It’s a common enough thing, the dissertation defense. The seats are packed with students and faculty members, many of whom you haven’t seen in months. The air is crackling with excitement and anticipation. Today is the day that the student—your classmate, your colleague, your friend—becomes a doctor, and everybody knows it.
The head of the student’s dissertation advisory committee stands up, introducing the proceedings and announcing the terms of the defense. Sure, it’s a reminder that you’re technically watching part of an exam, but this bit of formality does nothing to diminish the joyous atmosphere in the room. Then the PI stands up and introduces the student, sometimes with complete sincerity, other times accompanied by embarrassing photos of the student, yet always delivered with an undercurrent of gratitude. You laugh easily, because jokes, even bad ones, are always funnier when spoken in celebration.
And then, finally, the student stands up. They thank their mentor and begin speaking, their voice growing with confidence, first describing their research broadly, comprehensively, then diving deeply into their findings. You stare wordlessly at the presentation, wondering how in the hell you’ll ever produce that much polished, publication-worthy data over the coming months (or years). Then the conclusions, the future directions, the suggestion of experiments that everyone knows the student probably won’t do because, after all, today is transitional. Today is the day they become a doctor.
Then, finally, the acknowledgements. Thank you, they say, to the core facilities and their lab members and their collaborators; and thank you to their mentors and their committee members; and thank you, most of all, to their friends and their family and loved ones. The slides are filled with pictures of smiling, happy faces, some of which you recognize but all of which clearly represent someone special, someone significant, someone irreplaceable.
Sometimes, at this point, the student becomes emotional, fumbling over prepared words while the audience waits patiently, expectantly. The student, and everyone in that room, comes face-to-face with the realization that this moment is the culmination of years of work, of countless successes and failures, and that today, this very day, is the day that the student finally becomes a doctor.
Yes, it’s a common enough thing, the dissertation defense. But to me, the acknowledgements will always be special. They offer a unique, behind-the-scenes glimpse into the student’s personal life, something that’s never publicly shown. For the first time, the dispassionate façade of the scientific presentation crumbles, and we are all witnesses to the complex, red-blooded emotions that accompany this experience of graduate school.
With the acknowledgements, we are shown photos of get-togethers and vacations and late nights spent drinking, all those necessary moments that, in aggregation, shine a spotlight on the actual person behind the research. Because ultimately, the dissertation defense isn’t about celebrating good science but celebrating a good scientist. We formally recognize someone deserving of the title of doctor, someone who will use that doctorate and will, in their own way, following their own path, somehow improve the world.
I’m thankful for any opportunity to humanize my work. At the risk of appearing tautological, I want to formally acknowledge acknowledgements. Someday (hopefully someday soon!), when I’m giving my own dissertation defense, amid the complicated graphs and the embarrassing photos and the overwhelming sense of relief, I’ll be excited to show my appreciation to all those people who have supported me throughout graduate school. Because those are people who, on that day, will have transformed my common enough thing into something truly special.