By Susan Carter
Acknowledgements pages show the essence of the thesis author and their experience. If you look through a dozen or so at a time, you will hear the screams, the manic laughter, catching the sombre tragedy and the sense of awe and agony that underpins the doctoral life span.
Acknowledgements are non-consequential in that a student is not evaluated on them, unlike the rest of the prose they have laboured over. Some acknowledgement pages give away the secret of their authors’ difficulty with formal prose, and it doesn’t matter—by the time anyone reads them, the author has been found acceptable.
But acknowledgements do matter because in amongst the celebration the right people need to be thanked in the right sort of way.
The acknowledgement pages I have looked at vary considerably. Most thank funders, supervisors, close colleagues and family. Possibly supportive friends. This means it is effectively a snub if someone important is not thanked.
Typically the structure moves from thanking the most formal support to the least formal thanks as detailed above–funders, supervisors, other academics, colleagues, and finally family. This makes sense according to the logic of incremental progression because the informal thanks to family are often the most heartfelt. Close family members are often the people who gave the most (although some supervisors are likely to feel this is not true).
It is important that a student acknowledges the formal carefully, though: any person or institution that has contributed funding to the project, other researchers who have been involved in the research, institutions that have aided the research in some way. They should also acknowledge proofreaders and editors—that is a requirement at the University of Auckland where I work, and a good one in terms of honesty in authorship. Such formal thanks are usually in the first paragraph or two.
Interestingly, our Guide to Theses and Dissertations states that you should “Only acknowledge people or institutions that have contributed to the content of your thesis” (14).
Yet no one follows this advice. I have seen people thank their dog for sitting at their feet for hundreds of hours, the cat for its companionable choice of the thesis draft as a place to settle down for a nap, and God for creating a magnificent universe available to be studied.
It is possible to thank people for more specific regional rather than global help throughout the thesis too. I like doing this, because it cheers me up to remember the kind, wise colleagues who have helped me along with my thinking. If footnotes are used, the work can be done there, for example, with footnotes that state “I am indebted to xxx for several discussions that helped me to focus this section”. Without footnotes, more formal provision of a ‘personal conversation’ reference will do the same work.
Students may choose to namedrop in these internal thanks too: if a big name in the field gave feedback after a conference paper or in conversation, acknowledgements strengthen the student’s academic authority and insider status.
Acknowledgements vary in length, and the effect of a very long acknowledgement—I have seen a nine-pager—is to dilute the thanks. I have also seen one that simply lists five names, which was blunt, but powerful.
So it is good to start a draft within six months of submission, and revise it for the full satisfaction of a job well done on graduation, with all dues paid. The usual structuring principles apply: those who gave most should be given the most thanks. Supervisors will know the sad truth if the cat gets more lines than they do.
Thanks are best when concrete. I really like thanks to supervisors that carry a sense of who they were in the drama, like “My supervisor, who kept a sense of humour when I had lost mine”; “my supervisor, whose maddening attention to detail drove me to finally learn to punctuate prose”; or “my supervisor, whose selfless time and care were sometimes all that kept me going.” A precisely-worded acknowledgement like a perfectly chosen gift. It fits. It matches.
Some supervisors tend not to give advice on acknowledgments, because they expecting to be thanked, so it feels preemptive. Do others feel, though, that the end result is happier all round if supervisors offer to critically read the acknowledgements too? Or would it be more appropriately a place where academic advisors could give objective advice?
Most of your thesis or dissertation will contain technical, scientific, and heady language, but your dissertation acknowledgement will probably contain the exact opposite. Acknowledgements for papers are typically found before the first chapter and should be very easy for you to write. You can write your acknowledgements in simple, everyday language that reads quite smoothly; this doesn’t have to be the identical to your typical academic writing for graduate students. Even though you can write your dissertation acknowledgement in a short amount of time, you should make sure that your writing style remains heartfelt and pure; you should avoid coming across as smug or arrogant. Though you can include several names in your acknowledgements, you should only include names of people who actually did help you during your dissertation or thesis journey because of limited space and reader patience. In general, you should keep your acknowledgements on one full, double-spaced page of the same font type and size that you are using throughout the rest of your paper. Acknowledgements that are much longer than this will wear on your professional readers and review board, and the last thing you want to do is annoy the people to whom you will be defending your paper. Below you will find more information about whom you can include when you write acknowledgements for you dissertation or thesis.
Before you even begin writing your dissertation acknowledgement, take time to make a list of people who are linked to your dissertation or thesis in any way. These people may have read or edited your paper or may have encouraged you or listened to your academic woes. In terms of family or friends to include, only list people who were active in your graduate studies. You really don’t have the space to include the cousins you haven’t seen or talked to since Grandma’s funeral ten years ago. However, if there were people who inspired your work, do not forget to include these people on your list of names. For example, you might want to include a grandfather whom you never met but who was the first member of your family to graduate from high school or college, maybe even under less than ideal circumstances. When you mention these people in your acknowledgements, remember to state specifically how they helped you. This will mean a lot to these people, and they will be grateful that you remembered exactly what they did for you along the way.
Take a look back at your list of contributors, and be sure to mention the members of academia who helped you complete your dissertation or thesis. Again, you only have room for major contributors, not your freshman biology professor. Professionals to include could be advisors, upper-level professors, lab assistants, librarians, colleagues, or classmates. Anyone who assisted you in researching, conducting experiments and surveys, or writing could be a candidate for you to include in your dissertation acknowledgement. For academic contributors whom you choose to mention in your acknowledgements, you should use their full names and titles. However, if you are mentioning friends, you might consider only using first names to protect their identities. If several people within a large group assisted you, you only need to state the group name.