NEW POST | Thomas Bray

For reasons which shall remain between me, my sister, and that kind woman who was selling daffodils near Peterborough, I have recently been reading lots of acknowledgements. It is an inspiring kind of activity, leafing through these pages so often written in the warm but exhausted afterglow of the main body of the thesis. Someone once told me that it takes a village to raise a child (it certainly takes a village to raise a barn), but I notice that it also seems to take, well, maybe not a village, but certainly a decent-sized hamlet to complete a PhD.

There are a handful of people who routinely receive thanks during the acknowledgements. Although it may be a little difficult for some readers to swallow, supervisors usually take pride of place at the top. Many PhD-penners linger on how wonderful their supervisor was at the end, how they nurtured them through the final few steps and helped them see the light, the argument, the point of days upon weeks upon months spent pouring over manuscripts and test-tubes. This, I realise, quickly becomes the point of supervisors: they may not be a specialist (or at least not THE specialist) in your field, but they are another pair of eyes, and they have seen people through the process before. Their experience is there to be drawn upon, and this seems to be of the utmost importance in the final stretch.

Significant others are also a common touchstone in the acknowledgements, usually for putting up for the absence of their partner. It is difficult, I am politely informed, to share someone with the strange abstract figure of the PhD, not least when you do not understand it. I always remember how my father, a sculptor by disposition, would disappear to his workshop for hours at a time, telling us only that he had to ‘try something out’. I was reminded of this moment when I was staying with my sister in London, and I decided, apropos of very little, that I had to spend a few hours at a local library, ‘trying some books’. An old friend of mine whose significant other has just moved in with her whilst completing a doctorate tells me that she routinely finds him sat at the kitchen table, the dishwasher half-loaded, while he mutters to himself, ‘Let A tend to P(x), does this hold for values of P’(y) and R (px)?’. We are a strange bunch, and the people with whom we share house-pets, bathrooms, and grocery bills may have to accept this without great reason.

And then there is that group of friends who should know better, the colleagues, the fellow students. These too often find themselves the objects of gratitude, for ideas fostered over drinks in anonymous pubs, for emotional support and for reading first drafts when they were under no obligation. We troop through the forest of postgraduate life with these people at our side, and what is most notable is that we traverse these planes of plain frustration together, hopefully taking and giving inspiration along the way. I have been especially reminded of this after seeing a number of my academic fellow-travellers submitting, and this gives me hope that one day, when pigs fly first-class and pots of gold are dumped at the end of rainbows, I too shall place my thesis on the anti-climactic pile at University House. I have spoken on this blog before about how the people who inspire you may never know, such is the culture of keeping appreciation and praise to ourselves, but the acknowledgements give us all a chance to name and shame those who have helped us make breakthroughs without the hassle of breakdowns.

I guess what I am trying to say is that we don’t need to save acknowledgements for the Acknowledgements. Rather, we would do well to make it clear when we are thankful for the presence and input of others. It can be very difficult to know when you are helping those undergoing a severe strain of ‘chapter-brain’, as has been my recent ailment, so we need to make it known. Sometimes I need my family to bring me back down to earth, and sometimes I need to vent about the histrionics of History-land. Likewise, sometimes I need to run new ideas by old friends to make sure that they are not just so much bunkum, and on other occasions I need them to put a glass in my hand and say, ‘Wahey! Let’s get this party started!’. Cue much dancing and the aching of footnotes. Acknowledging our own needs as researchers may be the best thing which we can do for those around us, helping them to help us. And then when we come to write the final pages of the PhD, and the page of appreciations beckons, we can simply write, ‘To everyone, for everything. You know what you did.’ And, with any luck, they will know.

Photo Credit: Chris Piascik/ Creative Commons