Science - October 10, 2013

Thank you!

Rob Ramaker

After hundreds of pages of taxing scientific text, when you reach the acknowledgements you get a glimpse of the anguish and heroism that goes into most PhD theses. ‘You mean everything to me.’

‘I would like to thank my father.’ ‘Dad, without your passion for the Rothschild giraffe…’

Mothers almost always get a mention, as do the professor and the supervisor, naturally. Close friends in the cohort of PhD students are usually on the list, which sometimes also includes God, the sponsor or a pet. Whoever gets a thank you, the acknowledgements in a thesis – sometimes brief, sometimes going on for pages – offer an interesting anthropological snapshot of the exciting life of a young scientist. Resource scrutinized the harvest of the last few months to see who it is that PhD students turn to for the support they need.

They can’t read and they don’t understand me when I tell them this, but among the biggest sources of pleasure (and grief) during my PhD were my two ferrets Jasmin and Juliet and my cat Isabel

PHD clans
‘We started as PhD students on the same day. I couldn’t have wished for a better officemate.’ Acknowledgements are full of paragraphs of this kind, addressed to fellow PhD students. Not too surprising given that PhD students often form a close community or ‘clan’. They have their own lingo and laugh at the same inside jokes. You can tell that from the acknowledgements: animal scientists, for example, who express their appreciation of the ‘piggy connection’ and the ‘spit lab’. Others reminisce about the bizarre and hilarious situations that arose in ‘room 00.51’ or on ‘corridor 1’: ‘I got a lot of funny looks when I came back for more ears or poop,’ writes an animal scientist. Your PhD clan seems to be an important source of moral support. Getting a PhD can be tough going and almost everyone has faced their demons at some point or another over the last few years. ‘Nobody said it was easy,’ says one writer, quoting the appropriately named Coldplay number The Scientist. Colleagues are there for each other during the bad patches. When a paper is rejected, for instance, or experiments and statistics don’t work out the way you want. A food scientist sums up the bond nicely: ‘Without you all I might have got it all finished faster but that is actually a big compliment for you.’

The professor
Needless to say, two people who are rarely missing from the acknowledgements are the professor and the supervisor. They are thanked in particular for their time, patience and of course everything the writer learned from them. ‘I really appreciated the many discussions, sometimes on the phone late into the evening,’ says one plant scientist. And an earth scientist is happy that he got a chance to do a PhD at all, ‘in spite of the fact that I was a very average BSc student.’ Some supervisors even play a crucial role in preventing the PhD student from throwing in the towel. A toxicologist describes, for instance, how he decided quite late in life to do a PhD part-time alongside his ‘day job’. He turned out to have seriously underestimated what this entailed, and having two jobs swallowed up all his evenings and weekends. Now that it has all turned out alright after seven years, he is eternally grateful to his supervisor for the ‘confidence and the words of encouragement.’ Some PhD students and their supervisors have become personal friends. A plant scientist describes her supervisor as a ‘wailing wall, pipette robot and squash mate all rolled into one.’ The acknowledgements often give one some idea, too, of how hectic life can be for a PhD student. One of them thanks a supervisor who regularly invited him to stay for dinner, which helped him out when he had ‘stressful deadlines’.

Marleen, I want to thank you for the fun outings to companies when I needed more horse blood. Sorry that I still haven’t made those pancakes for you!

There are almost always acknowledgements in the theses of foreign PhD students too, but with a difference of emphasis. They are more likely to make mention of God and of their sponsor. African PhD students often express gratitude for the support they received from the Christian community in Wageningen, which helped with ‘oiling the wheels of the soul so the body does not grind to a halt.’ As for their sponsors, foreign students often explicitly thank the university, ministries or other sponsors. Seemingly, they do not take the opportunity to do a PhD quite so much for granted.

Old wounds
The acknowledgement can be a perfect opportunity to bury hatchets and end arguments. Perhaps with a joke: an animal scientist writes, ‘Someone had to be your most expensive PhD students, so why not me?’ Or with an apology: several PhD students apologize for their stubbornness or their aggressiveness in discussions. ‘I know you found my call-a-spade-a-spade character a bit hard to take at the start, but I think we formed a good team in the end.’ Evidently the professors can be demanding too. ‘How you challenged me,’ sighs a health scientist. And a nutrition scientist thanks his supervisor ‘for your support when [Professor X] once again wanted the impos sible to happen. You could still remember what it was like to be a PhD researcher.’

I thank all the participants in this study. Voluntarily and without (too much) complaining, they drank 95 grams of fat on an empty stomach, or had to eat chocolate (which some of them didn’t even like) for weeks on end.

A special slot at the end is usually reserved for family and loved ones. In most cases they don’t have much understanding of the research topic but their contribution in terms of lifelong mental or material support rarely goes unmentioned. Many researchers thank their parents for support during their schooldays and encouragement to go to university. And some are happy to have been given free reign in their youth: ‘I was left completely free to develop my interest in aquatic life with aquariums, nets and fishing rods. All the mess frequently created by my urge to experiment sometimes provoked a grumble but never an all-out ban.’ And many writers thank family members for financial support. Foreign students’ parents in particular supported their children from their own savings. Sometimes family members actively contribute to the research project. An earth scientist, for instance, thanks his parents for taking their caravan to Galicia to join him there while he did his field work. That made it less lonely and meant he did not have to camp in his van for so long. He also thanked his girlfriend for chipping out thousands of stones, earning the title of ‘fully-fledged quartzite expert’ to go with her qualification as neurobiologist.

All in all, the acknowledgements in a thesis are a feast of exalted prose and outpourings of emotion. After hundreds of pages of measured prose, this section makes a refreshing change for both writer and reader. At last you get to put protocol to one side and do justice to the heroes of your daily life. ‘These pages are about you, because without you this book would never have been written.’

I would like to express my thanks to Milou van der Horst and Linda van der Nat. I couldn’t have written this without you

Illustration: Kito