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Acknowledgements/Dedications in Thesis.


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One of the programs I am interested in hosts every thesis submitted online going back to 1989.  I have noticed a distinct change, or perhaps trend, in the acknowledgments and dedications.  Up until the mid-2000s, the acknowledgements were concise and sincere.  Around 2008, however, they changed in tone to something that more-or-less resembles an awards ceremony acceptance speech.  In 2008 Facebook really became popular and in my opinion, the coming of age of the "share everything" generation.  

 

With one paper in particular the author "acknowledges" his drinking buddies, his parents for not asking too many questions about why it took him forever to finish, and how his research dug a financial hole close to the center of the Earth, of which was partially funded out of his own pocket.  This guy even thanked his advisors for "quickly returning his drafts because they wanted to get me out the door as fast as possible".  

 

Seriously, why would you want this stuff in what could very well be the most significant piece work you have done to date?  Not only is it (or it should be) an embarrassment to the advisors, school/program, and *yourself*, surely this dude knows that this document is accessible by anyone with an Internet connection....possibly forever.   Future employers, perhaps?

 

Another thanked  So-and-So for reminding her that the countless hours they spent surfing together had no bearing what-so-ever on why it took her forever to graduate as well. 

 

One person seemed to thank every single person who lent a hand (there are about 50 names, one right after the other), another thanked someone for helping with data entry, a few who mentioned something about profs/advisors/mentors lighting the fire under their butts to get them moving and without them they would, by their seemingly admittance, be lazy sacks of nothing.  Of course there are all of the countless thanks to family members, SOs, and friends for what appears to be no other reason than to just get their names in there. 

 

And so on.  

 

It amazes me that up until the early-mid 2000s, none of this was the case, it seems.  Now it appears to be the norm.  I have yet to be accepted into this program yet I feel embarrassed to even think that *these* people will be a part of my cohort.  I have been trying to think of a word or phrase to describe this style of communication; pedestrian conversationalist, I suppose.  The actual papers are fine, it just seems as if the recent trend with acknowledgements/dedications is more akin to a [long] text message to a friend.  What happened to professionalism?

 

Any thoughts?  Or am I just too much of a stickler for convention?  

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To each their own of course, but I really disagree with the idea that we should encourage others not to be personal and sincere in your acknowledgements. In fact, this is often the only place in your whole thesis where you can express yourself the way you want, instead of the stuffy academic-ness of the rest of the work. I personally really enjoy reading people's acknowledgements and I've leafed through former students' theses just to read the acknowledgements. It really gives you a sense of who they are/were. I feel that this is where you see the "human" behind all the great work.

 

Also, in my field anyways, very few people will read the thesis (maybe not even your committee). One recent graduate of my program wrote "If you read this sentence, let me know and I'll buy you a beer" near the end of the thesis and only one professor on their committee went to claim the drink. My own MSc thesis had comments mysteriously stop 1/3 of the way through so I only know for certain that my supervisor read the whole thing.

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Although I should clarify that I do agree that acknowledgements should be concise and while there is space for you to be personal, there's still such a thing as overdoing it. Most people write about 1-2 pages in the "thesis format" reminiscing about their grad school hijinks. And of course, there is a difference between a few lines to highlight your appreciation of the important people in your life and going on a long rant of in-jokes and TMI. But the comments in the OP's example do not detract from professionalism.

 

In addition, few people in my field would consider our thesis to be our "greatest work to date". In general when we are ready to graduate (i.e. have a job now) we take all our previously published papers, copy/paste into the thesis file and convert to thesis format. For most students, the thesis and defense is simply a hurdle/formality that stands between you and the next great/fun thing. The student does not get to the writing and defense stage if the outcome of the defense would be in question.

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My point is that there is a clear divide between now and then with ~2007 being point-of-change.  Soon to be graduates in 1989 most likely did not have the foresight to see their thesis works published online.  This realization was possibly seen by 1999, then becoming fully realized by 2005.  So if the students in 1989 believed their works were to be filed away in some basement archieve never to be seen again, and those from 2014 knowing their works would be hosted online with granted free access to all, why is that students from 1989 wrote seemingly more professional acknowledgements with those from 2007 forward being more freewheeling?

 

You can be personal and sincere in acknowledging those who lent a hand in your research, and in a professional manner at that.  You can also show your personality while also remaining 100% professional. 

 

I have spent the morning looking at the acknowledgements from various disciplines at the same school mentioned in my OP.  First, it seems that for Humanities, a simple and quick dedication is the order of the day.  Acknowledgements mostly seem to be a thing for STEM.  My same observation applies, however:  those from the various STEM fields back in 1989 clearly wrote more precise, sincere, and well thought ackowldgements while those from 2013/2014 are following the "acceptance speech" approach.  Not only that, but the current acknowledgements are just sloppy, period.  It is not a matter of personal taste, it is as if the authors are shooting from the hip in the last moments before submission.  

 

By "greatest work" I meant something that years were spent on its creation; not necessarily the pinnacle of academic achievement up to that point. 

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I have been reading them, TakeruK and other GradCafe members claim to read them, I have read that some people prefer to read the theses/dissertation instead of conference papers, and online theses/dissertation guidelines from many graduate schools indicate that future employers may read them as well.  I have also read that people do cite thesis/dissertation papers; I have.  With a number hovering near 5% of Ph.D.s gaining tenure these days, the overwhelming majority of Ph.D.s are going to enter the non-academic job market.  With the increased numbers of graduate degrees on the market and with the increasing prevalence of Google searches, employers are likely to come across and include the acknowledgment section as another tool in dissecting the candidate's profile for employment.  Even if they don't, dancing like no one is watching in your professional life is a bad tactic--especially since every student these days should understand that anyone with an Internet connection has the ability to peek through the window without you knowing it.  

 

*edit:  no, I am not an old curmudgeon.  

Edited by Crucial BBQ
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I agree that you should not write extremely sloppy acknowledgements. But statements like "Thank you to my advisor for his/her patience" or "for not kicking me out" etc. is common and appropriate in my field. In fact, there are usually a series of lame jokes / cliches that usually go something like:

 

First, thank you to my advisor for patience/not kicking me/ putting up with me.

 

Then, thank you to friends who suffered with me / went camping with me / offered "beverages" etc.

 

Then, thank you to pets sometimes. Usually some jokes about how cute they were or how it was nice to be able to talk to someone about research and not have them roll their eyes at you etc.

 

Then, a thank you to family.

 

Finally, a thank you to their SO (usually with some joke about putting up with them and providing support).

 

I think there's a difference between that and something like "Hey, Friend X, remember that time where we got totally wasted and broke into Prof Smith's office and rearranged all their books??", or have inappropriate jokes etc. I agree with you that everyone should write their acknowledgements knowing a future employer may read it. But that doesn't mean you can't have fun too.

 

And I want to state again the humanity aspect of it. Future employers could read it but there's nothing wrong with reading a few lame jokes. But a PhD work is often never completed alone. Although the research might be, the actual work of completing the PhD is supported by the graduate student's friends and families. The acknowledgements may be the only part that is understandable to their friends and families and I think it is a great way for the student to show their appreciation, by putting it in print, permanently, on their final product symbolizing their graduate school time.

 

In my field, people rarely read theses for information. As I said above, a thesis is often just a collection of already published (and read by others) papers, so unless someone really prefers to see everything in double space and wide margin format (or they don't have access to a journal subscription), they are just going to look up the actual paper themselves, not the thesis. It's true that years were spent to create the parts of the thesis, but many of us feel that our collection of published papers and the citations received represent our actual academic work and achievements. The dissertation itself is just a symbolic representation of years of work. Consequently, in my field, dissertations are usually things people throw together in the 1-2 months prior to the defense date. At that point, the student usually has a job offer lined up already (academic or not), and everyone (student, committee, advisor) just wants to get the thesis done and out the door. Therefore, priority is placed on expediency and meeting minimum University requirements, not on actually creating a true representative sample of your work. 

 

But I understand that different fields may have different norms. 

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I read a whole bunch of acknowledgements in old theses in preparation for writing my own. I don't think it's about Facebook or anything "modern" at all. It's about the person and their preferences. Some theses from the 70s-80s and such had gushing acknowledgements, and some others from e.g. last year were very short. 

 

I personally wrote a very long acknowledgements section. I dedicated a whole paragraph to each of my four advisors, with mentions of particular things that touched me and I want to remember. I have a paragraph for other faculty members, for fellow students, collaborators, personal friends, family members, etc. It includes some anecdotes that they will appreciate and you may not get. I also thank the barristas and staff members at my favorite coffee shops who fed me in the last few months of writing for basically keeping me alive. I'm sorry if you find that too much or "sloppy," but frankly it wasn't written for strangers, it was written for friends, colleagues, and mentors who I can tell you for sure did appreciate it. Yes, I mention my loved ones too, for no other reason than to have their name in there, because their support made it possible for me to get this far and I want them to know that I truly appreciate it. Where else would I thank them than in my dissertation? As you say, it marks the successful completion of an achievement that I would not have been able to arrive at without them. Oh, and I also have a very personal dedication page, that I feel strongly about. I completely fail to see why you should be upset (or care at all) or why you think it'd reflect poorly on me to be sincerely thankful for the love and support that I have received over the years. This is such a personal thing to write, if you write anything beyond a very dry and short text. Maybe you'll be able to see why your criticism upsets me when it's time for you to write one of your own. 

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Yea, it really is about the person. My mom finished her PhD 20 years before me and her acknowledgements section was longer than mine. I wrote mine to be read by my committee and my family, so everything was targeted to that. The goal was to make my mom cry (achieved!) and make my committee feel valued and helpful. I think I achieved the latter. I got to watch my mom tear up when she realized she was the very first person I thanked, and that was awesome. The rest was mostly thanking people I interviewed for my research (as a group because they're anonymous), close grad school friends who read grant applications and chapter drafts, and the various funders for my research. No thanking of bars or barristas or coffee shops or anything like that. *shrug* You just do what you want is my feeling.

 

I don't know that I read the acknowledgments written by anyone else when I pick up dissertations, though I often do for books. I just realized that's kind of weird.

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Meh, I don't think a long acknowledgements spiel is unprofessional per se. In fact, I think that because your PhD thesis is one of the most important (academic) documents most people write, the acknowledgements should be personal. 

 

My only opinion is that you should never be passive-aggressive in your acknowledgements, because it is obvious and look really bad. I once read a thesis (from a person with no connection whatsoever to my university or professional colleagues, I should disclaim) thank the members of a lab group down the hallway "For showing me what a good research group environment should be like." Or words to that effect. BURN BABY, BURN.

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I think you might have it backwards, lack of internet availability is likely what drove stuffy, boring acknowledgements. Why write something creative and personal if nobody is going to be able to read it easily? Just stick with the formula, turn the handle on the meat grinder, and let that sausage collect dust on your advisor's shelf for years.

 

Now that it takes just a second for my girlfriend, drinking buddies, and future employers to find my thesis, I better have something that shows some degree of creativity before I bore them to tears for the next several chapters...

 

ATTENTION EMPLOYERS FROM THE FUTURE: Many of the best collaborative efforts I've been a part of started over beers. You need to be OK with that, otherwise this is going to suck for both of us. 

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  • 4 weeks later...

I sure hope nobody is out there judging me on the basis of my acknowledgements section, the least important part of the 130-page research document I spent 2 years of my life on.

 

If a non-academic employer manages to find my dissertation through a Google search (unlikely), has access to ProQuest to read it (unlikely), actually decides to read the acknowledgements instead of, you know, the actual science (unlikely), and decides not to hire me because I thanked my husband for telling me funny jokes and because I called a grad school colleague my "partner-in-crime", then dear God, I didn't want to work for them anyway. The day that employers start using acknowledgements sections of dissertations as another tool in dissecting employment profiles is the day I build a cabin in the woods and go off the grid.

 

Also, I have no idea how your Facebook correlation makes sense...wouldn't you be less likely to write a goofy acknowledgements section if you knew that anyone in the world could search your thesis?  One of my committee members, who received his PhD in 1993, wrote a 2.5 page acknowledgements section that included an extended narrative about a friend of his who died from a serious illness (that almost made me cry reading it). My sponsor, who received his PhD in 2004, wrote a 2.5 page acknowledgment in which he spent a page thanking his immediate family in great (and really sweet) detail. Another committee member, who also received her PhD in 2004, has a two-page acknowledgment section that cryptically references some hijinks. The committee member who graduated the latest - in 2010 - was the one with the shortest acknowledgements; they were half a page, and exclusively acknowledged funding sources, his committee, and collaborators. My own acknowledgements, written in 2014, were a page and a half and primarily acknowledged my funding, my committee, and my lab members. I spent two sentences thanking my mom and my husband. I gave a bound copy to my mom as a gift and it made her cry, so, that was a good outcome for me. (And yes, I was a super stalker and tracked down all of my committee members' dissertations while I was writing. The only one I can't get is actually my chair, who completed his dissertation in 1987 - it's on ProQuest but not full-text.)

 

 It is not a matter of personal taste, it is as if the authors are shooting from the hip in the last moments before submission.

 

Well, first of all, it's totally a matter of personal taste. You don't like them and other people think they are fine. That's personal.

 

But secondly, that actually very well may be. The acknowledgements are generally not included as part of the back-and-forth of drafting and editing and revisions. The acknowledgements were the last thing I wrote before I submitted my dissertation to the graduate school, and I think I spent about 10 minutes on them.

 

Seriously, though, I can't imagine anyone (employers, future collaborators, T&P committees, etc.) caring about this. I liked reading people's acknowledgments. The dissertation can be an isolating process and people tend to conceive of academics as these stuffy, constantly serious people. It's nice to remember that we have lives and passions and people that we love - and yes, senses of humor - that exist separately from our science. Writing a few goofy lines about beer and hijinks doesn't diminish the science that they did, and I'd wonder about someone who questioned the value of the work of a person - let alone an entire department - based on a few lines from their acknowledgments section that are clearly meant to be humorous and personal rather than the actual dissertation and, more importantly, the book/articles/conference presentations that emerged.

 

On a positive note, I'm glad I'm not the only crazy doctoral student who read other people's acknowledgements for laughs while trying to phinish.

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Some people take life too seriously. Lol.  After years and years of working hard, a little humor never hurts. I have seen even very renowned professionals/authors make their acknowledgements very personal.  I know a professor who did not just thank his wife and children, but went even further by thanking all his children's spouses (yes, he listed all their names). There is nothing wrong with injecting our humane side and some humor in serious situations every once in a while.

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I think that it's actually refreshing to read people's little jokes and to see that bit of humanity peeking through. I haven't finished my thesis but I wrote my acknowledgements and there's definitely some humor in there. I've seen people write incredibly poetic, beautiful acknowledgements; I think it shows a lot of thought and effort and as that's probably the only sentimental part of someone's thesis, I find it incredibly charming.

 

Honestly, if your employer slights you based on the fact that you have a personality, you probably don't want to work there anyways, imo.

Edited by happy little pill
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