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by Lilia Mantai

This fabulous guest post about thesis acknowledgements comes from Lilia Mantai who settled in Australia after completing her teaching degree in Germany. For the last six years she has been working at Macquarie University, Sydney, in various roles (as tutor, research assistant, project officer and academic developer). She is now close to submitting her PhD on researcher identity development of doctoral students. Good luck Lilia!

Writing is personal. It is also social as it does not happen in isolation. Discussing and clarifying ideas with your colleagues, receiving and incorporating feedback from critical friends and reviewers are social acts that make writing collaborative. Yet the doctoral thesis comes across as a disembodied, de-personified and de-personalised product of doctoral ‘training’ – void of the emotions, typical PhD ups and downs, and identity crisis battled in the process. Until you read the thesis acknowledgements.

My PhD research looks at how doctoral students become researchers in the PhD journey.

While reading through various theses in the early stages of my PhD, it struck me that the acknowledgement section of the thesis was just oozing with personal and ‘behind-the-scenes’ stories. Sometimes I cringed (or even cried) because it was so intimate and personal. Other (though fewer) examples of acknowledgements were boasting about the author’s achievements and left me feeling like an imposter wondering if I would ever achieve this level of competency. It became clear that acknowledgements presented a window into the reality that was only known to PhD students and the (mostly) one or two page-long acknowledgement might tell you more about the student/graduate and their personal and academic development than the rest of the thesis. I realised thesis acknowledgements made students’ identities visible.

Needless to say, I was intrigued and told my supervisor. Luckily she shared my enthusiasm so we decided to systematically analyse 79 Australian thesis acknowledgements. The aim was to explore the types of support students found critical to their success, the sort of people who provided support, and who provided what type of support. The full paper can be found here.

Key findings highlighted that social support (emotional, moral, companionship, guidance) was valued higher than academic (conceptual, editorial, linguistic) and instrumental support (technical, financial, administrative). While men and women equally valued social support, they emphasised different elements of it: women identified emotional support, while men noted companionship and collegiality.

The breadth of relationships drawn upon in the PhD was overwhelming and clearly portrayed the PhD as a collaborative enterprise. One single acknowledgement named 83 individual people as being supportive and critical to PhD success. Most of the support was received from families, colleagues and supervisors to various degrees. Interestingly, none of the acknowledgement authors used the term ‘peer’. Staff, employees and fellow students were referred to either as ‘friends’ or ‘colleagues’. The latter is perhaps intentionally used to signal professional rather than student status of the author and other PhD students. Also, supervisors were presented as providing not only academic support and guidance, as often assumed, but also social support. Although families (especially partners) and colleagues emerged as the main support providers, the sum of social relationships and networks arguably formed an extended network that helped the student persevere through the isolation, loneliness, and ’emotional labour’ involved in PhDs (Aitchison and Mowbray, 2013).

Students used the opportunity of writing an acknowledgement to reflect on their personal and professional development. Rather than portraying themselves as competent researchers in relation to seniors, students established their competence through the ability to ‘survive’ PhD challenges. Authors also vividly assumed social researcher identities as a result of collective PhD endeavours.

Naturally, emotional expressions are to be expected somewhat in an acknowledgement as marking the end of an arduous journey. Also, it is important to recognise that writing an acknowledgement is performative in nature. Supervisors and funding bodies can be thanked out of a sense of duty rather than authentic gratitude. Authors also write with a particular audience in mind, i.e., families, supervisors and future employers. This tiny section in your thesis is, after all, a chance to present yourself in a certain light, i.e., as a well-networked and connected professional or a certain type of researcher, but it is also a revelation of the private (and perhaps vulnerable). As such, a thesis acknowledgement is a purposefully and carefully constructed representation of oneself and can be challenging to write.

Are you writing or have you written your thesis acknowledgement? Does it come easy or is it a challenge, and why?

Who are you writing it for?

Are you considering how you portray yourself and how you want to be perceived?

References:

Aitchison, C., & Mowbray, S. (2013). Doctoral women: Managing emotions, managing doctoral studies. Teaching in Higher Education, 18(8), 859-870.

Mantai, L., & Dowling, R. (2015). Supporting the PhD journey: insights from acknowledgements. International Journal for Researcher Development, 6(2), 106-121.

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