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?
I am a loooong way off writing my thesis, but I do plan a posthumous acknowledgement to my dear friend who passed away last year. if it wasn’t for him, I would not have continued down this very lonely road. I do plan to be overly emotional, or grandiose in words; but numerous people deserve acknowledgement. Especially my wife!
sayan dasgupta said:
Well, I am on the verge of writing the acknowledgement now, and I do have a similar story: for the last couple of years I have been planning the day I will pen the acknowledgements and pour out my soul, but now that the moment is here, I find myself blank….
This post couldn’t have come at a better time – thank you! I’m just on the final draft of my thesis, and while I’ve had the acknowledgements drafted for a while now – and the cat is duly thanked (!) – there’s much you’ve spoken about I now need to re-think. I’ve agonised about the exact way to thank my supervisor/s. I don’t think I can EVER thank her enough for what she’s done for me, but I do want to ensure what goes on this document is the ‘right’ thing – something she’ll be happy with. She knows all my faults, of course, but for once, I’d like to ensure I don’t muck it up!
So with this information in hand, it’s back to the acknowledgements page I go. Thank you.
I had difficulties to arrange the name list of people i want to acknowledge but your information helped me to re-construct it. Thank you.
Thanks! Just what I needed 3 weeks before delivering:) Thankful thoughts are sent your way from Norway!
I started my acknowledgements at the beginning of my writing my dissertation, adding to it as necessary through the years, and now, within days of submisison, I have the dilemma of a 6 pager, which I just edited down from 9! I’m afraid that it “dilutes” the thanks….
Just wondering- what if you don’t want to thank anyone? Is it appropriate to NOT have an acknowledgements section? I’m feeling ambivalent about my faculty and supervisors + I’m a private person so unlikely to thank my family (in the thesis that is, not in person!). Plus – I find it over the top all those pages and pages of thanks – its like people who need to be gonged to finish their logies acceptance speech. Can you please comment on the etiquette of non-acknowledgements?
Hi there Anon,
I’d recommend that you do have a really short and carefully worded acknowledgements page. I don’t see it as appropriate to say nothing. You don’t feel like it now, but because a total absence would speak perhaps more loudly than would be comfortable to a private person–it would attract attention– I’d recommend a carefully worded thanks to supervisors and others who have helped you along the way. Despite their imperfections, they will have given you something, and a short thanks will likely convey your sense that there were limitations too.
This is a really interesting comment, though. You have sent me back to a default I personally find handy: this is planet earth, and these are human beings. They may be puzzling, irritating, illogical, and scary, but you live among them and the best ploy is to learn their habits. Another point, though, is that the thesis is a step towards a possible professional life as researcher. It is probably strategic to avoid looking like an ingrate. Best wishes with that. Susan
Thanks Susan. Point taken!.
So would i be wrong to just write “thank you everyone” and then end there. Just those few words, are they not carefully worded?
Another Anon said:
Goodness. This came at exactly the right time for me. Thank you Anon & Susan.
And thanks to the wonders of the internet, it came at the right time for me too. Much though I currently loathe my supervisor’s approach, he has in fact read some drafts and commented in detail, as well as suggesting suitable methods and data sources. And that is what I shall cling to as I write my acknowledgements. I don’t know if you still follow the comments on a post this old, Susan, but I’d like to thank you for taking the time to reply to Anon. It’s really helped me get things in perspective.
Thanks for this, and best of luck going through the last few inches to graduation. Funnily, this post still interests people, and yes, we do all follow comments with some pleasure! Susan
Great post and thoughts! I will certainly refer back to this in the near future. But, reading this reminded me of an tongue in cheek ‘Unacknowlegements’ page someone recently linked on their twitter feed. So, this has also prompted me to ask, what would your advice be to those whose families, friends or even partners were distinctly unsupportive? Sadly, I do know of a couple of people who have had the misfortune of their relationships taking a turn for the worse or falling apart completely during the phD process, and others whose parents and extended families simply did not give a jot for what they were doing all those years!
Thanks for this comment and your question. I would not thank someone to whom no thanks are owed, because it belittles all the acknowledgements to people who really gave you something. Someone who takes no interest probably won’t read the acknowledgments pages anyway. It can be delicate as to what you say when you think someone might expect to be thanked but don’t really deserve it–like references, thanks can be telling in what they don’t say, so people can be damned with faint thanks as well as with faint praise. Then sometimes you may want to thank someone who actually whinged a bit about how your attention to your PhD (such whingers could include parents, partners and your own children) meant less attention to them…you may want to thank them because overall you love them and want to keep them happy. In that case, simply thanking them for muffins, or for the laughter they brought into your life, or for helping you to keep a sense of proportion might do.
This is instructive and with humour. Takes away the stress of writing an acknowledgment I’m agonizing over.
Hi, is it appropriate to submit acknowledgment with the revised draft to my advisor?
Hi Meron – good question! While you don’t really need to show the acknowledgements to supervisors for their approval/proofreading, it’s nice if they know how much candidates appreciate their work. So the timing is up to you.
May I ask is it proper to acknowledge God in my phd thesis?I am really thankful and grateful.Would like to hear your suggestions.
You do not usually acknowledge God in your thesis itself, as the assumption of a doctoral thesis is that it is logocentric rather than belief based. However, in your acknowledgements you may thank God, and some students do choose to do this. The acknowledgment page is not technically part of the thesis, and in it you may thank whoever needs thanking for support with your research and thesis. God may be thanked. I’d recommend that you try to keep balance so that those mortals who gave you support feel pleasure at your thanks too. Susan
Hi Susan. This comes at the perfect time for me. I’m waiting for my friend to complete proof reading the final (I hope) draft of my thesis. Just a little clarification- do I put in the acknowledgement with the draft that goes to the examiners or in the ‘final’ after-the-examination version? Some of them are known to the examiner as mine is a small field. There also a few people I want to acknowledge who helped me throug the hell that the last couple of months have been. But Thanking them may cause trouble for them with my supervisor (things has really gone downhill here), I want to ask them for permission to put their names into my acknowledgement section, is this ok? Thank you.
The acknowledgements are added after the examination and before it goes into final submission. So you are safe. I agree that you do need to thank the people who really helped; I’d also suggest something circumspect for your supervisor. It’s thoroughly usual for people and things to fly apart under the pressure leading up to submission. Your supervisor may have been a wretch then, but will have helped somewhere en route. And you may find that the relationship heals and is helpful again somewhere down the track. Best wishes for a great examination process. Susan
Thanks so much for your feedback Susan. Much appreciated. I’m definitely thanking my supervisor in the acknowledgement as it wasn’t this bad when I started. I hope the relationship does heal. But only time will tell if I’ll ever trust again. Thanks again. Wishing your team and you all the best for 2016
Hi Susan. Thanks so much for your feedback. I will be thanking my supervisors in the acknowledgement as it was really different when I started. I also hope that the relationship will heal. But only time will tell if it does and if I can ever feel like I can trust my supervisor again. Thanks again.
An excellent read, and one I wish I had seen before a) writing my acknowledgments and b) blogged about writing them. Recent blog post on Writing Acknowledgments is here –
It’s tongue in cheek obviously.
Many thanks for this wonderful post.
Can I ask please: would it really be out of place if I start with thanking family and friends and then move onto the formal (supervisors, advisors, funders, etc)? Its just that I want to start with dedicating the thesis to a deceased family member…
I think this is entirely right. One of my own students did just that–her thesis began with the story of a family member’s death, and it was right that she addressed her extensive family first. Then you could phrase thanks to supervisors generously to ensure that they feel well thanked. It is not the formulaic route, but acknowledgements come from the heart and are about the doctoral experience. Best wishes, Susan
sarah taman said:
how can I acknowledge my dead father in master thesis? thanks
Hi Sarah – you can certainly acknowledge your father in the thesis. Have a look at how others in these comments have described it. The wording is up to you, and it seems that many people do acknowledge those who have been important on a personal level but have passed away.
I wanted to acknowledge my late father, and my late sister. In the end I kept it simple (which is my style) and dedicated my dissertation “With love to (my sister’s name)”. I considered adding her dates (she died when she was eight) but in the end chose not to.
In the Acknowledgements I wrote: “I owe my deepest gratitude to my mother, for her unconditional love and unwavering belief in me, along with immense financial assistance, and to my sister, my best friend, (living sister’s name), who has championed me every step of the way, going above and beyond times too numerous to mention. My father, the first Dr. (our surname), would have been so proud of all three of us.”
Congratulations on reaching this stage of your thesis – and best of luck with the oral defence/ viva!
Thank you for a nice post. I google found it when looked for ideas of how to write an acknowledgement. I am in a step of writting a paper, time is out, and I do not know where to start from.
Now I know I shall start from a paragraph of acknowledgements, then, I am sure, the texts will pour out.
Thank you so much for your post. I have had very little guidance from my department on the components of a thesis and though I’m in my final year I’m not at the point when my supervisor would like to talk about acknowledgements. It’s too soon.
Speaking of one’s supervisor, I was wondering what one might do if their first reader stepped in (informally) as a surrogate supervisor in the supervisor’s absence. For a great number of reasons I haven’t been able to talk with my supervisor as much as I’d hoped when I signed up for the program but my first reader has really been there for me, and continues to be–both with moral support and academic guidance. I’d like to give her some extra special thanks (where my supervisor’s thanks will just be at the formal and financial level) but I’m sure it wouldn’t be appropriate to name her before my supervisor. What might you suggest I do?
The acknowledgement pages really are yours, so you could weigh up what is most important to you. And my feeling is that you might find a way to thank your supervisor first, but fairly formally, and then thank that wonderful first reader in much warmer terms, with more detail, so that that thank you stands out. The rhetorical strategy will speak for you. Best of wishes with the final stages and then the future. Susan
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Hi Susan, do you have any suggestion for wording an acknowledgement (Master’s thesis) for a supervisor who has not really participated much? There’s nothing wrong with the relationship, but the most feedback he has ever provided on y chapters was ‘this is good, it will meet expectations’. He told me once that he only ever met with his own PhD supervisor once a year and I think he is continuing the tradition. This has been fine with me as I would not have liked a micro-manager, but it’s tough when thinking about the acknowledgements. I can’t really thank him for ‘all of his help’ because I’m pretty sure that would sound hollow to both of us.
You could thank your disengaged supervisor for his support, and even for his loyal support or something like that. Support is such a mild abstract noun that it seems right for someone who was routinely approving without actually being involved. Best wishes, Susan
Will it be okay to just say ” Thank you everyone” and end there
I think that this is really stylish in breaking convention, and I trust that those who need to be thanked will know you well enough to applaud your tactic. Bests, Susan
If you feel like you ready to write phrase like this, better don’t write anything.
Acknowledgement should be written with soul!
Can I write thesis acknowledgment thanking professors that really helped me in my thesis before I thank my supervisors (who made my thesis time so difficult) ?
The acknowledgements are your section, a place where you can be honest. You should thank the professors who really helped you in a way that rewards them with your gratitude. I would recommend that you are courteous, though, and that you pull back from making it glaringly obvious that you are shaming your supervisors. Susan
I am a research assistant. I’ve helped a PhD student from another department throughout her studies by providing and maintaining human cells for her project. She’s now about to published, and I’m not sure she would acknowledge my contribution in her papers. Is it polite to remind her to acknowledge me?
It is awkward when you feel that you deserve thanks and are not sure whether you will get them or not. Personally, I accept that this is the nature of human beings on planet earth: you do a lot for people and might be thanked for about a quarter of that work. So I never suggest that students ought to acknowledge me; I leave it to them. You could consider your own personal situation, however, to decide whether you could gently ask ‘Is there any possibility you could mention me in acknowledgements? That would help my career. But don’t worry if it doesn’t seem right to you.’ This is an interesting question! Susan
As I said in my email, sadly, I do not think it is polite to ask to be acknowledged, unless you manage to find the right moment and do so jokingly. Even then, I wouldn’t because the kudos is not worth the ignominy of asking in my view. I’ll just hope that your PhD student thinks of this for herself. Susan
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Hi Susan, I really appreciate your article, written over 7 years ago! I’ve read through the comments and don’t see my question addressed here. I’m finalizing my acknowledgement section, it’s about 2 pages. I’ve worked on it over the last few months and my supervisor has asked to review it. My question is until the very end of my program I had 2 very supportive co-supervisors. Unfortunately, one of them had to retire/withdraw due to health issues and I needed to recruit a new person to step in for the final draft and approvals. Do you have suggestions on how to acknowledge (1) the co-supervisor who withdrew, whose name is not on the dissertation even though they contributed so much; and (2) the new co-supervisor who graciously agreed to step in, and brought an interesting perspective and I tweaked my argument a bit. Hope you’re still responding to questions! Thanks.
Isn’t it interesting when you realise the intricacies of your relationship with doctoral “significant others”! I think you are finding your way here: you thank one for travelling so much of the journey with you, and contributing so much to your thinking, your emotional well-being (or whatever you actually do feel grateful for) and the other for “graciously stepping in, bringing an interesting fresh perspective and enabling me to review my argument and refine it”. Or something like that. Congratulations too on getting there!
Very helpful, thanks!