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When I read other theses, I am often astonished by the sheer number of people whose help the writer is acknowledging in a multitude of ways. Here's an example to demonstrate what I am talking about, but I am sure you get the point: http://www.mit.edu/~alvarso/thesis-phd/Acknowledgements.pdf

In comparison, in the thesis that I am currently writing, I am getting close to the end, and the draft for my own acknowledgment section is currently

I would like to thank my advisor **********, as well as my close colleagues at the department of ********** at *****************.

I might spice it up with some adjectives, but that's pretty much it.

Are acknowledgement sections, like the one I linked to, the norm? If so, would a paper with a lackluster acknowledgement section be considered potentially subpar?

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    What you linked is definitely not the norm. But there is a whole spectrum starting with one-paragraph acknowledgments not much longer than yours, and ending at, well, probably what you linked. That said, if I were to mention "my close colleagues", I'd at least name them. Feb 12 '17 at 21:43
  • The acknowledgment section of my Ph.D. thesis is 5 lines long, and 2 of those lines are thanking the two typists who typed it up (this was long before the type-it-yourself TeX era) and the NSF. I've never worried that this was too short. Feb 12 '17 at 23:41
  • I didn't look at your example, sorry, but I can say that when I'm looking at articles quickly to learn about something or find a useful reference, long flowery acknowledgments slow me down, and I end up wishing that section were at the end. If your natural inclination is to be succinct in this section, go for it! // The department and the institution will already be indicated somewhere in the front matter, won't it? So you could maybe pare it down a tiny bit more, if you wanted to! Feb 13 '17 at 6:57
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    I'm sorry to say it but IMO it's the acknowledgements section you linked to that is "lackluster" and "subpar". It is longer than some entire papers - unbelievable! Forget about adjectives and "spicing it up". Honestly no one cares, just make sure the contents of your paper are not lackluster and you'll be golden.
    – Dan Romik
    Feb 13 '17 at 8:56
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    I don't think there is any misunderstanding here, but just to be sure: the norms for thesis acknowledgements and for paper (i.e. journal publication) acknowledgements are very different. The latter tend to be 4-5 lines at most, whereas the former are often (but not always) considerably longer. Feb 13 '17 at 13:27
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You seem be concerned that people may judge the quality of your thesis in part based on the length of the acknowledgments section. I don't think that anyone will do that.

You may be missing a required acknowledgment of one or more grants from a funding agency.

A separate question is whether you have overlooked people who could to be acknowledged in your thesis, or whether it would be appropriate to include a more specific and detailed acknowledgment of the individuals you are acknowledging. As the Ph.D. is the culmination not only of years of research but of years of your life, it's not unusual to think more broadly regarding acknowledgments than you would for a paper. You may want to include, for instance:

  • Faculty outside of your committee or university who also mentored you or gave helpful comments and suggestions;
  • Anyone who developed code that you used in your thesis;
  • People who helped you do a better job with the writing itself, e.g. through teaching you better grammar, better Latex skills, etc.;
  • Family members (particularly a spouse) who have supported you during your doctoral work or inspired you to be a scholar;
  • Fellow students who have given you encouragement or proofread or otherwise commented on your work.

I suppose you can go too far in being inclusive, and perhaps the example you linked does, though I doubt anyone will get very upset about that either.

In my own acknowledgments I tried to be rather specific about what each of these individuals did, or how I benefitted from their help. For instance, I acknowledged my advisor

...not only for providing continual support and guidance, but especially for allowing (and even enthusiastically encouraging) me to pursue research that I found fascinating but that is only indirectly related to his own research program.

Some of these kinds of acknowledgments would be considered out of place in a journal article, so the thesis gives you an opportunity that you may never get again (unless you publish a book) to express gratitude to these individuals in a somewhat official way. You have nothing to lose by being more inclusive in expressing your gratitude, and you may make someone who reads it very happy by including them.

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    "You almost certainly are missing a required acknowledgment of one or more grants from a funding agency." I found that statement surprising, so I looked through about 30 online theses in my field of number theory collected here: numbertheory.org/ntw/N5.html. Roughly 1/3 thanked funding agencies (a larger percentage than I would have predicted), the most common by far being EPSRC. Also interesting: more than 10% didn't have any acknowledgments at all. May I ask for the support of your probability measure? Feb 13 '17 at 21:23
  • @PeteL.Clark Interesting. This is based on 2 assumptions: 1. Most Ph.D. theses result from work supported in some part by at least one grant. 2. Most funding agencies require that grantees acknowledge support in any publication. Indeed, I don't personally know of any exceptions to either of those! You must know something I don't, so please share. Feb 13 '17 at 22:45
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    My PhD thesis was not supported by any grant. In my current department, the same holds for more than half of all PhD theses. Moreover, just because a student got some support from an advisor's grant at some point does not mean they acknowledge this in their thesis: among other things, the connection between the funding and the student's work may be tenuous. Feb 13 '17 at 23:32
  • For instance, I supported a student of mine for one summer from a grant. The support was not for him to work on any project of mine -- it was just support. I think the honest truth is that nothing he did that summer made it into his thesis. I also honestly don't think the funding agency cares either way about this. By the way, I had zero conversations with my advisor about his grant support, though I know now that he must have had some the entire time. Feb 13 '17 at 23:39
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    @PeteL.Clark There is also the difference that acknowledging grants will often be done outside the section where one acknowledges others (for example there might be a footnote for each author with a statement of such grants), precisely because this acknowledgement is in some sense more "formal" and might be required to take a certain form. Feb 21 '17 at 17:41
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I want to discuss one point in David Ketcheson's answer.

You seem be concerned that people may judge the quality of your thesis in part based on the length of the acknowledgments section. I don't think that anyone will do that.

There are many things to judge from the acknowledgement. It tells a lot about the relationship between the author and his/her PhD advisor, and the working environment in the group.

When I was applying for a PhD, I read a lot of PhD theses' acknowledgements to understand more about the PIs. Here are some sentences that I still remember, not exactly word by word though.

  • No acknowledgement at all? a big red flag here.
  • "I thank my advisor for introduce the problem A to me" -> What? that's it? I will not apply to be a student of this guy.
  • "I thank him for give me the freedom to explore blah blah" -> Oh, you are great, but I'm not independent enough to work with this guy.
  • "I thank him for countless discussions and encouragements" -> This guy is good.
  • "He supports me when PhD is not my first priority" -> This guy is awesome, who cares a lot about his students.
  • ...
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    An acknowledgment is an individual, highly personal piece of writing that is probably not vetted by anyone else: it would be a mistake to read too much into the tea leaves here. To take your examples: (i) I know at least one instance of a very satisfied student who had no acknowledgments whatsoever. See also my comment to Dave Ketcheson's answer. (ii) Possibly this is an expression of deep gratitude for receiving the perfect problem. (iii) Because an advisor gave one student what they needed makes them more likely to give you what you would need, not to treat you in exactly the same way.... Feb 14 '17 at 6:56
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    (iv) The student was well satisfied with the advisor, anyway. (It is actually possible to give a student too much help...but I agree it's a favorable sign.) (v) To me that looks like a potential red flag about the student, but again it could just be strangely written, and one shouldn't read too much into it. Feb 14 '17 at 6:59

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