Thank You for Listening

The Female Science Professor is musing about thank-yous at thesis defenses:

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 am completely baffled by the idea of having a long and emotional acknowledgment section in a thesis defense. In the thesis, sure-- mine runs two pages (space-and-a-half)-- but not in the talk. That'd just be freaky.

But then, I'm somewhat baffled by the idea of acknowledgments in talks generally. Not recognizing the contributions of co-authors and funding agencies-- that, you have to do-- but having a separate slide for noting all the people who helped out with the project at one time or another.

This is extremely common among the students I see giving talks, along with a "References" slide including a list of bibliographic citations in eight-point font. I've always wondered where these come from, because I had really never seen either before getting here.

Standard practice in my little corner of physics is to list co-authors and funding agencies on the title slide, and acknowledge them up front. I start nearly all of my talks off with a boilerplate "No experimental physics project succeeds without the cooperative effort of many people, and here are the students who have contributed to this over the years..." Then you go into the body of the talk, and end with a summary/ conclusions slide.

This seems to be fairly common among physicists generally, though I do sometimes see it reversed, with a group photo or something toward the end.

I'm always faintly annoyed by the "References/ Acknowledgments" ending, though. For one thing, putting up a slide with a list of references serves no purpose that I can see-- in order to fit on screen, the citations need to be in a microscopic font, and the slide is usually throw up for about as long as it takes the speaker to say "Here are some references..."

Use that three seconds for something else. I don't need to see that you've pored through the library, or at least the bibliography of the thesis of the previous student on the project. If you took specific ideas or figures from other people, acknowledge those on the slides where they appear, in a font big enough for people to read, and skip the rest.

And ending with a "Thanks to Bob for playing Frisbee with me on nice days..." slide just distracts everybody from what you were talking about. I've seen too many talks where students spent more time thanking faculty, staff, and labmates than they spent explaining their data slides. Don't waste my time as an audience member, particularly not at the end of the talk.

If you want to acknowledge other people (and you better), do that at the beginning. End your talk with a summary of your key results, and leave the summary up during the question period. It helps remind people what you accomplished in your research, and provides a hook for questions, sparing us all the awkward silence after the session chair says "any questions?" while people try to remember what the hell the talk was about.

I suspect that this is a partly a disciplinary issue, like all the biologists who keep insisting that lab reports must be written in the passive voice. The chem and bio students I see talking uniformly have the References and Acknowledgments at the end of their talks, while only some of the physics students do this (and not twice, if they work for me...).

As far as I'm concerned, though, the only thing worse than ending with a list of labmates and funding agencies is ending with an otherwise blank slide headed "Any Questions?"


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I think the 'refrences' slide ends up being something where someone can say "Hey, this is an intersting topic, where would I look for more information?" and you can give/email the powerpoint and they have the refs there. I don't know if this is specific to certain fields or not.

It may also just be something people do because everyone else does it, or as a way to say "Look how hard I researced for this talk."

In biochemistry talks I have seen the standard is to end with acknowledgments. A few started with the thank you's. The main thrust of ending with the acknowledgments was basically to sell certain grad students/post-docs. Basically, all this cool stuff was done by X and this other great stuff was done by Y (hint, hint-might want to grab them as a post-doc or faculty member). It is usually only one slide that takes a minute or two. Audience members not having questions has never been a problem.

As for thesis defense, my grad department has the grilling pre-public seminar. The public seminar thus becomes a celebration of your thesis work. When done like that, I think a slide acknowledging your family & friends is appropriate with the caveat when presenting keep in mind your audience and don't bore them (i.e. don't go on for too long).

I have never seen anyone have a reference list. References were as you have described. A list is just silly.

What irritates me in seminars is when the speaker puts up an acknowledgments slide at the end of the talk with 25 names on it, and proceeds to spend the next 5-7 minutes detailing what each person did.

By BiophysicsMonkey (not verified) on 21 May 2008 #permalink

Standard practice in my little corner of physics is to list co-authors and funding agencies on the title slide, and acknowledge them up front.

In my field, there are often too many to fit on the title slide, so they go on slide 2, but otherwise we handle it the same way.

As far as I'm concerned, though, the only thing worse than ending with a list of labmates and funding agencies is ending with an otherwise blank slide headed "Any Questions?"

Ending with a slide that says "Thank You" (which I have seen more than once) is at least as bad as "Any Questions?"

you can give/email the powerpoint and they have the refs there

Sometimes, when I end up with too many slides for the time allotted, I will shift some less important slides to the end of the PPT file so that they are available if someone asks a question for which that slide would be relevant (it is common practice in my subfield to skip back or forward to a slide that will help illuminate the answer to a question someone is asking). While I could see including a references slide as part of this material, I agree with Chad that you should never show a references slide during your talk--if you are showing somebody else's work, give the citation on that slide. End on the Summary slide (and the summary should fit in one slide without shrinking the font--this is another of my pet peeves) no matter what.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 21 May 2008 #permalink

I have seen lengthy oral acknowledgments in dissertation defenses and I agree it doesn't seem to fit.

The migration of credit-giving from the end of the talk to the beginning seems to occur around the 3rd or 4th year of grad school, as paper-writing training gives way to a grown-up scientist sensibility.

My PhD advisor makes an art of acknowledging his students. When he has a major talk, he will start out by giving the names and current location or destination of the 1-3 students and postdocs who have collaborated on the work. Then throughout the talk he references papers published about the work, repeating the names of the coauthors. I think this gives some context to the work, publicizes the papers, and lets people know if a paper is about to come out. I also think the repetition helps familiarize people with his students' names, which can't be bad.

Re: the reference slide - students are trained to do that, or at least I was.

As an undergrad/high school student, we had countless assignments of the form "research topic X, make slides, give presentation to class". The slide deck was the primary (or only) written output from these assignments, and the instructors grading them wanted to ensure that we hadn't simply reformatted the Wikipedia article, so they generally insisted on a reference slide.

It's a generational quirk, methinks. One we'll hopefully grow out of, as I never liked the "and here's some!" business either.

In defense of chemistry... The vast majority of the talks I see use an acknowledgments slide at the end. I am also baffled by the references slide. Once in a while we have students who include one, but we never let them get past the practice talk stage.

You'll be glad to know that passive voice in chemistry journals is changing. You can see this by doing searches at the ACS journal website using typical passive constructs - the search results show that fewer authors are using them now than earlier.

I just defended my dissertation (two weeks ago), and I come from a rather small department. The acknowledgments slide(s) was the one, best chance I had to thank publicly all of the faculty, friends, and students who made a big impact on my graduate school years. Our department is small enough and we all get along well enough that I think it would come off as a bit of a slight if I didn't spend a minute or two to do this. Of course, this is completely different from the situation in a regular departmental seminar or a conference talk. And I agree that references don't normally belong as their own slide - ack!

In all though, it probably comes down to departmental/university culture - the defenses I've been to in physics and biomedical engineering are pretty serious and sparsely-attended affairs (the latter is inexcusable, if you ask me!).

Neuroscientist here. The standard for talks seems to be (when PI is giving the talk) naming the students/postdocs who did certain things while discussing the data that they contributed, and also listing them on the Acknowledgments slide at the end. Sometimes this slide will have a lab photo with everyone labeled, or just a list of lab members, collaborators, and funding sources. I can't think of a time when anyone spent more than a minute presenting such a slide, and I'd say 95+% of talks end this way.

When I was in grad school, the format was always to have an Acknowledgement slide at the end of the talk. This was standard-fare in my field (Microbiology and Immunology) and even visiting lecturers seemed to follow the same format. Once I began work where I do now, mostly with Engineering and Environmental Science-types, the co-authors of the talked about projects go on the title slide and there is no "Acknowledgement" slide. I'm fine with either way. I have never seen a "Bibliography" slide. I was always taught that the text on the slide is primarily for you (the person giving the talk) so the text should be minimal and be used to jog your memory as to what you plan on saying. The people attending the seminar should be focused on you and what you're saying ... not gawking at lots of text, tuning you out so they can read. If I had ever made a slide as a graduate student with 8 point font my adviser would have mocked me to no end ... sort of like what he'd do when he'd count the Ah's and Um's during my practice seminars so that I'd work on eliminating them before the "Big Day".

I'm in cancer pharmacology/cell biology and took a page from the late Judah Folkman: I put photographs with names at the end of each section of my talks to acknowledge those who actually did the work.

A short acknowledgments slide should reiterate these names without necessarily going over them and absolutely positively note the funding agency and grant mechanism, especially when giving a national/international talk where program officers are likely to be present.

This is extremely common among the students I see giving talks, along with a "References" slide including a list of bibliographic citations in eight-point font. I've always wondered where these come from, because I had really never seen either before getting here.

Here here. I regard those as utterly pointless. You can't read them and if you want to know more, you should go talk with the speaker afterwards or read the paper in the proceedings. I always recommend removing such slides and I never include them, unless there's a very good reason.

The only correct way to close a talk is with a summary. If the talk ends with an "Any Questions" page, my question would be "Where is your summary?" pr "Could you put your summary back up, please?"

I have never seen a seminar or defense with any personal thanks at the start with the exception of one type: summer REU students thanking everyone, but usually just the adviser and other members of his/her group. IMO that is unprofessional.

Concerning the more specific question of the talk at a defense, at my Grad U no one would have dared put references up at the end of the talk for a simple reason: One particular prof would have asked the candidate a very specific question about the contents of one of those papers to find out if you had read it. Since he had an uncanny ability to single out the phrase or comment that indicated some big gap of knowledge that had been papered over with buzz words, you only had to see this happen once to be very careful what you put in your thesis or on the screen. "I forget what so-and-so said in your reference 5 about the efficacy of cross-threaded titanium widgets in your kind of experiment. Could you refresh my memory?"

If the references all have the student's name on them as author or coauthor, then its OK to show them at some point, but you still better know what is in them.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 21 May 2008 #permalink

I did have a rather long set of acknowledgements - spilling over onto a second slide in fact, and nine pages in the thesis proper - at the beginning of my thesis defense. It was standard in my department for a couple of reasons. First, because unlike the talks we gave, there were no co-authors on a defense, making this the only time to thank the folks you did collaborate with, and there's a lot of them. Second, it was a good way to ease into the defense, both calming down the speaker and allowing the stragglers to get settled in or people to grab a little extra food without missing the introductory slides. And lastly because as the joke goes, about a third of your audience was only there to see their names put up there; they either knew too little about your field to follow the talk or worked so closely they already knew the data.

As for your other complaints, I'd occasionally throw up an acknowledgement slide for funding sources at the end - usually on the same slide as the conclusions - to avoid cluttering the title slide. (Trojan condoms once approached my advisor about funding our research. I was seriousy entertained by the idea of putting them up at the end of every talk, but alas, he decined.) Never references though. If I do use someone else graph in an introductory or explanatory slide, there will be a footnote on the slide itself, and I'll mention the name as I'm speaking.

I do think the reference slide is a function of the fact that your students today were doing Powerpoint reports in middle school. Having judged a middle school science fair-esque thing that encouraged Powerpoint, I've learned that when you ask 12-year olds to work with the program you get a presentation that looks like it was made by a 12-year old. (Sparkles. Animation. The horror.) And since when you ask a middle-management type to put together a presentation you also get something that looks like it was designed by a 12-year old, well, I weep for the future sometimes.

And of course, the great irony about the "Any Questions?" slide is that I most often encounter it in talks by foreign students at conferences who have learned the English version by rote, and are completely incapable of answering any question you might actually have.

Thesis defence in Sweden is slightly different. It is the opponent that presents the thesis, not you, so it is clear how they understood it. Then you do a rebuttal to his presentation about anything he's missed or misunderstood, and that segues into the main debate or question and answer section. Once that is over (and this takes an hour or two, normally), the floor is opened first to the committee members and then to the general public (and there's always a few people in the audience with offbeat questions).

Nowhere is there room for any kind of personal statement or thank-you's; it is all focused on the thesis (which is after all what is being evaluated, not you). The thank you speeches come either after the the committee returns from deliberations and announces it's decision, or at the party you throw later.

Good gracious but you must have serious issues to turn something as irrelevant and arbitrary as where one puts one's Acknowledgments slide into a boorish point about how fantastic physics is and how inferior chemist and biology students are.

although I suppose the fact that you only acknowledge co-authors and funding sources because you "have to", presumably instead of because you are eager to do so, tells us 'bout all we need to know.

By Mike Taffe (not verified) on 21 May 2008 #permalink

I think when word has been passed on which of these things absolutely must be passed on (say, the NSF funding officer being pissed that the NSF wasn't thanked, or such), you might do well to remember acknowledgements. It does happen.

Slides often get distributed, either as powerpoint or as pdf, and possibly online. This makes it critical to include a reference slide, for people who weren't there or who couldn't hang around to get more info after the talk. The problem is whether the person is showing them; the reference slide should be held in reserve along with other slides covering extra material should it be useful for answering questions or talking with people afterwards.

In many areas (e.g. gov't agencies or the private sector) references are included since the attendees are given copies of the briefing materials (and a defense would be considered a briefing).