Explore the hidden delights of thesis recognition

I have many guilty pleasures. Reading other chemists’ thesis acknowledgments is one of the most delightful. I even hunt out and download random masters or PhD dissertations just to see what their acknowledgments section looks like. What these people achieved in terms of research isn’t the name of the game; a lot of their findings were published long before I sat down with their magnum opus. Sure, I might be curious to see what remained unpublished – but what I really want to do is sneak a glance inside a fellow scientist’s soul. Thesis acknowledgment is an under-appreciated form of genre literature, one that rivals the haiku for potency of meaning packed into brevity. It shows scientists at their most human and interesting. And we need to give it more attention.

Panic, anxiety and fear are often spoken about frankly. For a lot of folk, the point where they sit down at a computer to scribble acknowledgments comes at the most turbulent period in their doctoral studies: hustling to finish research (while their bosses insist they ‘just run these n more reactions’) and write it out coherently, all while frantically searching for future employment before the upcoming doctoral cliff. Put your ear close to their paragraphs and faint cries of anguish leak out. Sometimes people even reveal all their feelings. ‘Thanks to [different research group located down the hall] for showing me what a healthy and functional lab is like,’ hissed one individual, apparently typing that portion of their manuscript with clenched fists.

Most folk rummage around in the darkness to find positive things to say about their experiences. The best way to discover a PhD supervisor’s merits comes through cross-checking multiple theses and finding patterns in the praise. When ‘supervisor X has an open-door policy and is always willing to talk about your projects’ appears in multiple theses originating from the same lab, you are confident that approachability is one of that individual’s strengths.

0218CW - Last Retort illustration - original

Source: © M-H Jeeves

Other people aren’t content to paint a lasting aura of warmth around their doctoral student days: they want to brag about their suffering, too. The person who needed to thank his friend for company on ‘all our walks home from lab after midnight’ is putting in a few too many details. Many walks home? Very late at night? Hmm. I see.

Given that the acknowledgments section is the only part of a thesis where self-expression isn’t muzzled, it’s great to see the people who thank everyone, starting with nursery friends and moving forward. That said, when the thanks wind on for three pages I start to lose patience and wonder who they’re going to thank next: the cute barista at the local coffeehouse, an eccentric chemistry teacher, or perhaps the Twitter followers who ‘liked’ all of their sassy memes?

Brevity is its own minefield, however. If the only thing you can say about your advisor is they ‘had some interesting ideas’, you might want to add some diplomatic lies – it’s better to spirit away from a bad PhD experience quietly instead of dragging it with you. And spare a thought for the scientist who ventured the rather unconvincing: ‘I’ll probably come to look back on my PhD as the most rewarding time of my life’.

So who should get a mention? At a minimum, your supervisor and family should receive a nod. Most people err on the side of inclusivity (or perhaps want to highlight the breadth of their connectivity). I suspect at least one relationship has been kept alive just so the author could immortalise its existence on paper; conversely, I know of one significant other who, after only a few months of commitment, received hearty gratitude in the final lines not necessarily warranted from their short-term status. Kindness costs nothing – especially when there isn’t a page limit.

Of course, you may be one of those unsentimental people who would find it excruciating to write anything more emotive than ‘and lastly, I’d like to thank my family’.

I’m British; I understand.