By Dr Vijay Kumar
University of Otago, New Zealand.
Dr Vijay Kumar is a leading figure in the research field of doctoral education, experience and pedagogy. He applies linguistics methodologies to considering doctoral writing and the relationship between candidate-author and supervisor-reviewer as to how feedback on writing works best. He offers his reflection on the acknowledgements, and the results of his research on whether or not acknowledgments influence examiners–do click on the link to his interesting article.
I am beginning to get the notion that acknowledgments humanise the examination process.
One of the first sections I read when I get a thesis to examine is the acknowledgments. I want to know the person who wrote the thesis and the journey the candidate had to go through to submit this work for examination. At times, I am affected when the candidate writes about their struggles – leaving family behind to pursue their dreams, death of loved ones, hardship while doing the PhD and also the time it took for them to submit as this may reflect financial hardship. I become extremely sympathetic reading about parents who have to balance the PhD and care for children during the journey – these struggles speak to the human side of an examiner and I expect other examiners to be the same.
When my own student’s thesis was returned with compliments on the acknowledgments, I was interested in how the examiner reconciled this knowledge of the student with the result they awarded. I was furious when a doctoral examiner was extremely critical of a single mother I knew by being picky on aspects which the other examiners commented were exemplary– I wanted to tell the examiner “She completed this as a single parent looking after two young boys – have some compassion!”.
As an examiner myself, I become very inquisitive when a candidate writes paragraphs of praise for distant relatives and merely pens 2-3 lines on the supervisor. Something must be not right – supervisors dedicate 3-4 years of their lives to mentor the candidate and yet receive so little accord for their sacrifices.
My curiosity pointed me to what should be included in an acknowledgment. One of the most prominent studies reported that acknowledgments comprise three main moves: the reflective move, the thanking move and the announcing more (see Hyland, 2004 for details and examples). However, despite a global tradition to include acknowledgements in a thesis, there was no study that provided insights as to how examiners viewed the acknowledgements.
This became a research quest; I asked myself – are doctoral examiners influenced by the acknowledgments? I certainly am. But does this impact the final outcome of the thesis? This curiosity led me to research this topic and resulted in a research project surveying 145 doctoral examiners that I describe in this paper.
Conversations with colleagues across the globe suggests that many examiners read the acknowledgments first before reading the thesis – their reasons echoing my own for reading the acknowledgments. Many say that the acknowledgements provide the context of the candidate and the journey but do not influence their judgement on the assessment of the thesis. Thus, the final outcome is purely based on the content. Some, like me, tend to be more formative in the assessment if the acknowledgments show struggles. Others, however, say that they are not at all affected by the acknowledgement – in some instances, the acknowledgments are not given any status. For example, in Japan, the acknowledgements, which are not considered as official content of a thesis, are placed after the concluding chapter as private matters are of less of a priority. It would also be a rare case that one would write a personal struggle in the acknowledgement in a Japanese PhD thesis.
What we now know is that examiners’ views are biased by the acknowledgments. That is, it’s not the acknowledgements they are suspicious of but they are influenced by them and have a biased view on the acknowledgments. Even though many claim not to be influenced by the acknowledgments, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that they act differently after reading the acknowledgements. As an example, not mentioning the supervisors or not writing enough about the supervisors tends to be perceived as a lack of humility–the reaction to this is that the examiners tend to be less tolerant of the student’s mistakes.
On the contrary, some examines think that the supervisors should not be acknowledged at all until the successful completion of the thesis. Some examiners get irritated when names of top scholars whom the candidate probably met and chatted with at a conference are acknowledged with the hope of influencing the examiners. Some examiners questioned the role of GOD in a thesis and want scientific evidence to support claims of divine assistance! They argue that the thesis is a scientific document and anything/anyone whose contribution cannot be evidenced should not be acknowledged. Clearly, examiners read the acknowledgements and form a perception about the candidate which may influence their commentaries. If struggles are mentioned, there seems to be more formative and developmental feedback; otherwise, they tend to become less tolerant of mistakes and this may potentially mean becoming more “forensic” in examining the thesis.
Even though the examiners may be influenced, the good news is that most examiners say that the acknowledgments do not have an influence on the final outcome. A respondent captured this vividly by saying – it won’t kill a thesis but it matters!
What are your views of the acknowledgements in a thesis? Do you think it should be included only at the end of the examination process? Is it important for the examiner to know the candidate through the acknowledgement? What advice do you give to students? And if you are an examiner as well- do you discuss this at all in your role as a supervisor- or leave it entirely to your student?
Hyland, K. (2004). Graduates’ gratitude: The generic structure of dissertation acknowledgements. English for Specific Purposes, 23, 303–324.
Kumar, V. & Sanderson, L. J. (2019). The effects of acknowledgements in doctoral theses on examiners. Innovations in Education and Teaching International. DOI: