Wednesday, May 21, 2008

No Thanks

Thanks to commenter Laura (last week) for reminding me that I've been meaning to muse about the "thank you" part of a thesis / thesis defense.

When I was in grad school, a prominent faculty member (who was department chair near the end of my grad years) made it known that he hated the "thank you" part of the thesis defense and strongly discouraged students from including any sort of personal thank you in their talk. If someone really wanted to, they could have a very brief and professional acknowledgment at the end of their talk (not the beginning). His reasoning was that the defense is an exam, and it is not the place for a long acknowledgment of the emotional and other support provided by significant others, relatives, pets, or faculty. Most students respected his wishes and confined their acknowledgments to the thesis document or to giving a speech at a party or other social occasion to celebrate a successful defense.

More typically, the thesis defenses I have seen involve acknowledgments -- some at the beginning, but more commonly at the end. I am not as extreme as my former professor, but I am glad when this part of the talk is short. It's always weird to listen to a long emotional thank you to the spouse and dog, and then go straight from that into exam mode.

I certainly don't mean to dismiss or underestimate the importance of friends and family in a graduate student's life and career, and yes I know there are uncaring, uninvolved advisors. That imbalance will lead to a student's wanting to thank the people they like, and not thanking the person who inflicted stress, pain, and suffering on them (or who neglected them) for an extended period of time.

Even so, students who feel that they were poorly advised and who therefore don't want to thank their advisor for providing a research opportunity and funding that led to a graduate degree nor for reading manuscripts and thesis chapters and writing letters of reference, should at least not be rude to their advisor in front of the rest of the department. I personally think that would be rather childish and unprofessional, though of course those traits are not necessarily obstacles to success in life.

I have seen cases in which an advisor did care a lot, spent a lot of time (years) helping a student, provided lots of valuable research experiences (and funding), wrote a lot of letters of reference, and helped the student launch their career, and yet, during the defense-acknowledgment the student just quickly listed the names of committee members, including the advisor, and then spoke at length about how wonderful their spouse and fellow grad students are. Well, that's special, of course, and it is more fun to thank your friends than your professors, but it makes me think that even successful, reasonably non-paranoid students have no idea how much time their advisors spend on activities that directly benefit the student, and how much support they have gotten from their advisors over the years.

My other hypothesis is that because the final throes of thesis completion can be stressful -- perhaps the advisor's comments on the final drafts of the thesis document/manuscripts were unwelcome for being either insufficient or too sufficient (or whatever) -- the student isn't feeling particularly positive about their advisor at the time of the defense. At the time of the defense, however, the defending student is feeling positive about the fact that they have made it this far, and are feeling grateful for how much help they got from their family and friends along the way, and so it is natural to focus on that.

I am not advocating that students get all sloppy-thankful at their defense about how much their advisors have done for them. In fact, a brief acknowledgment is sufficient and anything more would be inappropriate at the final exam/defense. However, unless an advisor is certifiably evil and depraved, it would be best to avoid sentiments such as "I thank Professor X and my committee. And now I want to thank those who really helped me." That is rude. [FSP's Guide to Academic Etiquette, Rule #342]

So, although many of us advisors might be willing to be understanding about not rating as high as our students' pets, especially cats, and do not begrudge Rover for being thanked more profusely than we are, it would be nice if students realized that their advisor probably had a fairly significant role in getting them to the point of standing in front of the room defending their graduate research.


bsci said...

Slightly off topic, but I'm still trying to wrap my mind around the point of the thesis defense. I was in a program with exit seminars and it seemed much more enlightened. The defense seems to be an old hazing tradition. How many times does a committee agree you are ready to defend and then tell the person to do much more work? Why can't they just meet the person in advance, actually read the thesis draft, and require the work to get completed before the thesis is signed.
The final research talk is important, but tying it to this stressful "defense" doesn't seem to add much. If most students just pass, then why not just call it an exit talk. If a significant portion need to do more work, then the blame lies more with the committee and mentors than the student.

Nicole said...

Thankfully, there is no thank-you portion in the defense in my field, this is left for the written thesis. I also would not like to listen to the personal and professional awkwardly mixed.

I think you're right, students have no idea how much work their advisors do for them. I sense a theme, you seem to want students to be more mature than they generally are. But most of them don't have the experience to realize how much work goes into being an advisor. I don't see how you can blame them. It's like children not realizing how much work their parents do. Maybe it's annoying, but really, they're just kids.

And in fairness, students know that their advisors also benefit when they do well. They may not be able to distinguish what an advisor is doing for them from what the advisor is doing for her/himself.

Anonymous said...

I was never more embarrassed than when listening to a five-minute, 10 slide 'presentation' of family, extended friends, and yes, dog. It disintegrated into tears at the end. This was from a candidate who was scraping by with the bare minimum and who had scheduled herself an (unofficial) defense in hopes of pressuring her committee to call it good and let her go. It was so over the top, in terms of arm-twisting in every possible way.

bsci: aside from the above example, of the half-dozen or so grad programs I've seen up close, the "defense" part is really a formality. No committee will let a candidate go so far as to publicly present an undercooked thesis, because that is an embarrassment to the committee and program as well.

Ellinoora said...

It's funny to hear that the PhD student can thank others before/during/after the defense orally. Here, you acknowledge them in your thesis, and after the defense your promotor or supervisor will give a speech of thanks to the committee that showed up and give an image of who the PhD student is, what it is like to work with them and future plans/positions if they are aware of any.

Tuff Cookie said...

I did an undergrad thesis (with a presentation and committee defense), and even in that situation, which was definitely less formal than a PhD or Masters presentation, I would never think of spending more than a few seconds saying thank-yous - and at the end of the presentation. I put a longer thank-you in the paper version of my thesis, which people can read on their own.

One thing we did get to do, because there were so few thesis presentations, was quite fun. Each professor introduced their advisee, and took a few minutes to do their own slide show - usually of amusing photos and anecdotes, although it could also be serious. The student also had the option of doing this - as I remember, my adviser teased me about never eating my veggies on field trips, and I questioned his fashion choices in field clothing. It would probably never be appropriate for a PhD defense, but it did give us a chance to show that we appreciated each other, as well as inject a little humor into a stressful event.

Nicole, I have to disagree that students don't realize how much their advisers do for them. I was around my adviser almost every day, because I also worked in my department, and I helped with grading, and organizing trips and schedules, and preparing materials for classes. I certainly didn't do as much as he did, but I knew how hard he worked. I appreciate every second he spent on me, even when he was being tough, because I'll owe him for it for the rest of my life. I'm sorry if maybe your students don't have the maturity to realize that, but don't lump all or even most students into that group, please.

chall said...

I had a "regular" acknowledgement during my presentation/thesis defence. No family thanks or others - only professional and research related.

In my written thesis (since that's how it's done in Sweden) I hade an acknowledgement section after the references where you ususally* thank your supervisor with some kind of personal sentence, your collaborators and other research oriented stuff and then move into personal connections as friends and family. Funny enough, at least for me, it seems you start with the supervisor (most important for you), go via collaborators, techs, PhDstudents and then start with some (closer) friends and then end with the Real people who means something to you, i.e. parents/spouse/child.

At little like the order of an article I guess... :)

*I don't think I have seen anyone doing it otherwise

Melissa said...

I believe that personal acknowledgements never belong in a professional presentation, thesis defense or otherwise. I think it is tasteful to acknowledge the committee members and funding sources, especially if the defense is truly a public defense. I try to encourage students to remember that the defense, and candidacy and comprehensive exams, are formal events and should be treated as such. But then again, I am kind of a jerk.

Anonymous said...

I know of a case where the advisor provided no funding at any point (student was supported through TAships and/or spouse), took months to ever comment on any dissertation chapter -- when he commented -- and then only commented on grammar and the formatting of references, and saved all criticism for the defense, adding another 6 months of time to a process that had already been delayed for at least two years due to the advisor's negligence?

Schlupp said...

In addition to what nicole said, another aspect is that getting funding and advising students is a professor's job. Do we feel grateful to the people who build roads for us? Better persons than me perhaps yes, but I consider it their jobs, for which they get paid. So why should students feel grateful to their advisors? And I do not know that many professors who are grateful to their bosses for doing all that administrative stuff. (I know 2.) On the whole, sensible professional behavior seems a better idea to me than gratefulness toward one's advisors.

Emily said...

Yeah, they're just "kids" - who are probably about 30 years old.

Anonymous said...

I cannot believe anyone would publicly thank their pets at any kind of professional event. Go home and hug your pets. That's all the thanks they need or want. Anything more leaves people wondering where your brain has gone.

vodalus said...

I have to say that not thanking one's advisor is (to me) more evidence of the difference between book-smart and life-smart. I thank that sounding sincere whilst thanking the person who pays for you is probably a 30 seconds well spent, especially if you chose to thank people at the start of your talk. Do you want to go into your exam with your committee thinking that you're an ungrateful wretch? Especially when you can end on a high note of noble gratitude for scientific opportunity.

Aceon said...

I agree that it would be churlish in most cases to neglect to thank your advisor. My department is on the informal end of the spectrum and the defense usually involves an introduction by the advisor including amusing field work photos of the candidate, and/or embarrassing excerpts from their grad school application. The candidate reciprocates by good natured ribbing of the advisor during the thank you section after the talk. A good time is had by all (usually). It does present abundant opportunities for poor judgment to get you in trouble though - more so even than the opportunity to effusively thank your pet turtle.

Billie said...

I have to disagree with schlupp. Even if one part of a professor's job is to fund and advise students, not all professors perform this part of their job to the same degree.

I know of some supervisors who barely fund their students, do not spend much time training them, and berate them at every opportunity. I also know of other supervisors who are very generous with their funding (and their time), give praise, and also give constructive criticism and work hard to train their students.

I believe that the latter type of supervisor deserves the proper thanks/acknowledgement for their work, even if "it's part of their job."

Schlupp said...

billie, yes but all professor expect the formal thank you. Which, mind you, the students should give, because that's professional behavior. And please leave out the pets. And I am thankful to my bosses, I just don't quite understand why. We don't expect gratefulness from normal employees (so much) or undergrads, then why is it expected from grad students?

Candid Engineer said...

Thanking pets? Woof.

At my grad institution, we had a departmental seminar in addition to a defense. This is where I took the opportunity to thank my advisor and the members of my lab.

FSP says: I am not advocating that students get all sloppy-thankful at their defense about how much their advisors have done for them.

Hmm... This is probably the direction in which I erred. I am well-aware of all of the effort my advisor put into advising me, and I am extremely grateful. But I carried on too much, and he turned beet red. I still feel bad about this, but I guess it was better for my advisor than not being acknowledged at all.

PhysioProf said...

Well, that's special, of course, and it is more fun to thank your friends than your professors, but it makes me think that even successful, reasonably non-paranoid students have no idea how much time their advisors spend on activities that directly benefit the student, and how much support they have gotten from their advisors over the years.

This is absolutely true, both for grad students and for post-docs.

billie said...

schlupp, I heartily agree about not thanking pets.

I do think that a professional thank you is appropriate for professors. In cases in which the professor went the extra mile, I think that that should be acknowledged.

We don't expect gratefulness from undergrads, but we also don't put the same amount of time and care into working with each and every undergrad. I don't think that it should be expected that every grad should be profuse in expressing thanks to a supervisor, but I also don't think that it should be assumed that no thanks is necessary because "it's their job."

I think that I am thinking of "giving thanks" as being analogous to tipping. It is the job of the server to serve your food and do that job well. If the person does a terrible job, then they receive a terrible tip (or thanks). If the person does a superb job, however, then that person also deserves a good tip.

Anonymous said...

I feel quite strongly that people should save the thank yous for the end for when the presentation is over. In my Ivy where I went to graduate school, we just posted our thank you slide with everyone's names listed with minimal commentary and then went into the question period.

I don't see why students need to go into detail in the formal presentation. If they want to say thanks, why not do so in person?

Doctor Pion said...

Personal thanks like you describe (during the defense seminar) were unheard of in my Grad U physics department and I don't recall seeing them elsewhere. The committee has already seen the written version (although I do recall one case where some extra pages were slipped into the final copy), so what is the point? The talk was always a professional one where actual collaborations were the only thing that was mentioned, and then at the start.

The defense is supposed to be about what you know, not who you know, and you are supposed to be the world's expert on your topic. Get to it. You only have a half hour or an hour to summarize it all.

You thank your friends a different way, with a party.

To bsci: If *most* students pass, that means they were prepared but *some* were not. If *all* students pass, it is just an exit talk. I have seen students fail.

NeuroStudent said...

In my department it seems to be more the norm to over-thank at the end of the public defense (this is followed by a private defense with the committee), then again, I think that some students in the department over-thank following a regular talk too (i.e. interview talk...some have practiced in front of me and I was surprised to see the mention of other people besides the committee, collaborators, and lab members mentioned). I tend to get very awkward with my thanks and am more scared of that portion of my defense than any other (I know, weird)...I'm afraid that I'll forget someone...or say something horrible accidentally. Argh, the pressure!!

Dr. Jekyll & Mrs. Hyde said...

Hmm, I guess my department is on the loose end of things. Every thesis defense I've attended included a thank-the-parents-friends-and-spouse portion (in addition to a thank-advisor-and-committee section). It seems reasonable enough to me. After all, the advisor got you through grad school in many ways, but the support network got you through grad school in many others.

Then again, our defenses are largely formalities.

Siz said...

The people I've seen who thank their pets are usually the people that received PhDs that myself and others felt they should have never been awarded.

Coincidence? I dunno.

LauraT said...

different Laura here, now going by "T". Our department and defenses is/are fairly casual, so I've seen acknowledgments across this spectrum. My personal view is that the pillars of emotional support for this individual's possibly biggest lifetime achievement thus far (Ph.D., big deal right) should be thanked. Briefly and with a smile rather than tears, hopefully. It is uncomfortable for the audience to see a scientist at the cusp of Dr-hood break down (and I have to note that females are the only ones I've seen cry, though I've noted no difference in type of thankyous between the genders).

As to advisors' contributions, that can be sticky because certain advisors are better at some things than others, and the student may or may not need or understand certain contributions. Some advisors are great with funding but not with feedback; some vice versa... hopefully a mature student can appreciate the best of what s/he's got.

neurowoman said...

One's advisor can be just a boss (cares that you get the job done) or he/she can be a mentor (puts effort into your professional and sometimes personal development so that you can move on to bigger and better things). A thank you is nearly always required; a mentor deserves gratitude. How that gratitude is expressed depends on the local culture.