I have a very dumb :-) question:

Are emoticons (if rarely placed - one or two times) in a PhD thesis considered unorthodox?

I have an introduction where I give an apt example and appended some small footnote where I make fun of the author (that's me) and I was so laughing when writing this I almost liked to put a smiley at the end of the footnote.

The reader of this question should note, that the thesis is already enough serious such that a smiley might be surely a relieve for the reader maybe :-)?

What is the general thought about this?

Update: After all these enlightening, entertaining and thoroughly funny thoughts, I decided to go with a humorous footnote but of course without a smiley. :-P

  • 99
    I could be wrong, but it seems to me you misunderstand what a PhD is supposed to be. Surely it is meant to be a serious piece of scholarship that presents an original argument that is to be judged on its academic merit. I can't see any place for emoticons.
    – Tave
    Jan 18, 2016 at 20:58
  • 17
    Maybe, maybe, in the acknowledgements, which is a less formal part of the text. In the text itself, big no no Jan 19, 2016 at 1:43
  • 42
    I don't get what that :-) is supposed to tell me in your first phrase.
    – phresnel
    Jan 19, 2016 at 9:40
  • 29
    Your thesis will definitely win the award of "Most likely to not be read beyond the introduction."
    – MonkeyZeus
    Jan 19, 2016 at 13:55
  • 18
    Is the subject of your thesis emoticons? If so, use as many as you want. Otherwise don't use them at all.
    – aroth
    Jan 20, 2016 at 0:44

11 Answers 11


I highly value humor and love to entertain whenever I can. In formal writing, I would encourage you to go ahead and write something that you think would be funny. Then reread it. Then reread it again. Read it aloud. Read it silently. Read it again tomorrow while you edit it. And read it again. And again. And again. Imagine reading it out loud to the people with the least sense of humor you know. Imagine reading it to a person with a furrowed brow, in a bad mood, who is trying to find anything they can to rip apart what you have laid down, to find a reason to cast it aside as useless junk.

Then read it 10 more times, as any good writer must inevitably do. Now imagine reading it again in 10 years (if you are lucky and what you've done turns out to be of use).

Personally, I have found that after the 20+ time I've read something, it isn't even funny to me anymore - and I think I'm hilarious! But even the best jokes I've ever told never landed 100% of time, or to 100% of the audience - and in formal writing I don't even know who the audience is - they might speak my language as a 2nd (or 3rd or 4th) language.

Being stubborn, I like to write humor into anything I make. But after the 20th read through I realize it just isn't funny any more, even to me - and if that's how a reader would feel who doesn't get or appreciate the joke, it just isn't worth it any more to me to include it. I'm basically writing a technical instruction manual, and there's a reason those things aren't really funny - you are supposed to read them and refer back to them repeatedly, and jokes get old fast.

If I really like a joke, I'll save it for when I can make it in person, in a talk or in a presentation, when I can personally hear the laughs (or gauge the room and know to skip it entirely). Or I'll be funny on a website like this so I can wallow in a mass of glorious unicorn points.

But in formal writing like a thesis or important research paper? Well, you decide after you've read it for the 30th time if it is still worth inclusion, or if that emoticon makes you smile - or if you want to poke it in its tiny little semi-colon eye.

  • 37
    Wow. Speaking of people in a bad mood, no offense but it sounds like you're in a bit of one yourself just now. But anyway, +1 for poke it in its tiny little semicolon eye. That's so curmudgeonly it's actually kind of funny.
    – Dan Romik
    Jan 19, 2016 at 2:17
  • 38
    @DanRomik Haha, maybe I should have included something to show I wasn't actually upset ;) But now, based on context, I'm not sure how to convey that isn't a sarcastic smiley. Maybe :>) no I think that's a snowman. @;0 wait no that's not right either. Oh well ¯_(ツ)_/¯
    – BrianH
    Jan 19, 2016 at 2:23
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    One glorious unicorn point to you for being funny while delivering the appropriate message!
    – Belle
    Jan 19, 2016 at 10:43
  • 6
    +1 for "...or if you want to poke it in its tiny little semi-colon eye".
    – KB145
    Jan 19, 2016 at 16:15
  • 7
    A emoticon is an informal communication tool. You can use humour in talks to great effect, as you have to hammer home the message, and sometimes a snappy saying saves the day and captures the essence of your message in a single sentence. But in writing, unless you really, really, really know what you are doing, you should use plain old english, anything else is double plus unsmart. Jan 20, 2016 at 0:49

Many writers make very effective use of humor in their writing, and this extends to technical and scientific writing as well. Donald Knuth is one author I can think of who does this extremely well, which is one of the many things that makes his books memorable and enjoyable to read. So I think there is definitely room for some small self-deprecating remarks in a PhD thesis, if this is done in good taste and in (great) moderation so that it doesn't distract from the main, serious (unless your thesis is about humor or comedy ;-)) content.

With that said, I am going to challenge you to make funny jokes in your thesis without using emoticons. If you think about it, the emoticons don't really add anything other than clarifying that you are making a joke, and in that sense they are a kind of humorous crutch. A truly good comic writer would never use one, since it simply won't be needed. So why don't you try to write humor like a pro and show that you take your jokes as seriously as the rest of your thesis? ;-)

(yes, I know I didn't follow my own advice, but I guess I like self-referential humor too much to be able to resist the temptation...)

  • good discussion as well!
    – Gabriel
    Jan 19, 2016 at 14:45
  • 5
    I was thinking about Don Knuth as well, but thinking about it even his tongue-in-cheek papers (first one that comes to mind) don't contain jokes per se. He might make a point in a funny way, but it is always on topic and furthers the understanding of the reader. Although to be fair I haven't looked into TAoCP in a while, I might misremember.
    – Voo
    Jan 19, 2016 at 17:27
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    @Dan My point is a bit more subtle, let me try again: The way I feel about Knuth's text, the funny bits aren't additions or superfluous just because there's an opportunity to include them there. If Knuth is funny, it still feels like he's furthering the readers understanding or expanding an argument - something that he'd do anyhow, he's just doing it in an entertaining manner. This for me is important: If you can only be funny by adding a superfluous sentence or paragraph, your thesis is probably better off without. The genius of Knuth is that he manages that.
    – Voo
    Jan 19, 2016 at 17:43
  • 1
    @Voo well I thought I understood your intent before your last comment, and still do. I agree with everything you've said. And it sounds like we can also agree that Knuth is a master at this sort of "scientific writing humor" and would be very difficult indeed to emulate.
    – Dan Romik
    Jan 19, 2016 at 19:37
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    Feynman was also a bit unorthodox in his papers, but I'd argue that takes a lot of practice and skills to get in the level where you can successfully do this. Unlikely a good idea for phd candidates (or even recent phd graduates)... Jan 19, 2016 at 19:41

Yes, they're considered unorthodox. As they would be in any piece of formal writing in or out of academia. In fact, you may already be on thin ice by "making fun of the author" in a footnote.

You want people to read your thesis and be impressed with the work you did. Your goal is not to make people think you, the author, are funny or cool (if jokes in your thesis would even accomplish that, which they wouldn't).

Edited to add: If you do use humor in academic writing, it's much better to make a relevant point in a funny way than to make humorous asides. The first rule of writing anything is to never waste the reader's time, so anything humorous in a document that is explicitly not meant to amuse people had better also accomplish something relevant to the actual purpose of that document.

  • 39
    The first rule of writing anything is to never waste the reader's time. If this were true, 99% of the internet would not exist.
    – Dan Romik
    Jan 19, 2016 at 8:44
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    @DanRomik: And it would be great...
    – Zaibis
    Jan 19, 2016 at 10:23
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    @DanRomik, who says the Internet does care about rules? Perhaps not many here remember the year September never endeth, September is just going on...
    – vonbrand
    Jan 19, 2016 at 11:28
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    @DanRomik And 99% of the Internet probably shouldn't exist. Well, that's probably an exaggeration, but it's still a high percentage. Lots of printed books shouldn't exist. But bear in mind, amusing the audience with funny stories is a perfectly good and valid thing to do. Just: in the right place. An explanation of quantum physics would be out of place on a humor website. A bunch of random jokes are out of place in a PhD dissertation. Unless it's a dissertation on the nature of humor.
    – Jay
    Jan 19, 2016 at 15:48
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    To the "1 percenters" @Jay and Zaibis: right. Now we just have to get everybody to agree on which 99% of the internet to eliminate. Piece of cake, I'm sure.
    – Dan Romik
    Jan 19, 2016 at 19:34

Unless your dissertation is an examination of the use of emoticons in modern electronic communications, you should not use them at all.

The dissertation is not the place to be cute. . . it should be a serious piece of scholarship. The author's ability to conform to the established norms of scholarly writing is as important as the actual substance of the work.

Bottom line: Don't do it.

  • Emoticons are a way of expressing emotions, not just expressing cuteness or humor. Jan 23, 2016 at 22:09
  • 2
    Please enlighten me on how a sad emoticon equates to something remotely 'cute'. There is a stigma that is attached to emoticons. Emoticons are to express emotion, which could mean anything, not just to represent 'cuteness', or 'humor'. Jan 24, 2016 at 12:52

A few points:

  1. There are ways to deal with it using just text. For instance, I would consider something like this in the acknowledgement acceptable:

    And thanks to my significant other, who has been my biggest supporter. And thanks for cooking me ramen every night (smile).

  2. Yet, the above technique and the emoticon are very similar to those Please Applaud lights in live filming studios or those embedded laughing sound tracks in comedies—very forced on. Good writers can make readers laugh without resorting to using pictures or explicit hints on how readers should feel. That kind of masterful techniques are probably what we should learn, rather than slamming an emoticon there.

  3. Making jokes on oneself is fine, but making jokes on another author in an archived document deserves more care. Show your joke or joke-like statement to a few people with different backgrounds (age, seniority in academia, sex, race/ethnicity, etc.) just to test the water. Sometimes jokes that we ourselves consider as funny can appear rude, tasteless or downright insulting. Be careful and if you’re not sure, take the joke part out. You’ll have plenty of writing occasions to demonstrate your talents.

  • 13
    +1 for the laughing sound track analogy - very apt, and your point 2 is similar to the point I was making in my answer that truly good comics don't need things like emoticons.
    – Dan Romik
    Jan 19, 2016 at 2:13
  • To me, if your example text in point 1 were included in the acknowledgement section of a thesis it would simply indicate the author couldn't work out how to communicate the humor without labeling it "humor." I see that's what you're saying in your second point, but I'd hardly call it "acceptable;" more like "barely tolerable" (for a scholarly paper).
    – Wildcard
    Jan 22, 2016 at 19:13
  • I like the suggestion of using (smile) instead of an emoticon like :^).
    – J.R.
    Jan 24, 2016 at 10:18

I, like the others answering and commenting on this question, would avoid the use of emoticons in a serious piece of scholarship.

The only instance I can imagine the use being appropriate is if the paper's topic relates to emoticons in some way, e.g. if you were analysing sentiment in social media posts, in which case emoticons are useful.

For example, a sentence like this may be appropriate:

Emoticons, such as :-) and :-( are important qualifiers in analysing social media posts

Whereas a sentence like this is inappropriate:

I had a blast working on this paper :-)

  • 2
    I have actually used a similar apporpriate emoticon statement in a paper that looked at generating text (tweets) with a markov chain algorithm Jan 19, 2016 at 13:55

(From a Comp Sci / Math perspective:)

Considering how it's unlikely you should even be refering to yourself in the first person in your dissertation at all, I don't see how you would get to a situation in which you would want/need to use an emoticon. Even an ellipsis (...) should not be used lightly, I would say.

Of course, my view does not apply:

  • In the acknowledgements section, which might well be written in the first person (although I wouldn't use emoticons there either).
  • In academic fields where research may be presented through a personal account, a narrative. I understand these exist (?) and those might have other rules than the one I'm used to.

As a one-liner: You're describing, not telling. No emoticons.

  • 5
    I did a physics PhD and I wrote the whole thing in the first person. The examiners did question that practise, but my justification was that I wished to distinguish clearly the work I did from the work that other members of my team did. I also find constructions such as "the author did x,y,z, and then he found that ..." to be circumlocutious. However I would agree that emoticons are to be avoided everywhere.
    – Calchas
    Jan 20, 2016 at 14:13
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    "we" and "us" is first person
    – Calchas
    Jan 21, 2016 at 13:26
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    I feel we are drifting into technicalities here, but the pronouns "I", "we", "us", et c. are all first person. If instead the text said "The author expects that the reader will find the material of considerable interest", that would be third person in the grammatical sense. I certainly agree with you that most technical works avoid the singular first person ["I", "me"], but I decided on balance I would breach that convention for my own reasons.
    – Calchas
    Jan 21, 2016 at 14:50
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    @Calchas: Edited my answer to better split hairs.
    – einpoklum
    Jan 21, 2016 at 15:01
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    Technically speaking, $f:(\mathbb{R}:\mathbb{R}) \to \mathbb{R}$ is a perfectly legitimate occurrence of the emoticon :( in a math thesis. :) Jan 23, 2016 at 13:34

For objective purposes, yes; for subjective purposes, no.

If your object of study involves it, then obviously it should be used but remains as your object. As an expression of your own subject-position, then no.

That's not because anyone will read the dissertation that carefully though if you go the academic route for tenure review they do look at it again quite often.

But above all, you should not do it for your own sake. After my thesis defense, the chair of the department told me something somewhat uncanny: "Congratulations. This is with you forever. You could ;leave your spouse and be single again but you are forever now a phd". That was admittedly strange but the point is that it is yours in the archives forever. Do you think you would like an emoticon years from now? Very hard to say.


Emoticons provide value. They convey emotion/intent when the text itself is ambiguous. For example, at the beginning of an e-mail:

Hey Joe,


Hey Joe :D

The first example is ambiguous (depending on the reader). It might imply urgency, displeasure, frustration, and of course just an informal 'hello'. The latter, with the emoticon, rules out a lot of those negative connotations and solidifies it as a friendly greeting only.

Since the intent of all text falls somewhere on an ambiguity spectrum, some people like to over-do-it on the emoticons. Personally, in informal text like on IRC, i like to prefix all messages with an emoticon because I dont have the time nor inclination to think about how my text could be intepreted by the 1500+ participants. Bam, emoticon, my intentions are clear.

But let me be clear here - the text itself COULD have been less ambiguous from the start. The e-mail could have been written "Hello Joe", "Oi Joe", and just "Joe." The emoticon is only useful because the text was written lazily or in haste.

This is why there is such a split in popular opinion about the use of emoticons. Old school scientists will see them as unnecessary and the mark of a lazy, informal, perhaps childish mind. Others will realise that emoticons aid communication and is likely to become the predominant form of written communication in the future - for better or worse.

Should you use emoticons in your thesis?

Science is generally behind-the-times with modern culture, and emoticons are no exception. While emoticons will probably be present in more and more academic papers going forward - particularly as accessibility to non-scientists becomes the norm - its up to you if you want to be the one "pushing new frontiers in scientific culture" - or as others will certainly see it - the canary in the coal mine marking the end of well-thought-out prose.


From a practical point of view is it worth the risk?

At my university there is a style manual to follow so that all theses are equally ugly regardless of department. You have to have the thesis printed on a nonstandard paper size on special weight paper at the campus print shop as if it were ready to be bound. A editor with no knowledge of the field reviews the thesis and accepts or rejects it based on the rules in the style manual. They are checking for spelling, grammar, margins, font, etc... Turnaround time is measured in weeks.

It doesn't really matter if your committee finds it hilarious. If the editor rejects it you may miss a deadline and delay your graduation.


There is a far better than 99% chance that nobody outside your committee will ever read your dissertation. It's probably 50-50 that even your advisers read the thing in its entirety at any point (This likely depends on your particular field, of course). So you could probably slip anything you like in there without serious repercussions.

That said, your dissertation is not the place to be cute. My personal rule would be:

You are the author. You are the single greatest authority in the entire world as to what belongs and what does not belong in your work. If you truly feel that what you are suggesting aligns with what you are attempting to accomplish with your work, than by all means include it. If you are not sure/confident that it belongs, it may be wiser to leave it out.

  • 3
    This might be true in your field. I occasionally read people's Ph.D. or M.Sc. theses/dissertations.
    – einpoklum
    Jan 19, 2016 at 16:38
  • 3
    But would you say that substantially more than 1% of the total universe of dissertations get read by others? I'm certainly open to the possibility than I'm way off on that estimate. But in my experience, dissertations that offer something interesting to their particular field get turned into published papers before anyone reads them. Dissertations that don't offer anything interesting sit unopened on library shelves for many years and are eventually purged. Jan 19, 2016 at 16:43
  • 2
    Yes, I would say that. You're massively over-generalizing.
    – einpoklum
    Jan 19, 2016 at 16:48
  • 1
    Frankly once the thesis is written and published it doesn't matter what other people find you've written in it.
    – Calchas
    Jan 20, 2016 at 14:19
  • 1
    @Calchas: They might not be bothered by the emoticon, but it certainly does matter what other people find you've written in it. Well, to the extent that others' opinions of your writings matter at all.
    – einpoklum
    Jan 20, 2016 at 22:42

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