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I have 3 supervisors, two of whom have been very helpful and supportive throughout my PhD. The third (technically my secondary) has been pretty unhelpful and absent over the years (doesn't come to meetings, provides little feedback on my writing outside of affirming with what the others have said, completely checks out of discussions regarding the methodological details of my work, largely unsupportive/uninterested in the project, etc).

In my acknowledgements I would like to include a personalised and heartfelt thank you to my 2 engaged supervisors, but it is difficult to do this without also having to include some disingenuous thank you to my crappy supervisor.

As I am nearly done with the thesis it would be silly to kick up a fuss about the quality of supervision now. Should I just include a generic thank you to all three supervisors as a collective?

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    It's a different situation, but the answers to Leaving out unhelpful advisor from acknowledgements? may still be relevant.
    – Anyon
    Aug 6, 2023 at 23:16
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    Do you have any idea why they didn't interact more? You might be misjudging them. I can think of several valid reasons for "taking a back seat". I can also think of several reasons not to seem to insult some particular faculty member. Do you have any evidence they tried to subvert you? Any evidence about what went on in the background among the three supervisors outside your view?
    – Buffy
    Aug 7, 2023 at 13:20
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    Yes, it would be silly and possibly self destructive to "kick up a fuss" unless you have complete information and making it public can be dangerous even if you do have such information.
    – Buffy
    Aug 7, 2023 at 13:31
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    @Buffy Not being helpful is a good enough reason to be less acknowledged in an acknowledgement section than a helpful person. Also "do you have any evidence" is a weird thing to write after you have just read a long list of specific complaints by the op (them not attending meetings, etc). One can discuss if it will harm the op in the long run, but there is no need to say that it is "silly". Bad advisors exist.
    – Nico
    Aug 7, 2023 at 16:25
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    IMHO Add something brief and polite. Even if you're bitter about it, it would be virtuous to try to add something specific to that person, even if it is noticeably modest. You don't have to go on and on, toot their horn, or give the heartfelt thanks you want to give the others. Probably few will read it anyway, and for those who do I would try not to hide any daggers in there that would set up a relationship to proceed negatively in the future.
    – tsj
    Aug 8, 2023 at 0:36

9 Answers 9

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I understand your situation because I had both an exceptional advisor and a very uninterested one (whom I'll call X). Of course I wanted to write a real thank you paragraph for the former, and as you I felt awkward when I needed to write one for X. I didn't really know what to thank him for! He attended some meetings where he contributed little to none to the discussion. I even tried to involve him asking him for advice on how to implement an algorithm, and he suggested me to google it.

I didn't want to exclude him completely from the acknowledgment section, so I just wrote something in the lines of "thank you to Dr. X for his valuable input". Writing more than a generic thank you for him would make me feel as if I was actually mocking X, and I didn't want to keep thinking about it since, after all, he already got what he wanted (adding my dissertation to his CV; he was extending it in order to get a grant). My actual thank you for him was adding his name to the cover.

My suggestion is to add a little, polite acknowledgement for your third advisor. I would advise against using a generic thank you for your two other advisors though. You are free to express your sincere positive feelings and gratitude on paper towards the ones that deserve it. As long as you are respectful with everybody, the fact that someone gets offended if his/her thank you paragraph is shorter than others is not your problem, so you should not worry about that.

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    Since the purpose of an advisor is to help you become a researcher and is not to give you answers, suggesting you google (i.e. find your own answer) might be the most valuable advice you ever got. It need not imply disassociation, but could imply making you more self reliant.
    – Buffy
    Aug 7, 2023 at 13:28
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    @Buffy my main advisor also asked me to first try to figure out stuff by myself, and I was fine with that, but here I meant that, since X was not getting involved, I actively tried to find something for X to help me with! Since his background is computer science and I was having troubles understanding an algorithm, I asked him specific questions on how to implement it, but he didn't give any idea at all and just wanted me to google it (when I already did).
    – Amelian
    Aug 7, 2023 at 14:13
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    @Buffy Come on, are you serious? PhD students are not children and they know how to work for themselves. When they ask then they need help.
    – Nico
    Aug 7, 2023 at 16:28
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    @Buffy Other people observed that telling people to go learn to bake ("let them eat cake") is a good way to get a head in a guillotine. We can play dueling aphorisms all day, but telling people to Google "how to fish" is not what people at jobs helping the homeless are paid to do, for good reason.
    – prosfilaes
    Aug 7, 2023 at 21:29
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    It's certainly true that sometimes students (even smart PhD students!) need to be told "figure it out yourself!" OP's description of this third supervisor (unhelpful, unprepared, uninterested, and absent) does not really seem consistent with the theory of a supportive advisor who is wisely hands-off at times, however.
    – cag51
    Aug 8, 2023 at 4:00
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Add a sentence "Thank you to supervisor B for serving as my supervisor." A and C can get more detailed thank you sentences.

  • Factually, this is correct.
  • You needed the number of supervisors.
  • It does neither mock B nor the helpful supervisors A and C.
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    You needed the number of supervisors. - I'm not sure about this. You may need certain numbers for dissertation committees, but I have never heard of 3 supervisors being required.
    – Kimball
    Aug 7, 2023 at 19:52
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    @Kimball It is possible that "supervisor" simply means "committee member". Aug 8, 2023 at 2:19
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    @XanderHenderson You are right, in this case it would be better to write it explicitly as "Thank you to supervisor B for serving as committee member (for my thesis)."
    – usr1234567
    Aug 8, 2023 at 6:46
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    @Kimball Hard to say and, in my experience, a lot of PhD candidates don't really understand the role of all of the people on their committee, nor all of the titles and roles. This is often compounded by not speaking English natively. This really doesn't seem like something to quibble about---the asker mentions that they are required to have three supervisors. Who are we to question that, if it is not vital to understanding the question, nor how to move forward? Aug 8, 2023 at 15:21
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    @Kimball I wonder if they technically needed two supervisors, which is fairly common - partly to deal with situations here one is unhelpful. They would be the first, and the second, unhelpful, one. Then the third could have been helpful but not qualified (lacking a permanent position, for example)
    – Chris H
    Aug 9, 2023 at 7:47
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I have been in the same situation and thought long and hard about this. In the end, I decided against a large distinction, primarily because I didn't want to be reminded of this situation whenever I open the thesis (or whenever someone else does). I still stand by the decision, and just expressed my thanks in a heartfelt email to the 'real' supervisors. Hope that helps!

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    Depends how you express your displeasure. Directly, it rebounds. Subtly, careful readers may appreciate it.
    – Trunk
    Aug 8, 2023 at 20:55
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I think the most professional response would be to thank them for the few things that they did (or should have done).

"Thank you to supervisor X for their thoughtful feedback and consistent support throughout these years, which elevated the methodological approaches in this work."

Is it accurate? Likely not. But realize advisors' work are constantly spread thin, and assume best intentions. This way, you can still elaborate in depth about thanking your other advisors without excluding the lackluster advisor. I think any alternative where your frustration with the advisor is made rather obvious is a no go. Best to take the high-road and move on.

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    And let the tenured dosser off with it? I see no justification for that consciously unethical action.
    – Trunk
    Aug 8, 2023 at 20:57
  • @Trunk I think it's best to avoid causing a fuss unless there was obvious neglect or malice at play. As others have mentioned, the advisor may have been doing work behind the scenes or providing other help that wasn't obviously apparent. If you really wanted to, you could very subtly put in some doublespeak (e.g. "Thank you to X for their consistent feedback and support through these years, which constantly encouraged me to improve myself as a researcher,"—technically, they did, by making you do stuff yourself and thereby be more independent) but I would be very careful about that.
    – Aos Sidhe
    Aug 8, 2023 at 21:30
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    Subtlety is what I advocated in this. And I don't buy the "huge work behind the scenes" yarn at all. X won't move mountains for funding unless X will get all the credit for a successful project. And that means active supervision of the project, lest it fail. Besides, it's totally unfair on the other 2 active supervisors - they sweat and the dosser reaps his unmerited reward.
    – Trunk
    Aug 8, 2023 at 21:47
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I never got my masters, but I have been the 'go-to' guy for people with technical questions. I'd like to offer a slight defense of professor X.

Questions are like baseball pitches, if a question is not in my zone of expertise (for want of demonstrating that you did your own work first - too low or by dint of being too technical and outside my area - too high), I can't really connect with it, even when I'm quite willing to do so. If you're not a sports fan, you can swap in a Goldilocks metaphor without a great loss of content.

As for your question directly, as I got older I learned that if you're going to err, it's better to do so to the side of generosity. You can and should be more direct with people who contact you directly for advice. But TBH, I am not sure how much weight people place on individual student feedback (he said - University said), even at the grad student level. I think you're more likely to come off as a vinegar-drinker without really having any positive impact for your courage.

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Just write the same thanks for everyone.

At this stage of your career you do not see some "invisible" stuff that is very important nonetheless.

Sometimes this third supervisor is actually the person who did all the paperwork necessary to keep the lab running and the group funded. Or the one responsible for administrative tasks that actually allowed your other two supervisors to work. Or the guy that prepares most projects for funding agencies to keep the projects running.

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I feel tempted to suggest a thank you like the one President Kwame Nkrumah offered to Dr Conor Cruise O'Brien at the end of the latter's controversial stint as Vice-Chancellor to University of Ghana: "Dr O'Brien, thank you for all you have done for Ghana - whatever it was."

But let's be a bit subtler.

Supervisors #1, #2 and #3 are formally mentioned in the Acknowledgements section in order of merit.

Acknowledgements

Firstly I should like to thank Prof. J.A. Oxx, Head of Department of Whatever, University of Wherever for providing me with research facilities for the duration of this program.

I should also like to thank my supervisors Prof. A, Prof. B and Prof. C for their support and contributions to this project.

Etc.

While the real meat is served in the Dedication page:

Dedication

To:

My parents, who have never failed in their loving support of me.

Professors A and B whose guidance of this program was unfailingly positive and kindly.

My fellow PhD students ...., ...., ....., etc for their comradeship, cooperation and humor.

My cat, Harry, for always letting me know what (dinner) and who (Harry, of course) was really important through all this time.

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I would avoid saying anything negative as your work will stay on the internet for life, and you don't know when you will need help in the future.

They might read your work and learn that you were trying to be sarcastic and that might cause a problem for you. Just be mature when your answer, acknowledge everyone, and don't burn bridges as you do not know what is happening behind the scenes that made your third supervisor act the way he did.

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  • Your answer is correct but does not offer concrete advice. So it does not sufficiently answer the queston.
    – usr1234567
    Aug 8, 2023 at 6:50
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Just thank all of them and move on with life.

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