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I'm currently working on the acknowledgements section of my doctoral thesis. I suffered from severe depression during my time as a PhD student and received tremendous support from a particular nurse at the university's health center. She's literally the only person outside the academic sphere who helped me overcome my health issue (I'm an international student living far away from my family), so I'm thinking of thanking her in the acknowledgements, but I'm aware that that would be unconventional. Would it still be fine to include her, or would that ever be considered unprofessional or inappropriate?

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    Chances are nobody will have a problem with it. I have never come across a situation in which the decision of somebody to include anybody in the acknowledgments has got them into trouble. What's in the acknowledgements doesn't normally interest anybody unless somebody who did some work and believes they should be there is not. Feb 7 at 17:24
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    I've thanked my doctors, teachers and friends in my thesis. It's the only part of your thesis that you can truely write whatever you wish.
    – young_man
    Feb 8 at 1:58
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    I reminded a daughter that she had said, "I will when you do" regarding the Ph.D. (I earned mine late in life.)
    – Bob Brown
    Feb 8 at 19:48

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From a European perspective: this is totally fine to me. This is your text. In addition, the acknowledgements section is likely to be the only part of your thesis where you can freely use the pronoun "I" instead of the academic "we": a few words thanking people that actually really helped you to achieve your thesis is a good idea, so go for it.

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    Yes, dissertation acknowledgements are typically much more personal than paper acknowledgements, and are often used for people who provided any form of support. Feb 7 at 17:45
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I suggest that you do this, but without mentioning details or bringing up the issue of depression. Thank her for her support as you could also do for, say, academics or family members.

If you leave depression behind you there is no reason to leave a marker in your dissertation. But, yes, acknowledge her help.

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    One reason to leave a marker of depression in your dissertation despite having left it behind: so that others currently suffering from depression during dissertation writing may come across it and be reminded they are not the first to walk that path. Feb 8 at 15:58
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    I don't think the world is at a point where this might not be used against the author. People spend a lot of time to be good at something at the expense of learning other areas in life (like mental health). It thus seems unlikely that someone, who is really good at their field and works where the author might try to get a job, could have had time to learn about depression and think beyond that it is just being lazy, for example. Feb 8 at 19:06
  • @heretoinfinity: I think that’s sadly true in many contexts — e.g. job applications — where mentions of such personal circumstances are not usual, and an unsympathetic reader might read them as an intended excuse for professional shortcomings. But in thesis acknowledgements it’s much more normal to get rather personal, so this wouldn’t stand out as at all marked, and there’s much less scope for that uncharitable reading.
    – PLL
    Feb 9 at 17:21
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The following is from an American perspective. I have no idea how it works elsewhere.

  1. The acknowledgements section is yours. You can do with it whatever you like. There are a few formalities which you should generally adhere to, e.g. you should probably thank your advisor; and if you thank one committee member, you should probably thank the rest. Basically, don't jilt anyone.

    But it really is yours. You can acknowledge anyone you like, and say anything about them that you want. The acknowledgements are a place for you to make personal statements about the last 4-8 years of your life, in gratitude for whatever support has been provided during a genuine ordeal.

    For reference, my father's dissertation gives thanks to a large number of people, and then turns an irritated eye towards the university itself:

    The same cannot be said of the institutional setting. Its lack of coherence and frequent pettiness serve few.

    Personally, I very nearly acknowledged my lawyer in my acknowledgements (my wife and partner of 15 years left me a year before I was supposed to finish my PhD, taking our daughter in the process—that attorney was a vital component in my ultimate ability to finish, albeit a year later than I'd planned). One draft contained the lines

    Special thanks to W___ B___, esq. The last two years have been filled with pettiness, disruption, and sabotage. Without Mr B___, I likely would not have been able to overcome it.

    I ultimately didn't include any such text (it seemed petty, as the real goal was to take a jab at the ex), but I considered it. You get to say whatever, and thank whomever, you like. It is your document.

  2. Practically no one is ever going to read your acknowledgements. If you are lucky, your advisor will read them. There is a good chance that anyone who you specifically ask to read your dissertation will read the acknowledgements. But that's about it.

    If you feel that some service provider has helped you to finish, you absolutely should thank them. And you can make that thanks as effusive or circumspect as you like. You shouldn't really worry about who is going to read, or make decisions based on, the acknowledgements section of your dissertation. Because almost no one is ever going to read it.

    I would maybe suggest that you keep things basically professional (there is no need to go into any detail about whatever mental health problems you were having, just as there would not be any reason to get into whatever gastro-intestinal distress you encountered after eating that bad pad thai at a cheap restaurant with your advisor—don't ask), but it's still really up to you.


NB: While writing this answer, I found a typo in the first sentence of the acknowledgements section of my thesis. A very obvious one. No one has ever pointed it out. Clearly, no one (not even I) have ever read that section.

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    But: remember that the thesis is a permanent record, and nowadays it is likely to be published online and findable with all good search engines. Therefore, whilst you can write whatever you like, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on whether you will still be happy with what you wrote in your acknowledgements in 20 years' time.
    – avid
    Feb 8 at 13:30
  • @avid Indeed. I had originally written more in the last paragraph about "are you going to be happy with this in 10 years?", but it is so hard to know what you are going to think in 10 years... I stand by the basic idea of "keep it basically professional". Feb 8 at 13:45
  • When I meet a new colleague with a PhD, I usually spent 5 min to google their thesis to know what they did. I read the summary, I look at some random graphs, and I always read the acknowledgments. It reminds me of writing the acknowledgments myself.
    – usr1234567
    Feb 8 at 21:18
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    @usr1234567 You are likely one of only two or three people who has ever read the acknowledgements of the theses you have read the acknowledgements of. I tend to read abstracts, the table of contents, and skim over the introductory material. Feb 8 at 21:20
  • "If you feel that some service provider has helped you to finish, you absolutely should thank them." Service provider? The internet service provider and the electricity company did help me, but...
    – Stef
    Feb 9 at 10:06
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so I'm thinking of thanking her in the acknowledgements, but I'm aware that that would be unconventional.

I am a big fan of all kinds of acknowledgments and always encouraged students to go wild there (as I did).

With this said I would think twice before mentioning any health problems. This may not only hit you back (if someone reads your PhD thesis) or your doctor may not be thrilled by this as it is covered by confidentiality rules, practices or laws.

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    I'm not aware of any areas where it would it would be against rules/norms for the patient to disclose who their doctor is. I agree it might be prudent to say something like "I would like to thank (my doctor / Dr. S.) for their thoughtful care." rather than "I would like to thank Dr. Emily Smith at North Health Partners for her treatment of my (depression / broken leg)." Feb 8 at 17:12
  • @AzorAhai-him- I don't know - it sounds a bit weird to me (as a French). It's not that it is illegal or something, just that the medical areas are really private, including the relationship with the doctor. But this is just a feeling, nothing hard core.
    – WoJ
    Feb 9 at 7:09
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This is not unusual at all. You can provide thanks to Ann Adams, Bob Blake, Chet Carson, Dave Dunlop, etc., for all the help and support they provided you during the difficult time of writing your dissertation.

Do not mention your own health problems.

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