Chemjobber has a post up asking readers what information they put in the acknowledgments sections of their dissertations.
I have always been fascinated by whom grad students choose to acknowledge. As a first-year, I used to pull old theses off the shelves of our group room and read the acknowledgments sections from front-to-back. Some were long; some were incredibly terse. Some were over-effusive in praise; some had cutting zingers. But every acknowledgments section was interesting and, I felt, gave me some sense of the personality of the student whose research had helped lead the group to where it was.
About once a year, I would go to the chemistry library and similarly indulge my curiosity on a grander scale. I would climb the stairs to the balcony where old theses were kept and hunt for interesting names: Nobel laureates, current professors, recent friends who’d graduated, and grad students present at remarkable events (e.g., when Corey won the Nobel, when various professors had moved labs, and when Jason Altom took his life). I’d flip through their work, admire the figures, and always finish by reading the entirety of their acknowledgments. It was fascinating, and I cherished the glimpse of what each scientist was feeling at my point in their career.
People often joke that your acknowledgments are the only part of your thesis anyone will read carefully, including the professors on your committee. But that isn’t a joke—it’s the truth. When I was writing my thesis, I viewed writing the acknowledgments section as a wonderful opportunity to thank everyone from my educational career, past and present. It was six-and-a-half pages of joy to write.
And since the dissertation guidelines at my school allowed students to include epigraphs, I twisted a line of a famous poem such that it would serve, in my estimation, as a sufficiently veiled comment on my sentiments at the time.
To this day, I keep a copy of my dissertation on my iPad and I read the acknowledgments section every four months or so. Yes, I’ve almost memorized it by now, but reading it again always brings back a flood of happy, sad, and funny memories.
Sometimes, you need that.
This entry was posted by Paul Bracher on Thursday, March 19th, 2015 at 10:58 AM and is filed under Education, Grad School, Scientific Writing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
In a modern scientific paper, if you cruise past the “Materials and Methods” section and stop right before you hit the “References,” you’ll find the “Acknowledgments” section, wherein authors are given space to thank others for their contributions to the project. It is generally accepted that this paragraph is ignored by both readers and reviewers alike. Accordingly, it is chock full of inside jokes, snarky comments, and general silliness. Here, for your enjoyment, are a few of our favorite examples.
Most current academic science is, at least in part, supported financially (if not intellectually) by the public. In the United States, this is often through the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation and typically involves many grant rejections. As a result, some scientists use the Acknowledgements section of their manuscripts as public venue in which to vent their frustration at the government:
“B.J.H. would also like to thank the U.S. Immigration Service under the Bush administration, whose visa background security check forced her to spend two months (following an international conference) in a third country, free of routine obligations—it was during this time that the hypothesis presented herein was initially conjectured.”
"I thank the National Science Foundation for regularly rejecting my (honest) grant applications for work on real organisms (cf. Szent-Gyorgyi, 1972), thus forcing me into theoretical work."
“This work was ostensibly supported by the Italian Ministry of University and Research. … The Ministry however has not paid its dues and it is not known whether it will ever do.”
How order of authorship was really determined
In some scientific disciplines, authors are listed alphabetically, whereas in others, authorship order is supposed to reflect the amount of work that went into the project. In those fields, the success of grant applications and tenure decisions can often rest on the order of authorship. In these cases, the most coveted positions are first author—traditionally the person who did the majority of the experiments—and last author, who (at least in theory) was the intellectual driving force behind the project. As in any human endeavor, there is much jockeying for position, and sometimes scientists resort to less-traditional means of resolving conflicts:
“Order of authorship was determined by proximity to tenure decisions.”
“Order of authorship was determined from a 25-game croquet series held at Imperial College Field station during summer 1973.”
Thanking fictional people
Some authors use the Acknowledgements as a place to hide “Easter eggs”—in these cases, seemingly innocuous thanks to imaginary people with names obscure enough to get past both reviewers and editorial staff:
“We thank Jim Coloso and Laura Smith who collected much of the data shown here and Jim Hodgson, Jon Frum for inspiration in writing this paper.”
“We thank O. Akin and M. Quinlan for assistance with bead motility assays, Q. Justman and A. Murray for helpful discussions, and S. Layer for continued advice and inspiration.”
And Slayer is an ‘80s metal band, of course.*
The above example is, in fact, from a lab that has a history of including fake names and funny words in the Acknowledgements section, including “A. Kelly and R. Manlove”—the first author of the paper was, apparently, in “Manlove” with A. Kelly—and “the ever cromulent E. Garner”— cromulent itself being an made-up wordfromThe Simpsons.
“We acknowledge Snowpocalypse 2010 for making the long-awaited completion of this paper possible.”
Sometimes being stuck in your house is the best help to a paper of all.
Finally, we reach those papers in which the Acknowledgements section was used to lambaste fellow scientists:
“We would like to thank Karla Miller for sleeping late one morning, leaving Tim and Steve a bit bored; and Saad Jbabdi for making the brains look pretty.”
“We do not gratefully thank T. Appourchaux for his useless and very mean comments.”
The authors would like to thank T. Bosch and L. Helmuth for the idea, J. Beam for assistance with writing, B. N. Dover for proofreading, and the Big Bang for everything. Order of authorship was determined by Russian roulette.
*Correction, Oct. 25, 2016: This post originally misstated that Slayer is an '80s hair metal band. It is a metal band, but not a hair metal band.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University.