I’d Like to Thank the Academy

My committee has my thesis draft.

We’re getting over a heat wave here in Berkeley. My office is neither air-conditioned nor particularly well shaded and ventilated, so I’ve been hanging out in my nice cool living room (not air-conditioned, but protected from the yellow face), putting my files in order, catching up on laundry, assembling alternate resumes and writing my acknowledgments.

I imagine committees sitting on drafts as adopting the posture of a brooding hen. That’s funnier for some committee members than for others.

My ability to actually write the acknowledgments is limited by the heat – I lose about 5 IQ points for each degree above 72F – and by my fear of churning out a string of clich├ęs (I was similarly stymied on the introduction and conclusion). So, while I could make a list of names and add words like “encouragement”, “support”, and “discussion” at random intervals, and it would even be a more or less true expression of sentiment, I can’t quite bring myself to do it yet.

I’ve found that if I think very carefully about the specific thing I want to say, and then just say it without regard to whether or not it conforms to the formula expected for the circumstance, I can usually avoid this form of writer’s block. The problem, of course, is knowing what I want to say. My introduction and conclusion were tricky because they are essentially social fictions, which meant that accessing that inner reservoir of sincerity lead immediately to deleting hard-won paragraphs in fits of pique.

The acknowledgments are tricky because I pretty much never recognize the most valuable things I have learned from people until long after I have learned them. Like when I saw my students crash and burn at unit analysis in the same week that I made serious professional use of the Buckingham Pi theorem*, and suddenly I remembered all those worksheets we did in high school chemistry converting gloofs per square hornswoggle to gallumph-seconds.

Inspiration hasn’t struck and the final deadline approacheth, so I’ll probably end up with something bland. That’s ok: the blandness is just a stand-in for some moment N years in the future when I finally realize what I actually learned in grad school.

*The Buckingham Pi theorem is a fancy way of telling you that if you don’t know the answer, you can perform brute force symbol manipulation until you find something with the same units as an answer.**

**All the best answers are dimensionless constants.


  1. PhysioProf wrote:

    The acknowledgments are tricky because I pretty much never recognize the most valuable things I have learned from people until long after I have learned them.

    This is universal.

  2. BrianR wrote:


    Acknowledgements are indeed tricky … I decided to be sappy and cliche. After all that technical writing, I had fun with it … if it ends up bland, meh … who cares? If it ends up sounding like a gushing Oscar-winning speech, then so be it.

    And, yeah I would agree … we always have more clarity later about things we learned that we couldn’t recognize at the time.

  3. agm wrote:

    Wait, so what was this use of the Buckingham Pi Theorem?

  4. Chris Rowan wrote:

    Yay you! But I don’t really understand. I treated the acknowledgements as the only place in the whole damn thesis where I could actually add a personal touch; thus people were thanked in a very irreverent and sarcastic manner. I also only thanked those people who actually helped me (I refused to follow the University guidelines because that would involve thanking people who actively hindered me, which would diminish my gratitude to those I was thanking)…

  5. Kim wrote:

    I treated the acknowledgments the way Chris did. (So I thanked people for things like free crash space, instant cheesecake, and a practical joke that resulted in a van seat disappearing from the streets of Nome.)

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