print. This is great to check your cover, see what type of figure format look good when printed, if you have white pages where you want them etc. Try to have everything written and done by that time, so you only need to prettify things in this stage.
  • You may find that your papers are printed all the way to the edge of the page, making parts unreadable due to the glue-binding of the thesis (the papers and related figured might not have the same margin as needed for the thesis print). I solved this by scaling the PDFs in Adobe, by choosing to print the file, then scale them in the printer dialogue screen, and then print to PDF instead of to actual paper. There might be other options, and will depend on the program you use and whether you have PC or Mac, it’s just a suggestion, google it if it doesn’t work for you 🙂
  • Again, I shared my documents by sending the printer a link to a KI box folder, as they were way to big for emailing.
  • When you pick up the test print, you will be able to talk to someone working at the printer (instead of filling out forms). They will probably confirm how many copies you want and where you want them delivered, so this is a good moment to update that info, and ask for details like: “Will you make a hole in one of the copies for nailing or is that to be done by us?” Apparently it differs between printing houses and it caused a bit of stress for me 🙂


Må spikas

  • Goal: a human needs to check if everything practical in the thesis is still the same as what you stated in your defense application, like the exact titles of your thesis, papers, your board members, when and where you will defend etc.
  • Means your thesis is “allowed to be nailed”
  • List of representatives who can do this procedure can be found here.
  • Contact them in time, a couple of weeks in advance. It might take a week before you find someone who has time, and to earlier you set a time and place the less stress it will be for everyone involved. Also, don’t put this meeting just before the nailing, have it at least a day before, so you can solve it in case someone gets sick or needs to change plans.
  • This is the moment were you need the copy of your application form, any amendments, and the thesis copy with a whole in it. But make sure to ask the person who will check everything what they want you to bring.



  • Goal: make your thesis public
  • You will do both an electronic nailing and a physical one in one of the KI libraries.
  • When you are planning the date for your nailing, make sure to check the opening hours for the library. You don’t need to book a time, but it can be good to go talk to them anyway, just to make sure you know what to do and bring. I found that the chat function on the KI library website works really well, and you get answers immediately.
  • When your application for defense gets accepted, you will get an email with a link for the electronic nailing. You just need to fill out info about the defense, like when and where, who your supervisors are etc, and upload your kappa (just the part you wrote for the thesis itself, not the included papers and manuscripts). It’s good to do this a bit before the physical nailing, at least a day, as you will get the message that you’re allowed to come and nail after this electronic nailing is done and approved. Again, plan in some time for things to go wrong.
  • Somewhere between a week and a day before your physical nailing, go to the library you will nail at and confirm again that they are open at the day and time you will be there. This should not be an issue, as you checked this weeks ago when planning the nailing, but who knows!
  • On the physical nailing itself you bring your thesis with a hole in that now also has “Må spikas” written on it and 7 thesis copies for the library. Usually people organize some kind of drinks and snacks for a little celebration of this happy event!
  • You have officially succeeded the whole process if you get a mail with a link where all the info on your defense + kappa are available. It’s public now! If you don’t get this, check with the library as something might have gotten stuck in the hurdles of papers and admin. You don’t want a thing like that to threaten your defense date, as the nailing needs to be done latest 3 weeks before.
  • Anyone who hasn’t gotten a copy yet needs to get it now, especially the board and opponent, whom you need to give at least 3 weeks to read your stuff to prepare for the defense.
  • The KI webpage about nailing is here.
  • Now, congratulate yourself and chill out for a moment. It’s all done. Only the defense itself left 🙂


Before your final contract ends

  • Most probably your contract extends a bit past your defense. It’s good to know that we have right to support by trygghetsstiftelsen after we finish. But, your department needs to send you an invitation to it, normally within the last month. If you don’t get this a couple of weeks before the end of your last contract, contact your admin and ask about this.
  • With the invite from your department, sign up with trygghetsstiftelsen, and you’ll be able to get help with jobs, coaching, courses etc.
  • Note: So far this comment is only based on what I heard from others, as I haven’t defended yet, but it seems like a useful thing to be a part of, so make sure not to miss this chance for support!


Final thoughts

Well, this turned out very long! Still, I figure it’s better to keep all info together instead of splitting it in multiple posts. I’m sure there is more stuff that I didn’t cover here, hopefully it is on the official website. If things are still unclear, feel free to correct me, comment or ask questions, ask your fellow PhD students, admin, the dissertation committee, KI library, etc, etc. Also, there is an older post that tackles some things about defense, all the way up to the big day, maybe that one has what you are looking for.

Good luck!!!

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