Editor’s note: This post was first published in October 2020; references to the AUT Postgraduate Handbook have since been updated for the latest edition.
The acknowledgements section of a thesis is part of the front work, after the title page, but before the introduction (i.e. the bit numbered in roman numerals not Arabic numerals). This is where you will thank people who helped you with your research; but it can also be more than that.
The acknowledgements section can show readers who has nurtured, influenced and shaped your research; and which academic or personal relationships have helped you along the way. They are textual constructs which bridge the personal and the public, the social and the professional, and the academic and the lay (Hyland, 2003; Zare-ee & Hejazi, 2019).
The acknowledgements section is an informal part of a thesis. It isn’t examined, and functions mainly as a space to recognise the contributions of others. While originally rare, they became more common and longer since the 1960s (Hyland, 2003; Hyland & Tse, 2004). Two recent studies found that acknowledgements sections have no reliable, conventional pattern, but that the personal pronoun ‘I’ is consistently heavily used (Ahmad, 2019; Ahmad et al., 2018).
Acknowledgements sections are commonly described as free opportunities for students to comment more widely, but in reality, demonstrates their professional adoption of an academic persona: immersion in scholarly networks, active disciplinary membership, observance of common academic behaviours: modesty, gratitude, and appropriate self-effacement (Hyland, 2003; Hyland & Tse, 2004).
What sorts of things do people include?
The AUT Postgraduate Handbook (p. 115) offers some guidance on what to include in the acknowledgements section:
“The acknowledgment should list the names of all those persons who have provided substantial assistance with the research and the nature of that assistance which may relate, for example to the:AUT Postgraduate Handbook (p. 115)
*Sponsorship of the research;
*Collection of data;
*Processing of the data including the selection and use of particular statistical techniques;
*Interpretation of the results of the statistical analysis;
*Editing of the thesis/dissertation;
*Use of graphics in the thesis/dissertation;
*Word processing of the thesis/dissertation.
If any of the assistance was provided for a fee, this should also be recorded.”
But what do people include in practice?
A 2020 study of electronic theses and dissertations in northwest South Africa showed that supervisors receive more acknowledgements than any other category of those mentioned in these sections, followed by family and friends, religious support and inspiration, and then library services and librarians. They also found, that the majority of students use other students’ acknowledgements sections as examples and templates for writing their own, and copy the structure and examples of people mentioned (Bangani et al., 2020).
A recent journal article by Associate Professor Vijay Kumar Mallan and Dr Lara Sanderson at University of Otago (Kumar & Sanderson, 2020) determined that acknowledgements sections should be kept brief, simple, and should at the very least thank their supervisors. Some thesis authors also include a dedication, which is often more personal; but that can be separate to the acknowledgments.
How do readers use the acknowledgements section?
The study by Hyland and Tse (2004) mentioned that the acknowledgements section has attracted the attention of bibliometricians, who use them to trace genealogies of interaction. This was confirmed with academics I spoke to on Twitter (especially those working in libraries) as it shows where your academic inspiration and relationships come from: who inspired, mentored, or supervised you, from which disciplinary perspective did you come to this topic, etc. This can tell a reader how you’ve been influenced, shaped, and moulded on the topic you’re about to write about.
The study by Kumar and Sanderson (2020) found that while it is not part of the examined portion of the thesis, examiners did read the acknowledgements section and it did inform their perspectives on the rest of the thesis.
I often head straight to the acknowledgements section, as it helps me to build context for the thesis. It is where people list the names of their supervisors, the departments they were involved with, and the names of members of their family (which also helps when you’re trying to figure out if two researchers are related). It’s also where they name key stakeholders, and is often the only place that the author can be relatively honest and use personal pronouns. Reading the acknowledgements section helps me to form a mental image of the researcher.
I asked the Twitter #AcademicChatter community how they use the acknowledgements section of a thesis. A number of New Zealand (and former New Zealand) academics chipped in for me. Most said that they read these sections, and that they help the reader to gain some insight into the researcher/writer. Another argued that it allows you a glimpse of the person behind the research, and gain an insight to why they have chosen the topic and research methodology. A senior academic added that it allows them to know who travelled with and nurtured the researcher/writer.
Others that I spoke to said that they don’t read the acknowledgements section since it has no bearing on the rest of the thesis, although the consensus was still that they would expect students to thank their supervisors and their families.
Let’s look at a couple of examples:
When I chatted with Dr Irvine about her writing, she said: ‘I used my acknowledgements section to thank someone who taught me a method that I didn’t end up using. I put that in without thinking of examiners, but it actually led to a positive discussion in the exam about how I refined my methodology!’
Dr Harkison focussed predominantly on her daughter, who was born part-way through the thesis, and has continued to be a lasting influence on her research and how she thinks about and approaches topics. (Incidentally, both have appeared in my acknowledgements section, which I’ll be able to show once my thesis has been examined.)
So, how do you write one?
- Have a chat with your supervisor. They know your subject well, and know who your examiners will be, and can help steer you.
- Have a read of some theses submitted in your field to get a feel for how they look.
- Take a look at the list of moves in Hyland and Tse (2004)
- Check out the discussion provided by Associate Professor Carter (2013)
Ahmad, M. (2019). Genre Analysis of Acknowledgement Texts by Pakistani Master Level Theses Writers. Linguistic Forum, 1(1), 1-8. https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3609635
Ahmad, M., Hayat, S., & Farukh, A. (2018). Comparative Analysis of the Pattern and Style of an Acknowledgement Text. Modern Journal of Language Teaching Methods, 8(5), 523-533.
Auckland University of Technology. (2021). Postgraduate Handbook 2021. Graduate Research School. https://student.aut.ac.nz/__data/assets/pdf_file/0011/358571/AUT-Postgraduate-Handbook-2021-Final.pdf
Bangani, S., Mashiyane, D., Moyo, M., & Makate, G. (2020). In/gratitude? Library acknowledgement in theses and dissertations at a distinguished African university. Library Philosophy and Practice, 1-33.
Carter, S. (2013, 10 August). Writing the acknowledgments: the etiquette of thanking. Doctoral Writing SIG. https://doctoralwriting.wordpress.com/2013/04/18/writing-the-acknowledgments-the-ettiquette-of-thanking/
Harkison, T. (2016). How is the luxury accommodation experience created? Case studies from New Zealand [PhD thesis, School of Hospitality & Tourism, Auckland University of Technology]. Auckland, NZ. http://openrepository.aut.ac.nz/handle/10292/9925
Hyland, K. (2003). Dissertation Acknowledgements:The Anatomy of a Cinderella Genre. Written Communication, 20(3), 242-268. https://doi.org/10.1177/0741088303257276
Hyland, K., & Tse, P. (2004). “I would like to thank my supervisor”. Acknowledgements in graduate dissertations. International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 14(2), 259-275. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1473-4192.2004.00062.x
Irvine, A. (2016). Recycled alterity : familiar dehumanisation in the contemporary fiction of genetic posthumanism [PhD thesis, Department of English, University of Auckland]. Auckland, NZ. https://researchspace.auckland.ac.nz/handle/2292/31695
Kumar, V., & Sanderson, L. J. (2020, 2020/05/03). The effects of acknowledgements in doctoral theses on examiners. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 57(3), 285-295. https://doi.org/10.1080/14703297.2019.1620625
Zare-ee, A., & Hejazi, Y. (2019). Acknowledgement Structure in Persian and English Theses and Dissertations: A Contrastive Genre Analysis. Arab World English Journal (AWEJ), 10(1). https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3367651