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I'm at the stage in writing my dissertation where most of the substantive aspects are finished and the only tasks left are more or less administrative. However, one thing that I've been avoiding is writing the "Acknowledgements" section. Obviously I will thank my supervisor, committee members, other faculty and staff that have played a meaningful role in my education, other students who have been friends and co-workers, my close friends, and my family (in that order!), but I'm struggling with how to approach it. Does anyone have advice or hot tips about what to do or not do that they'd be willing to share? Is it possible to make it meaningful without sounding contrived or pedantic or disingenuous? Do I go with the standard disclaimer about how any errors that remain after getting all that wonderful help and support are mine alone...? Thanks!

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    Keep in mind that anyone who cares about the academic content will read the published papers instead of the dissertation. Few people you don't know personally will ever look at the dissertation, and the acknowledgements will be perhaps the most looked-at page. The main principle is to make sure you thank anyone who might plausibly end up looking at the dissertation. Once you've done that, it really doesn't matter what you say, as long as you are nice and don't insult anyone by making it clear that they are less important to you than they thought. – Anonymous Mathematician May 29 '12 at 15:52
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    I thanked Taco Bell and Denny's for being open late at night when I was working and hungry :). – Suresh May 29 '12 at 17:26
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    @AnonymousMathematician: you say "The main principle is to make sure you thank anyone who might plausibly end up looking at the dissertation." - this sounds a little sad to me. Acknowledgements should be written to express real gratitude, not to please the people that read your thesis (and that maybe you don't feel you need to thank). Am I being too naive here? – boscovich May 29 '12 at 20:26
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    I probably stated it a little too flippantly, but I don't think this approach is incompatible with real gratitude. Certainly you shouldn't thank someone you don't feel gratitude towards, but it's easy to overlook people, and you don't want to spend all your time worrying about the right wording for thanking your advisor, while you totally forget about your office mate from your first year in grad school who you spent so many hours studying for quals with. – Anonymous Mathematician May 30 '12 at 2:23
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    If you obtained funding for your dissertation, then I recommend thanking the funding agency first in the acknowledgements. – Joel Reyes Noche May 30 '12 at 4:30
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The acknowledgements are the only part of the dissertation where you are writing as yourself instead of the Impartial Professional Narrator. Just relax and be honest. (Yes, that can be hard, especially after so many years of writing as Impartial Professional Narrator.)

Don't worry too much about writing it the right way. Just be yourself. Of course your acknowledgements will sound trite to the average reader, but you're not writing to the average reader; you're writing to your mentors, colleagues, friends, and family, who will value the sentiment far more than the specific words.

And don't forget to send a copy of your dissertation to each of the people you acknowledge, especially your family.

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    I think that's the best advice: this is the one place where your own voice shows up. – Suresh May 30 '12 at 6:03
  • About sending a copy of your dissertation to the people you acknowledge: you don't necessarily mean a paper copy, right? As far as I know I'm only acknowledged in one PhD thesis and a couple of Masters dissertations, but I certainly don't want a hard copy of all of them (I'm still in the nomadic postdoc stage). – Tara B Mar 10 '14 at 15:09
  • @TaraB: I once discovered--by chance--that I was acknowledged in a dissertation years after the fact, and only learned several years after that why I was acknowledged. – Mark Meckes Mar 10 '14 at 19:17
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I'd like to add one more point to JeffE's answer - though I have no idea how localized this is:

Over here, the "I-did-the-work-myself" declaration contains a phrase that noone but those named in the acknowledgements did help with the work. So in addition to thanking all the people whom you like to thank for moral support etc. (where forgetting someone would be impolite, but usually not have any further consequences), it is legally important not to forget anyone who helped with the work.

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To mirror JeffE's answer: Your Acknowledgements section is for you. And possibly the small number of people who will actually look at your dissertation cover to cover. Write it in your own voice, and write it the way you want to write it.

For reference, this is mine, with identifying information removed:

I would like to gratefully acknowledge the guidance, support and encouragement of my doctoral advisor, Dr. Chair, and the members of my committee during my time at University, as well as Dr. Helpful for her continued mentorship and collaboration, and for logging many miles between City A, City B and City C while on my committee.

My gratitude extends to Dr. Data and Dr. AnswersMyQuestions at Nearby Institution for their enthusiasm and willingness to provide both data and clinical expertise, to Expert for references and advice about Topic and to my friends at University for many hours of mutual support, complaining and insightful discussions in the student room.

This dissertation would not have been possible without funding from the FUNDING AGENCIES.

Finally, I would like to thank the makers of Dr. Pepper and the members of the StackOverflow and CrossValidated communities for their invaluable assistance in many a late-night coding session.

Yes, it's a little flippant, but in my opinion something in a dissertation should be, and to quote the Rifleman's Creed: There are many like it, but this one is mine.

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