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A PhD student in our school recently passed away unexpectedly, to the shock and grief of a large number of research students and academics, including me.

I had little to do with him on a daily basis, and he had little to nothing to do with the content of the thesis, but nonetheless it occurs to me to make a mention of his passing in the acknowledgements of my own (Honours) thesis.

Is this appropriate, or could it come off as disrespectful?

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    I could see this being weird or scientifically inappropriate, but how would this be disrespectful? – Bitwise Oct 22 '14 at 15:53
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    The question would be better asked as "Is it inappropriate..." The statement "I had little to do with him on a daily basis" doesn't answer a question on whether or not you considered him a friend or a colleague. I had a friend suddenly pass away in college who I rarely took classes with due to our different studies, but I wouldn't say that lack of daily contact made us any less friends. – Compass Oct 22 '14 at 16:01
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    What is the purpose of the acknowledgment? As you said, you had "little to do with him" and "he had little to nothing to do with the content of the thesis." I'm guessing there are many people who can be categorized as such, but aren't candidates for acknowledgment. Why this person? – Brian P Oct 22 '14 at 16:26
  • @Compass I considered him a colleague. Not so much a friend, but someone I had a lot of respect for. – Hotchips Oct 23 '14 at 3:13
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    @BrianP There are of course many people who have had little input on my thesis! I think the primary reason for this is that I had a lot of respect for him, and the School as a whole was shocked by his passing. I think the magnitude of that shock, magnified obviously by the recent timing of the event, makes me consider it. I think Pete is right in his answer that a dedication or memorial is more appropriate than an acknowledgment as such. – Hotchips Oct 23 '14 at 3:18
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I certainly don't think it's "crass", and I have a hard time seeing who could be disrespected. In general, you can acknowledge whomever you want in a thesis and the only crass thing would be to say something negative about them.

However, there is possibly a bit of room for misunderstanding here, because the ostensible purpose of the acknowledgments is to recognize people who helped you out in some way. Based on what you write -- you were not close, and he did not help on your thesis -- it doesn't make sense to thank this person in the acknowledgements.

I might instead suggest going for a dedication or commemoration. Some ways of wording this are given here. You could either end the acknowledgments with a dedication, probably in its own separate paragraph (and you can dedicate the thesis to more than one person, if you like), or you could include the dedication on its own page separately in the thesis, e.g. "For X", "In memory of X (19xx - 20xx)", etc.

Speaking personally, I like the look of the latter, and I find it to be the opposite of crass to take time out to remember the departed, whether they had a special relationship with you or not. You are doing your part to make sure that your fellow student will not be completely forgotten for some time to come. Good for you.

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    @BrianP: The OP describes his fellow student's passing as "to the shock and grief of a large number of research students and academics, including me." That's the connection. How or whether to commemorate the deceased is one of the most personal things I can think of at the moment. I would be careful in being too critical of this. – Pete L. Clark Oct 22 '14 at 16:35
  • @BrianP Your comment cuts to the heart of what I was trying to ask here - essentially how much of a connection is needed. I've marked Pete's answer as correct though from the standpoint of remembering a fellow student. Doing what I can, in essence. – Hotchips Oct 23 '14 at 3:11
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The social etiquette of acknowledgments sections vary from school to school. It would never be rude or disrespectful. I thanked family and friends in mine - and made reference to an internal lab jokee. Check previous theses to get an indication of etiquette in your school, but I don't see any reason this would be inappropriate.

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    I've spoken to my supervisor about the acknowledgments section, though not this question in particular, and it seems as if it's a touch of anything goes. The caveat is that you have to tick a couple of boxes in particular, and after that it doesn't 'matter' as such. – Hotchips Oct 23 '14 at 3:21
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You might easily look like someone who is seeking public attention.

Dedicating a publication is a privilege you should leave to close friends or the faculty staff.

Consider your best friend died, you wanted to commemorate him in your thesis, and then found three others had done the same before you. Could feel strange, couldn't it?

Or think about the mourning parents. They might spend days to find your phone number, cause nobody they know knows it, and then call you, expecting to find someone who is as sad as they are. Do you want to risk that?

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    -1: "Consider your best friend died, you wanted to commemorate him in your thesis, and got beat to it by two weeks by whats-his-name-usually-sits-in- the-front-row." I'm sorry, but that's just idiotic. Obviously one deceased person can be commemorated by multiple people. Obviously. Also making up such blatantly fictional scenarios in an answer to a question about an actual deceased party seems in poor taste to me. You should not pretend to know how grieving parents will act. I would recommend that you delete this answer. – Pete L. Clark Dec 13 '15 at 23:42
  • (I've rephased that a bit.) The OP has made it clear that he had no personal relationship. The friends and family might be OK with his commemoration, but then they might feel he's forcing himself on them. I don't know, but risking it is tactless enough, imho. – Karl Dec 14 '15 at 0:12
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    By what mechanism will the family members of a deceased PhD student come to read the thesis of an undergraduate student in the same department? Anyway, honoring the deceased is something that everyone has a right to do. The idea that one person's practice of this takes away from another's is really perverse. – Pete L. Clark Dec 14 '15 at 0:21
  • You seem to be very sure about rights and wrongs. Sorry. I'm simply recommending to tread ligthly around people's feelings here. – Karl Dec 14 '15 at 0:44

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