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I am wondering if there is a general consensus as to the suitability of epigraphs in a thesis, either a single one at the start of the document, or an appropriate quote to begin every chapter.

For example, at the start of a technical chapter describing some code, I could write

Beware of bugs in the above code; I have only proved it correct, not tried it. - Donald E. Knuth

I am lucky to have complete freedom over how I choose to typeset my thesis (Master's thesis in astronomy) and I like the idea of a thematic quote to begin a chapter. However, I am wary of seeming unprofessional or tacky so I am curious to get some more thoughts on the matter.

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    In my humble opinion, that quote by Knuth would fit before a chapter in a CS thesis about bugs in compiler implementations or something similar, i.e. somewhere where there is a plausible connection to the material. In front of a 'code' chapter in a physics/astro/chem thesis, it honestly sounds like "my code might be wrong but I'm quoting Knuth so that makes it less bad" to me.
    – us2012
    Sep 10 '13 at 12:43
  • 1
    You are right, I suppose it would give that impression (here's hoping I don't need to write a chapter on bugs). A thesis is no place to be self-deprecating!
    – Moriarty
    Sep 10 '13 at 12:53
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    "The quoting of an aphorism, like the angry barking of a dog or the smell of overcooked broccoli, rarely indicates that something helpful is about to happen." — Lemony Snicket
    – JeffE
    Sep 10 '13 at 13:35

10 Answers 10

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Well-chosen, non-frivolous epigraphs can enhance a thesis.

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  • 3
    So can spending the time looking for epigrpahs on research/writing instead.
    – StrongBad
    Sep 10 '13 at 11:30
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    @DanielE.Shub If you have to actively spend time finding an epigraph, it is very likely one that will only annoy your readers due to sounding artificial. Either the epigraph comes intuitively from your mind or it's not worth the ink. Sep 11 '13 at 11:54
  • 21
    Hey, that's a perfect epigraph! Well-chosen, non-frivolous epigraphs can enhance a thesis. --Dave Clarke Sep 11 '13 at 15:32
  • 5
    "Yo, dawg, I heard you like epigraphs." — Xzibit
    – JeffE
    Sep 12 '13 at 0:45
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    @JeffE Were you calling me? :D
    – yo'
    Jul 27 '15 at 11:36
29

To paraphrase an old joke, and risk the disapproval of Dave Clarke and Daniel E. Shub: What do you call someone whose PhD thesis contains a frivolous epigraph that they spent a while finding? Answer: "Doctor"!

Keep in mind that to first order, nobody will ever read your thesis. Ok, you will, and your advisor will probably read most of it, and perhaps some of her future students will look through it for ideas. And your family might flip through the first few pages to be polite. Otherwise, what people will read are the papers you publish based on it. Therefore, it doesn't really matter very much whether you include an epigraph or not, as few will read the thesis, and fewer will notice the epigraph.

Personally, I enjoyed choosing a "frivolous" epigraph for my thesis; it did take an hour or two that I could have spent writing, but nobody can spend all their time writing, and it was a good stress reliever. I don't think it enhances the thesis, particularly; I don't really think it affects its merit at all. But it was one more little thing that helped me get through the process.

Certainly, your epigraph should be in good taste, and not offensive to anyone. Don't use it as a way to make the thesis sound more impressive; that's a waste of time, because nobody will be impressed. And if your advisor notices it and objects for any reason, apologize and meekly remove it. But otherwise, if you have fun with it, I can see no reason to object.

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    "nobody will ever read your thesis" -- maybe, but people will scroll through it (at least if it's on the net) and catch the epigraphs. Sep 15 '13 at 0:29
  • I agree with @darijgrinberg. People will only either scroll through it, or use it as a reference if they know it exists and it contains something useful to them. To the first kind of people, little details can make a difference, no matter it's likely to be negligible.
    – yo'
    Jul 27 '15 at 11:38
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    In my field, there are quite a few well-written (and cited) PhD theses. You need to estimate how many people will read it. But if you enjoy epigrams, it's yours to make the decision (but talk to your advisor first). Feb 12 '16 at 14:11
  • This really depends on the field. And - it has changed, in the sense that theses used to exist mostly in print and not in large circulation, but these days they're just another kind of document accessible through search engines and digital libraries.
    – einpoklum
    Apr 7 at 15:19
15

It cannot hurt to have epigraphs, and they do not specifically have to be about your research topic or about research. Epigraphs are indicative of the state of mind of the author at a particular point in time.

7

One can perhaps distinguish two major categories of epigraphs:

  1. "Serious-tone" epigraphs, which usually the author uses in an attempt to positively influence the reader on his upcoming arguments through a usually wise (or wise-looking) or ingenious (or so the author thinks) quote from a well-known and respected (or so the author thinks) person.

  2. "Light-tone" epigraphs which serve the same purpose but they supposedly do it using the additional weapon called humor.

The author may also honestly believe that the epigraph sums up some of his upcoming arguments (or opens the gates for them) in a way that surpasses his capabilities, and uses the epigraph with true respect and admiration.

But the "influencing strategy" seems to be the thought that comes up to people's minds... which means that usually, only "respected persons" can get away with using epigraphs of other "respected persons", without the risk of looking like they are trying to manipulate their readers...

On the flip-side, who can resist a great epigraph?

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It depends on their frequency - personally, while I do enjoy one nice epigraph at the very beginning of a thesis, I consider one on each section (or every ten pages) overkill and rather disturbing the reading flow. But on a divide, e.g. between the introducing theory and your own contribution, a second epigraph is surely ok as well.

Ultimately, it really is a matter of your own taste; an epigraph may make the reader smile, but they can easily skip it if they just need raw facts at that moment.

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    On an unrelated note, please don't use smart-ass Latin à la quidquid Latine dictum sit altum videtur to justify that choice of language back in school... Sep 11 '13 at 6:43
  • Why not? It is fun to decipher, and get a bit nostalgic if you knew the language, and a bit exploratory, if you don't. In both cases you have the opportunity to share an in-joke with the author. I am not a fan of the modernist joyless attitude to writing and, while some will be, I do not think that those who aren't should be punished. Feb 12 '16 at 13:40
  • @CaptainEmacs It certainly depends on the context - if it's a small part of e.g. the introduction, which can be easily skipped without eliminating any chance of grasping the importance of the remainder of that sentence or even the entire paper, so be it, but frankly I'm a Physicist and when someone writes a theoretical paper containing "of course, ε>0 is a condicio sine qua non", I'd be really pissed off that I have to google this first just to learn whether the criterion was mandatory or optional à la "can be easily generalized to any ε≠0" Feb 12 '16 at 13:47
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    @CaptainEmacs Let me elaborate on "smugness": I absolutely appreciate someone with broad (or simply different) education teaching me something new/better - that is why I read their publication to start with. But the Latin phrases I encountered so far always rather seemed to serve no purpose other than using a formulation too exotic and more like showing off. I also enjoyed Einstein's original papers, but I cannot honestly say whether part of that fascination not merely stemmed from the fascination with the theories they kicked off, but indeed it seems nowadays everything's too rushed... Feb 12 '16 at 14:20
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    +1 for "too rushed" - I quite agree. I do not think it's just the theories that make the papers great. Many smart people (not all) used to write very lucidly; it was them that came up with the ideas, so they know the motivations for making the steps they do, unlike all the "copy/pasters" that came after them and, regurgitating material, often left out important arguments. I can also mention Born/Huang's textbook (as opposed to later Solid Matter textbooks, and for Sommerfeld, I had only his textbook in mind, not his scientifically original papers). But I get your point. Feb 12 '16 at 14:25
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Relevance is king in such questions. However, I remember, many years ago, to have read a nice epigraph, or actually two, paraphrased here from memory:

"The thesis must be an original work of the candidate." (PhD Examination Regulations, University of xxx)

"There is nothing new under the sun." (Ecclesiastes)

Both on one page. I thought that was wise and humble, and actually quite ironic.

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  • I disagree about the humble irony. The first quote is a cornerstone of the scientific method. The second is a piece of religious dogma that is absolutely irrelevant to science. It sounds like the author is trying to say something along the lines of: "you cannot invent or change the laws of the universe, thus nothing is original". Seems rather naff to me, and perhaps a little arrogant. An abstruse attempt to be self-deprecating?
    – Moriarty
    Feb 12 '16 at 14:38
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    @Moriarty I do not see the religious dogma in the statement. I rather see there a disillusioned person, probably in advanced age. Someone who has seen too much. Think "Old Professor who looks down at the youngsters who think they have been so original, unaware that few of them - if any - are"? Who knows? But in the reactions I have seen in this thread, epigrams have elicited more than once the reaction of "smugness" or "arrogance", so I suspect, as depressing as it is, I should adjust my response to recommend avoiding epigrams if possible, as they may come across wrongly, e.g. as arrogant. Feb 12 '16 at 14:49
  • It is a quotation from the Hebrew Bible (although Ecclesiastes does sound rather like the name of a Greek philosopher). Dogma may be too strong a word for that particular part – canon or dictum might be more fitting.
    – Moriarty
    Feb 12 '16 at 17:00
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    @Moriarty I am quite aware of its provenance. However, I do not think it is fair to interpret texts by where they come from if what they contain speaks strongly for itself. Hitchens and Dawkins, both avowed atheists, are reported to have liked that book (google it). It's far closer to life philosophy and almost Schopenhauerian pessimism than religion, and certainly, over large passages, one of the most undogmatic (or even antidogmatic) texts in the bible canon. One can disagree with the message or its relevance to science, but to shoot it down as "religious dictum/dogma" is eristics. Feb 12 '16 at 17:47
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    You make a good point, I must agree with that! I don't dislike the quote because of its religious origins, specifically. It's not a spiritual statement. I dislike the author using it to whimsically dismiss scientific progress.
    – Moriarty
    Feb 12 '16 at 17:54
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The other answers are certainly good, too, and/but my reaction is that choices of epigraphs are like poetry or philosophy written when one is young... just seem silly later. Now, yes, the same seemingly-proscriptive criterion can be applied to almost all human activities... but/and the question really becomes whether one plans to be indulgent, later, of the young self, or whether one will be annoyed or regretful or embarrassed. Meanwhile, other people, at their own analogous stages, will perceive youthful choices of epigrams as just that... probably not as necessarily either greatly entertaining or profound, any more than philosophizing or humor of every age-demographic seems insightful or funny to other demographics.

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  • The thesis is a proof of what was achieved. The writing might not be up to the level one reaches with tenure. Looking back, is is the documentation of a reached step. That's not only true on writing skills, knowledge regarding the topic but also for humor.
    – usr1234567
    Feb 1 at 10:55
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My opinion, and for theses in science or engineering:

  • Avoid multiple epigraphs in your thesis. Use either no epigraphs, or one in the introduction and/or one for the summary/conclusion. Many epigraphs in a thesis always see to me to be a little... overly presumptuous, perhaps a little self-aggrandizing. And sometimes you even come off as being a smart-ass rather than well-read.
  • Consider epigraphs in a book or book chapter (e.g. one based on your thesis), where more narrative flair is appropriate in general.
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Epigraphs are an excellent feature to enhance a thesis. I asked my advisor when showing him the first version of my epigraph --- that could be a kind of precondition to do that (if you wanna be sure that your advisor agrees with your intention). Naturally, a (serious / scientific) context must exist between an epigraph and your concent. Too many funny qoutes could be declined by readers.

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Epigraphs are never suitable. They are distracting and unprofessional. Stick to the subject of your thesis and nothing more. Time spent researching epigraphs is time better spent researching and writing your thesis. If a quote is relevant to your work, such as the Knuth quote, then put it in the thesis and explain its relevance to your subject.

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