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?
In a modern scientific paper, if you cruise past the “Materials and Methods” section and stop right before you hit the “References,” you’ll find the “Acknowledgments” section, wherein authors are given space to thank others for their contributions to the project. It is generally accepted that this paragraph is ignored by both readers and reviewers alike. Accordingly, it is chock full of inside jokes, snarky comments, and general silliness. Here, for your enjoyment, are a few of our favorite examples.
Most current academic science is, at least in part, supported financially (if not intellectually) by the public. In the United States, this is often through the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation and typically involves many grant rejections. As a result, some scientists use the Acknowledgements section of their manuscripts as public venue in which to vent their frustration at the government:
“B.J.H. would also like to thank the U.S. Immigration Service under the Bush administration, whose visa background security check forced her to spend two months (following an international conference) in a third country, free of routine obligations—it was during this time that the hypothesis presented herein was initially conjectured.”
"I thank the National Science Foundation for regularly rejecting my (honest) grant applications for work on real organisms (cf. Szent-Gyorgyi, 1972), thus forcing me into theoretical work."
“This work was ostensibly supported by the Italian Ministry of University and Research. … The Ministry however has not paid its dues and it is not known whether it will ever do.”
How order of authorship was really determined
In some scientific disciplines, authors are listed alphabetically, whereas in others, authorship order is supposed to reflect the amount of work that went into the project. In those fields, the success of grant applications and tenure decisions can often rest on the order of authorship. In these cases, the most coveted positions are first author—traditionally the person who did the majority of the experiments—and last author, who (at least in theory) was the intellectual driving force behind the project. As in any human endeavor, there is much jockeying for position, and sometimes scientists resort to less-traditional means of resolving conflicts:
“Order of authorship was determined by proximity to tenure decisions.”
“Order of authorship was determined from a 25-game croquet series held at Imperial College Field station during summer 1973.”
Thanking fictional people
Some authors use the Acknowledgements as a place to hide “Easter eggs”—in these cases, seemingly innocuous thanks to imaginary people with names obscure enough to get past both reviewers and editorial staff:
“We thank Jim Coloso and Laura Smith who collected much of the data shown here and Jim Hodgson, Jon Frum for inspiration in writing this paper.”
“We thank O. Akin and M. Quinlan for assistance with bead motility assays, Q. Justman and A. Murray for helpful discussions, and S. Layer for continued advice and inspiration.”
And Slayer is an ‘80s metal band, of course.*
The above example is, in fact, from a lab that has a history of including fake names and funny words in the Acknowledgements section, including “A. Kelly and R. Manlove”—the first author of the paper was, apparently, in “Manlove” with A. Kelly—and “the ever cromulent E. Garner”— cromulent itself being an made-up wordfromThe Simpsons.
“We acknowledge Snowpocalypse 2010 for making the long-awaited completion of this paper possible.”
Sometimes being stuck in your house is the best help to a paper of all.
Finally, we reach those papers in which the Acknowledgements section was used to lambaste fellow scientists:
“We would like to thank Karla Miller for sleeping late one morning, leaving Tim and Steve a bit bored; and Saad Jbabdi for making the brains look pretty.”
“We do not gratefully thank T. Appourchaux for his useless and very mean comments.”
The authors would like to thank T. Bosch and L. Helmuth for the idea, J. Beam for assistance with writing, B. N. Dover for proofreading, and the Big Bang for everything. Order of authorship was determined by Russian roulette.
*Correction, Oct. 25, 2016: This post originally misstated that Slayer is an '80s hair metal band. It is a metal band, but not a hair metal band.
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