You’re at the end of your dissertation project, and all you have left to write is that often-optional section that goes in the front matter, called Acknowledgments (or Acknowledgements in British and Australian English). This might be slightly intimidating because you’ve probably never written such a section before and you’re not really sure how it goes, but you can relax. Your degree doesn’t hang in the balance for this, and it doesn’t usually need to be OKed by anyone (though it should be proofread). It can be as short or as long as you want it to be, as terse or as flowery, and written in the first person.
Here’s a checklist of people you can, should, or in some cases must include in your Acknowledgments. Not all of these apply to everyone, and it’s nonexhaustive, intended only to get you started and to remind you of a few key folks you might otherwise have forgotten. Use your best judgment and consider who you couldn’t have completed this process without, whose help made it what it is, and who eased the way for you.
People who gave you hands-on or participatory assistance:
Your advisor and other committee members. It would be a real faux-pas to forget anyone in this group. Your advisor probably has almost as much emotional investment in your work as you have by the time it’s complete, and your committee on the whole is the reason you’re getting this degree.
Study participants. You don’t have to thank amoebas, but if you performed research with living human participants—in interviews, surveys, participant observation, or any other method—it’s courteous to acknowledge them. You’re not thanking them by name unless their names were used in the dissertation (e.g., experts who were interviewed for their expertise), but a blanket thank-you to the group of them will be a nice professional touch. You couldn’t have done this research without them.
Coresearchers. Although you’re writing your dissertation on your own, you might have had coresearchers who worked with you on data collection and the like. Don’t forget to thank them!
Your editor and/or proofreader(s), whether paid or unpaid. Although I admit I love seeing my name in an Acknowledgments section, that’s not the main reason I include the category I belong to in this discussion. At best, it comes a distant third to etiquette and ethics.
With respect to professional etiquette, it’s possible that your editor will have spent more time interacting with your dissertation than anyone but you, and depending on how heavy the edit was, that includes your advisor too. You don’t want to slight someone who spent 60 hours or more on this document. Take a look at any published book on your shelves and see how many published authors do and don’t thank their editors.
The primary reason editors and proofreaders are included, though, is ethics. It is critical to be transparent about how much outside assistance you received on the content of a document you’re submitting for academic credit. Editors Canada recommends that editors include a requirement in their contracts or agreement forms that the thesis/dissertation author acknowledge the editor, and these days I do. Some graduate schools require the dissertation author to do so as well. The last thing you want is for committee members or outside readers to suspect you of hiding assistance of this kind.
People who contributed content-related assistance:
Funders. If you received grants of any kind for completing your research, even if it was not for travel or equipment but merely to allow you to work less or not at all during the process, your funding sources deserve an acknowledgment here.
Permission holders. If you reproduced previously copyrighted materials, you’d have had to request permission from the copyright holders to do so. Even if you included them in your (properly formatted APA-style) figure captions, it’s nice — and at some universities required — to thank them here as well.
Transcriptionists and typists. People who performed professional services for you deserve a place in your acknowledgments. Think about how much time they saved you when they did this work and you didn’t have to.
People who provided other kinds of direct assistance:
Librarians. University librarians can be invaluable resources for helping you find exactly the kind of research material you need. Although a large chunk of research can be done online with electronic journals, and your library might even deliver the books you check out to your department office, it can still be worthwhile to visit the actual library in actual person and get help from an actual librarian. And if you do, it costs you nothing and will be deeply appreciated if you include a line acknowledging those who helped you.
Office staff. If they helped you make sense of the dates you had to turn things in or fulfill requirements, found you the forms you needed, scheduled your defense, helped you replace the toner, sent you reminders, or anything else that made it just that little bit easier to get things done, they may deserve a call-out.
Student assistants. Most doctoral candidates aren’t lucky enough to have work-study assistants of their own, but it’s not completely unknown. If you were one of the fortunate few, these little sprouts might just pee their pants to see their names on your Acknowledgments page — if their assistance helped you get your dissertation finished, of course.
People who provided emotional support:
Family and partners. If you live with them, then they have suffered along with you and probably in their own independent ways as well. If you don’t live with them, parents in particular likely contributed something emotional, financial, or hands-on to the fact that you’ve reached this point in your work.
Friends. It’s nice to include any who have offered the types of support listed above for you. This isn’t the time to go all Golden Girls (“Thank you for being a friend . . .”) but to acknowledge those who had a direct and positive impact on the writing of the dissertation.
Spiritual personae. It’s very common for people of faith to include anyone, heavenly or earthbound, who provided spiritual strength and guidance to them throughout the dissertation process. This doesn’t mean you must thank a pastor, rabbi, priest, imam, and so on just because you have one, but if they made the work easier in some way, they might be candidates for acknowledgment.
If you've made it this far in your dissertation to need this post, congratulations! You're almost there! Have I left any out? Underemphasized anyone's importance? What's your experience with remembering everyone you meant to acknowledge?
I'm Lea, a freelance editor who specializes in academic and nonfiction materials. More info about my services is available throughout this site.