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During the process of writing my PhD thesis, I was close to falling out with my adviser, the advice I received from other staff at the lab (including the director) was unhelpful at best. I have since made up with my adviser and have successfully defended the thesis. I now have to publish my thesis.

The department says that one can include acknowledgements. All of the theses I have seen in my lab and in my department feature acknowledgements. Due to this special situation, I don't quite feel that acknowledgements are called for. Yes, my adviser helped during the first half of the project but then almost completely reverted his stance. In terms of contribution, it is my opinion that he comes out at 0%.

I do not want to address any of the issues in the acknowledgements. I do not think that this is the right place. Likewise, I do not feel like thanking any of the involved people. Therefore, I would just leave out the acknowledgements completely. In academia, is this considered worse than lukewarm acknowledgements? Should I actually care about the acknowledgement, because others do?

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Don't you wish to thank your family for the support? Even if your advisor did not help enough, you had some funding right? And someone provided that. Should not be included in the acknowledgement section? – Alexandros Jun 17 '14 at 15:58
Short answer: yes, add lukewarm acknowledgements so that nothing is "strange". IMHO, the question is: what will be more useful for you in the future? I'd do is write in a positive way what I hated most, if you feel exploited then thank your adviser for pushing you to reach your limits, if you feel they did nothing then thank them for the freedom you had. Find euphemisms that work (and really look well) and everybody should be happy. IMHO. – Trylks Jun 17 '14 at 18:46
@TylerDurden I think that would be the antithesis of a good idea. – Ollie Ford Jun 19 '14 at 0:53
This is one of the only times in your accadmic career you will have a chance to give a long grateful rant of thanking. Remember that it is a very finite resource you are giving up. The ability to be publicly and formally grateful only comes around so many times in your life. – Oxinabox Jun 19 '14 at 2:13
Everyone should read the most (in)famous acknowledgment section in my field, Computer Science: – espertus Jun 20 '14 at 0:40

14 Answers 14

up vote 102 down vote accepted

A thesis is not a place to solve grudges. It is a professional document that is eternal. As such, it should be handled professionally and gracefully.

Still, I am having trouble why you do not want to have an acknowledgement section. Do you really believe you have done the entire PHD entirely yourself? Even if your advisor did not help enough, you had some funding right? And someone provided that. Should not he be included in the acknowledgement section? Someone also proofread your thesis. You probably also had co-authors in your papers. As you see, there are multiple people that contributed to your success.

But on a more informal tone. Don't you wish to thank your family or significant other for the support? Or your PHD co-students? The people that you share your office with? You have finished a PHD and especially since it probably was a rocky one this a very good reason to celebrate. Do not spoil the moment with petty grudges. Do what you are required to do, be professional and move-on to better things.

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I agree - think about strategy for the future, not fairness for the past. – Anonymous Physicist Jun 17 '14 at 16:17
I'm in a similar situation because my "success" isn't any close and if I ever finish the thesis I will feel it completely as a Pyrrhic victory. To be honest, I feel I should apologize to my family for studying a PhD and not going to industry... – Trylks Jun 17 '14 at 18:45
"Someone also proofread your thesis"? No one proofread mine, and I don't think any of the dissertations written by my fellow grad students were proofread either, even though most of us are non-native speakers. Who are these automatic proofreaders? – Sverre Jun 20 '14 at 13:29
@Sverre Not having a thesis (or any document you want to publish) proofread strikes me as a bad idea. It's not only language; the amount of unclarities and small mistakes others can find is enormous. The author is always the worst at finding such issues. You can asks friends, family and colleagues, depending on their competence and what you want them to check. – Raphael Jun 22 '14 at 16:07
@Raphael For sure, proofreading is always positive. I was just taken aback by the automatic assertion that someone proofread the OP's dissertation. It remains the fact that I have come across very few people who have had their dissertations proofread. I don't have any of my articles proofread either. It doesn't strike me as very common. At least not in my field. – Sverre Jun 23 '14 at 10:34

Not including acknowledgements when it is generally accepted to do so is likely to reflect badly only on you.

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I feel the need to record a dissenting opinion on this.

It is my understanding that acknowledgments are not a required component of a PhD thesis. They are a tradition and a custom, and like most traditions and customs, people participate in them because they find them valuable and enjoy doing them, not because they are obligated to do so. One answer says that many grants "contractually require you to acknowledge the funding entity". Yes, but that's a different kind of acknowledgment: for instance, in many published papers that goes on a footnote appearing on the first page, whereas there may (or may not) be a paragraph in the introduction or at the end of the paper thanking various people. Moreover, a PhD advisor is not a "funding entity" in this sense, and I have never heard of anyone being contractually obligated to thank their advisor. Let us assume that the OP is not.

After reading advice that amounts to "Yes, you should absolutely write acknowledgments in a way that conveys a positive impression of your advisor. Since you in fact feel exactly the opposite way you will have to write them very carefully indeed" a few times, I got a bit worried. I see a personal integrity issue here: really one should not record in a formal document sentiments which are diametrically opposed to those one actually holds. Moreover, all the comments about the career risk one might incur for not including acknowledgments -- well, I must agree that omitting acknowledgments is a suboptimal career move, but such comments make me even more worried. It seems to me that many people here are essentially viewing acknowledgments as a loyalty oath that one must make to one's thesis advisor. That can't be good. People stood on principle against loyalty oaths in the past, sometimes with cost to themselves. They were right and courageous to do so. I'm afraid I see a similar principle here.

My point is this: no, actually the OP certainly does have the right not to put acknowledgments in his thesis. Is that the best career move? No, probably not, but it is his choice and he may have good reasons for doing it. Four final comments:

  • No acknowledgments at all seems much better to me than acknowledgments which are sarcastic or show bitterness, and probably even better than acknowledgments which are carefully written to extract exactly the level of thanks that a dissatisfied person can muster. I do agree that it is less than plausible that the OP does not have warm feelings about anyone (e.g. his family and friends), but writing acknowledgments to your thesis and not mentioning your advisor is also worse than not writing them at all. If you really want to thank your friends and family then you don't need a page in your thesis to do so. (I looked back at my own thesis acknowledgments just now and was somewhat pleasantly surprised by the effusiveness with which I thanked my mother and a very supportive ex-girlfriend. But now I have a sinking feeling in my stomach: I'm not sure either of them ever read my thesis! A facebook message may be in order here...)

  • In case people are wondering whether I personally identify with the OP's ingratitude to his advisor: hell no. My first reaction to the post was to roll my eyes at the sentiment that his advisor was helpful for half the time and then so unhelpful so as to make the total contribution 0%. I am struggling to imagine what someone could do to make a contribution so negative as to cancel out years of support. My first impression of the OP was that he is -- to put it mildly -- a peevish ingrate. My second thought? Gosh, this guy would make a much better impression simply by not talking about his advisor at all. Not recording for posterity your own sentiments when you know that they contain inappropriate and unseemly negativity is a sign of great professionalism, more so than just lying through your teeth.

  • I recently read a PhD thesis from my own program without acknowledgments. I must admit that I did notice this: when I saw the question I thought "Wait, didn't so-and-so not have acknowledgments in their thesis?" so I looked back and confirmed that it was true. Without giving away personal details, let me say that I have every reason to believe that so-and-so had an unusually positive relationship with their thesis advisor, and that so-and-so has gone on to another academic job and, apparently, a promising career. Why did so-and-so not include acknowledgments? I simply don't know. It's not my business.

  • In contrast to what some other people have said: other than in the context of my own graduate program, I rarely read people's PhD theses. When I do it is usually to get some exposition or technical detail that I wish they had put into their published work. In particular, I almost never read the theses of job candidates. Does this sound weird? I think it isn't: I read lots of other accounts of the material in candidates' theses: from their recommendation letters, from their cover letters and research statements and -- when I am really interested -- from the papers and preprints resulting from their thesis work. If other people here specifically read PhD theses in the context of academic hiring, I would be very interested to know. Also, as a hirer -- yes, times are tough and we can be very selective, but there are certain things that one does not want to take into account. If I was at a hiring meeting and someone brought up a lack of acknowledgments in a PhD thesis as a point against a candidate, I would say something like "This person really must be great if you want to sink her and can't do any better than that."

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Like Pete, I'm a mathematician and have never read a PhD thesis in the context of hiring. But a colleague of mine in the history department told me that in one recent job search he (and not only he) had read 13 PhD theses in their entirety --- those of all of the candidates on the "long short list". I didn't specifically ask, but he made it sound like this was completely standard procedure. – Mark Meckes Jun 23 '14 at 15:02
@Mark: That's interesting. I think it makes sense given the timelines of the two professions. In math, you can't read PhD theses for postdoctoral applicants because they haven't been written yet. For tenure-track applicants the PhD thesis is yesterday's news. But in history they usually apply for tenure-track jobs straight away (right?). In that case their PhD thesis is more like a draft of their first book, and I imagine that they spend a year or more literally writing it so can show it to prospective employers. (Still, 13 complete PhD history? They must be quick readers.) – Pete L. Clark Jun 23 '14 at 15:09
My understanding is that, yes, in history people generally apply for tenure-track jobs straight out of grad school (and in this case, I know for a fact that the person who got the job did). And the PhD thesis definitely is the basis for the all-important first book. My colleague probably is a quick reader, but he also made it clear that reading those 13 theses, which were quite far from his own area (he works in German legal history; the job search was in Asian history), took up a lot of his time. I'm not even sure if he was on the search committee! – Mark Meckes Jun 23 '14 at 17:36
I like your answer Pete, but I would say it's really a mathematician's point of view. In other disciplines, social interactions matter more. For example, a math student rarely publishes with their advisor, but this is not true in many other fields. No one tries to get you by saying you do not have an ack section. It will most likely be some sophisticated version of you do not get along with people! in either case, the question is does having an ack section help you in some way? I think the answer is yes. I see the dilemma in saying sth you don't believe in to get around, but that's just life! – adrido Jul 8 '14 at 18:46
Same in computer science: I've never read a PhD thesis in the context of hiring, even though most job applicants are applying directly from their PhD. In CS, the thesis is viewed primarily as an administrative hurdle; it is assumed that any interesting results will be published separately, so we only look at the applicants' peer-reviewed publication record. – JeffE Jan 2 at 16:03

You stated that you have "made up" with your adviser. To be frank, it sounds like you are still harboring some negative thoughts and experiences. You would be best served by putting these negative thoughts and experiences to the side and taking the high road. Acknowledgments won't cost you any money, so give them generously in your career. You have far more to risk by going against the culture of your department by not giving acknowledgments. And, you did state that this adviser was helpful during the first part of your dissertation process. Those efforts are worthy of acknowledgements, even if you had a bad experience later on.

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As an addendum to the above, I have yet to meet any PhD student who defended without at some point coming "close to falling out" with their advisor. As PhD programs last longer than many marriages, this is perhaps unsurprising. Odds are, with the stress of the defense behind you, your relationship with your former advisor will dramatically improve. It never pays to permanently burn bridges, and striking your advisor from your thesis acknowledgements will certainly do just that.

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You probably haven't met me but... I didn't come remotely close to falling out with my advisor. None of my friends when I was a PhD student came remotely close to falling out with their advisors. – David Richerby Jun 17 '14 at 17:17
@David Fair enough, perhaps my field is particularly vicious ;) – user168715 Jun 17 '14 at 17:20
Perhaps the important takeaway is that fall-outs happen, are not that uncommon, and should be considered within the professional context. It's real easy to bear grudges, but rarely is it constructive. – Alex Feinman Jun 17 '14 at 18:18

There is a very interesting article, by Ken Hyland, titled "Dissertation Acknowledgements: The Anatomy of a Cinderella Genre" (2003), that sheds a lot of light on how dissertation acknowledgments operate. He analyzes 240 dissertations, from six different fields, to see what patterns emerge in their acknowledgments.

It's worth a read (even just a skim). Hyland does a lot to show how acknowledgments are much more than just a list of "thank yous" - that it's actually very important as a place for writers to promote themselves as initiate academics.

One of his concluding observations is that "acknowledgments can play an important rhetorical role in promoting a competent, even rhetorically skilled, scholarly identity while signaling important professional connections and relationships as well as the valued disciplinary ideals of modesty, gratitude, and appropriate self-effacement" (266).

Here's the Eric link to the article. If you're not able to access the PDF through your school, I'd be happy to post a link to the PDF (if that's allowed)!

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Life Rule Number One: Never burn your bridges for any reason except ethics and integrity. Your situation doesn't pass that test.

From a purely selfish standpoint, you don't want to seem petty or ungrateful even if you feel that way. You can't know what the future will be like. Someone who might want to offer you a position based on your thesis could get puzzled by no acks, ask around, and feel that someone who can't even "make nice" in such a trivial way would be a poor fit.

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It seems to me that writing down a personal opinion in a formal document that is the opposite of the opinion one truly holds could be an instance of "ethics and integrity". – Pete L. Clark Jun 22 '14 at 0:04
"Someone who might want to offer you a position based on your thesis could get puzzled by no acks, ask around...." I find this scenario most unlikely. Not offering someone a position because of some rumors you heard about the imperfection of their relationship with their adviser is pretty shady. – Pete L. Clark Jun 22 '14 at 0:05
By "ethics and integrity" I meant a substantive issue, not one of feeling ill-used by one's advisor. Apropos not offering a position because the customary acks are missing, I can only note the surfeit of PhDs looking for jobs in their fields. – MMacD Jun 23 '14 at 10:18

You should write the acknowledgements. Many grants contractually require you to acknowledge the funding entity, you should check the specifics of your foundation.

And yes, thank your supervisor. Consider this: Someone interested in working with/hiring/inviting for a lecture/etc. your supervisor is very unlikelly to read your thesis, so omitting thanks to him will have no impact on his career. On the other hand, someone interested in you will certainly read your thesis and may read the acknowledgements to get a feeling of your personality. Since you are expected to thank your supervisor, the omitted thanks may strike as arrogant, specially because it won't be justified, so it may be harmful to you.

Of course, it shouldn't have a major impact, but still, it won't favour you. This doesen't apply to omitting thanks to the staff, since an external reader will not know you worked with them, but may make it harder to work with them in the future. From my experience, many lab workers pay a lot of attention to this, and will feel offended by the omision.

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regarding "won't be justified": good point, it would be unclear to a reader why the acknowledgement is left out. – Volker Siegel Jun 18 '14 at 3:49

Like the other posters, I would agree that it is important to write acknowledgements although it isn't easy to get them right. I read them to get a feel for what a researcher might be like and am probably not alone in doing this, especially now more and more PhD theses are available online. I thought the following advice, from: was useful:

Once written, try to read the acknowledgement with the eyes of yourself ten years down the line, with the eyes of an employer five years later and with the eyes of the examiners and colleagues now. Always check the acknowledgements for unintended messages: for example, a four-page acknowledgement section thanking everyone in the address book including the cats and dogs of the neighbour's nephew, while barely spending half a line acknowledging the role of one's advisors, may give an unintended message of a broken supervision structure.

It isn't easy to write acknowledgements relating to somebody where there has been a conflict. Maybe mention your supervisor first, and then you can get away a little more with being less than effusive. And then keep your thanks to other people brief so it doesn't feel unbalanced.

Perhaps read some acknowledgements written by others in your lab or elsewhere, find a few in a style you like and ruthlessly steal/adapt their phrasing to your case "I am grateful to XX for their encouragement, wise commentaries...". There must have been something they got right, at some point, so state that. (Leave the rest for when you warn away potential PhD students who get in touch with you because they are considering joining your former group....)

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If I were you, I would pay close attention to the implications in the citation above regarding a study of acknowledgements.

You mention "lab" so your field is clearly both "hard" and empirical. If you think that nobody helped you at all in your thesis, your recollections are most likely deluded and selective at best, or your hubris is at a dangerously high level.

Moreover, acknowledgements in part have a character of dog whistles. When you go to publish papers out of your thesis, do you think that an acknowledgement along the lines of, say, "thanks to the attendees at the Widgit Workshop at MIT for their insights and suggestions" carries any signal in the anonymous peer review process?

Summarily, I was young once, so I understand where you're coming from: it was a tough, crappy, job you got through with; it remains, in any field, a rite of passage with roots in the Medieval.

But if you don't get beyond it, you'll just be shooting yourself in the foot.

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You add an acknowledgement not only for your adviser but also for your family, friends, institution etc.

As you yourself said he helped during first half – so do remember the starting is always the most difficult one. Moreover you should be thankful because I think you do not know how difficult it is to even get a PhD adviser in some places.

Just sit back and think – didn’t his “0% contribution” ultimately help you to learn so many things on your own, which you would not have learnt otherwise? And the most important – your not adding the acknowledgement may show your un-thankful nature and in future (in your interviews etc) you may not always be able to defend against: “why you didn't added acknowledgement?”

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+1 for Didn't 'his 0% contribution' ultimately helped you to learn so many things on your own [...] – Enthusiastic Student Aug 28 '14 at 6:48

I think you are being unduly precious about this and straying into delusional egomaniac territory if you don't think a single person at your institution helped you secure your PhD

Whilst I can sort of understand why you don't want to offer gushing tributes to your supervisor, why not include a brief statement such as 'I would like to thank the following people for their support in completing this piece of work'

Then simply list everyone appropriate including your supervisor in alphabetical order.

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I stumbled on this thread as I am helping a friend edit his acknowledgments and trying to word something he feels represents how he feels without offending anyone. He is in a similar quandary about the acknowledgement section but instead of hating his advisor is so burnt out by the process and feels the thesis he is writing is so worthless he doesn't want to associate anyone with what he is committing to his thesis. I feel the same way about my dissertation and have planned on not writing an acknowledgements section myself. Only when we were trying to craft his to mask his disgust at his creation did I think about the social obligation of this practice and that it must contain some value for the people who it is written for...

But even as I recognize the social obligation of this practice I am really surprised at all the answers here, and large amount of value that is placed by the respondents to this question on the importance of an acknowledgments section. I feel like everyone has given this issue too much thought and given it way too much value.

Why does an acknowledgements section matter?

If the OP is conflicted they should leave it out and shouldn't mention it, I would be really surprised if anyone (even the advisor notices), unless I am wrong and advisors are starved of praise and desperate for a note in paper that few if anyone will ever read? Many of the posts say it would a bad career move to not include the acknowledgments... are search committee noticing you left one out? That is a stretch... Academic hiring committees have better things to do, and thousands of other pages to read. I think it is better to leave it out and ignore the situation than it is to write a dishonest one. In the end, two months from now, no one is going to care that you didn't have an acknowledgment section. But if you write one that is really a backhanded compliment your advisor is going to notice and that will further test a weak relationship....

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This seems like a different question from the OP's. Or a restatement of his/her question. Consider posting it as a new thread. – APrioriRainbows Oct 30 at 18:58

I am in a similar situation, yet not writing the thesis but I am so tired of my advisor (or well... lack of it) that if I ever reach that day I will not write any acknowledgements at all and by reading the answers here I am even more convinced of doing so.

The thing is that if you write them, they have to be somewhat positive because they may affect your career in a way. So if the consensus is to write something positive just for the sake of doing it, then we can assume that there are plenty of thesis out there with fake acknowledgements (I omit the ironic or sarcastic or double meanings in them anyways). And I think that even worst than no acknowledgements at all or even the real truth.

But on the other side, academia is as fake as any other industry; and so you cannot fight the system, so you must go with it. Which means you have to write nice acknowledgements just because everyone else is doing it and you are expected to do it.

So I think it is better to have no acknowledgements because that does not give any information extra. If acknowledgements are there, they can be positive or nice, but you will never know if they are true unless of course sarcasm, irony and other language tools are identified in them. For negative acknowledgements I think that those are not really needed to be written on your thesis because in the end time will show the truth and you don't want to be the one to point things out about someone (or some people) even if you are right.

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