writing dissertation acknowledgements
a few of the minnversity's more senior grad students seem to be unclenching a bit these days, finally convincing themselves that, yes, the dissertation will be finished this summer. they've pulled together a solid draft, accommodated their committee members' cruel schedules, and sometimes even secured jobs and housing for fall. now comes the fun part for all 'taters -- writing the acknowledgements.
my dissertation acknowledgements have circulated a bit, such that i occasionally meet folks who say, "oh yeah, uggen -- i liked your acknowledgements" when we're introduced. i didn't write anything terribly interesting or outrageous, but tried to put a little reflection and love into 'em.
a few suggestions:
1. gratitude. you can't thank everyone who helped with your dissertation, your graduate career, and your life, but some folks have gone way out of their way for you. this is a nice opportunity to note their contributions. for me, it was also a nice opening for somewhat cheekily acknowledging the particular debts i owed to those who taught me research skills and values. for example, i mentioned that "To the extent that I've stolen from others, I've probably stolen more ideas from Irv than from anyone else. As I leave Wisconsin, I only wish I had committed more of them to paper."
2. tone. i favor a more conversational tone for acknowledgements than for the balance of the dissertation, but remember that these pages must nevertheless remain part of the dissertation. try to avoid the sort of slang, profanity, or extreme informality that will look silly in a decade or two.
3. don't hate, congratulate. unless you are profoundly insensitive, you are certain to be bitter, peeved, dismayed, or chagrined about something that happened during your graduate career. you might be tempted to express these sentiments in the acknowledgements. nevertheless, i'd advise against a paragraph highlighting, say, your fortitude in forging on "despite Professor Uggleson's consistently wrongheaded advice." this sort of thing generally comes off like a teenager's complaint against a well-meaning parent. similarly, the conspicuous exclusion of advisors and committee chairs is akin to dis-inviting a friend to your birthday party. it isn't really appropriate anymore, is it? instead, just let the healing begin.
4. expand the field. everyone acknowledges their advisors and committee members, as well as their parents and partners. but who else gave real support? when i started thinking big-picture, i knew i couldn't ignore my fine undergrad teachers at the wizversity, great friends from my halcyon days as a social worker, and my beloved softball team. upon deeper reflection, i simply had to acknowledge the influence of paul westerberg, robert merton, bob mould, gore vidal, james coleman, satchel paige, and travis hirschi, as well as "George, Larry, and Flaherty, the police officers who helped me out many years ago, for their judicious and humane discretion." i couldn't have made it without them, that's for sure.
5. specificity counts. rather than simply thanking a list of names or categories of people, show how they helped you along the way. did their wicked sense of humor help you bear the pressure of a tough first semester? did they hook you up with the research assistantship that paid off big-time? did they offer emotional support when you seriously considered leaving the business?
you can draft the acknowledgements early, but i wouldn't circulate them to your committee until after your oral examination. at that point, i'd just run them by your advisor and then insert the pages shortly before you officially file the documents. once you're all approved and filed, you can then deliver a handsomely bound dissertation -- in classic black with gold lettering, of course -- to your committee members and to anyone else who helped out along the way. trust me, they'll appreciate it. and which section do you think they'll read first?