Thesis Acknowledgments

March 19th, 2015

ed_academic_bigChemjobber has a post up asking readers what information they put in the acknowledgments sections of their dissertations.

I have always been fascinated by whom grad students choose to acknowledge. As a first-year, I used to pull old theses off the shelves of our group room and read the acknowledgments sections from front-to-back. Some were long; some were incredibly terse. Some were over-effusive in praise; some had cutting zingers. But every acknowledgments section was interesting and, I felt, gave me some sense of the personality of the student whose research had helped lead the group to where it was.

About once a year, I would go to the chemistry library and similarly indulge my curiosity on a grander scale. I would climb the stairs to the balcony where old theses were kept and hunt for interesting names: Nobel laureates, current professors, recent friends who’d graduated, and grad students present at remarkable events (e.g., when Corey won the Nobel, when various professors had moved labs, and when Jason Altom took his life). I’d flip through their work, admire the figures, and always finish by reading the entirety of their acknowledgments. It was fascinating, and I cherished the glimpse of what each scientist was feeling at my point in their career.

People often joke that your acknowledgments are the only part of your thesis anyone will read carefully, including the professors on your committee. But that isn’t a joke—it’s the truth. When I was writing my thesis, I viewed writing the acknowledgments section as a wonderful opportunity to thank everyone from my educational career, past and present. It was six-and-a-half pages of joy to write.

And since the dissertation guidelines at my school allowed students to include epigraphs, I twisted a line of a famous poem such that it would serve, in my estimation, as a sufficiently veiled comment on my sentiments at the time.

To this day, I keep a copy of my dissertation on my iPad and I read the acknowledgments section every four months or so. Yes, I’ve almost memorized it by now, but reading it again always brings back a flood of happy, sad, and funny memories.

Sometimes, you need that.


14 Responses to “Thesis Acknowledgments”

  1. David Eisenberg Says:

    I could have written this post. It is just me.
    And your acknowledgement section is beautiful.

  2. Anon Says:

    This is truly beautiful. Thank you for posting! I’ll be sure to always look at the acknowledgements from now.

  3. Ian Says:

    Many of us in the Bercaw group thanked Ernie Mercado for catering our Ph.D. affairs.

  4. Strange Chemist Says:

    When I handed my bound doctoral thesis to my father the first thing he did was check the acknowledgment section to see if he was mentioned. I think it is funny he knew about it without ever going to college.

  5. John Says:

    Nice post. I read acknowledgment sections whenever I pick up a thesis as well. Mine was 6 pages long, and my labmates made fun of me for thanking so many people, but I stand by it.

  6. Hodophilax Says:

    A dissertation is like a cup of coffee, and the acknowledgments the beans. The beans are what give the dissertation it’s character and substance. They are what give away the nature of the writer. It’s as simple as that.

    And yet, even after one spends years planning the finest possible dark roast, perfection, in this instance, is always bittersweet.

  7. Adriana Says:

    Just beautiful

  8. koloa2001 Says:

    “About once a year, I would go to the chemistry library and similarly indulge my curiosity on a grander scale. I would climb the stairs to the balcony where old theses were kept….”
    Your library recollections are bittersweet for two reasons. 1) the academic chemistry library, with our without balconies, is an endangered species in itself; they are being closed one by one, for various and mostly specious reasons. 2) Archives of old dissertation manuscripts are mostly now kept in remote storage, if they are retained at all, while newer ones are born-digital. How would future grad students replicate your browsing? Or more to the point, would they ever think to try, when so much history is out of sight and out of mind, whether hiding in cold storage or in the cloud?

  9. SackMass Says:

    My acknowledgements strongly reflected the efficient but bland fashion in which my supervisor wrote anything. I guess I’d picked it up, too, after five years of writing things together. Looking back, I wish I’d been written them more like a thoughtful conversation, rather than the sterile list of one name after another that exists today. With that said, my supervisor was carefully editing every section of my thesis – acknowledgements included – and corrected my brief attempts to depart into less-than-total formality. She said that making (even affectionate and well-meaning) jokes in your acknowledgements was ‘unprofessional’.

  10. wolfie Says:

    Sometimes, I need it, it seems. No, not does it only appear like that, it is so. Or maybe, not. Just, sometimes.

    In my thesis, as I remember, I was grateful to : my advisor, who was then 70 years old and is now 92 and who just let me go; to my then girl-friend, who is now the mother of my two sons, and to some lab mates. No. I forgot Helen Rise Wilson who was my best advisor of all, ’cause wothout her the thesis would not have been accomplished.

    Did I mention her ? I think so. She was a physicist, and a protestant, and played the organ in one of their churches every sunday.

  11. George Dionne Says:

    Your acknowledgment is beautiful and it will make the people mentioned feel super good too, I believe. Thanks for the truly amazing post! I won’t forget to read the acknowledgment sections in the future.

  12. no-one Says:

    I like the fact that Phil Baran references hitting the gym in his acknowledgments.

  13. Ruslan Says:

    Hooray for Anonymous who brings up the Escalating Expectations plberom. It’s horrific now. Reviewers seem to prefer mountains of crappy data over a few elegant, carefully chosen and expertly executed experiments that actually support the claims being made. LONG gone are the days when a 1-panel figure could stand alone, at least in my field. I tend to agree that peer review is flawed to the point of being almost useless, at least in my field (where no one signs reviews). It’s a complete crapshoot what 3 reviewers you get. How does that really represent science, especially if you’re writing on a project that crosses fields? Then you get one expert from each field, none of whom can evaluate the whole thing?And just one bad review out of 3 or 4 is enough to sink a paper now. How is that a good thing for science as a whole? Are we to assume that 1 bad review is the ‘right’ one, or is it more likely the 1 bad review just happens to be an idiot or deliberately trying to sink the paper?I also think conflicts of interest are a far bigger plberom than anyone wants to admit. So… do you think it’s usually better, if you get half-useful and half-idiotic reviews, to revise & go back to the same journal rather than go elsewhere? I have been at the mercy of my advisors’ decisions re: which journals and when to fight crappy reviews vs. go elsewhere, so I’m really curious about what you think.

  14. Jeff Says:

    Wonderful post. I thanked everyone from my wife to my committee to the secretaries and building staff as well as all the computers and open-source software I used. Nothing bad has ever come from being grateful for the kindness and generosity of others.


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