The unexpected
poetry of PhD

Not many people will read your PhD thesis, but if you completed your doctoral research at the Australian National University College of Science, then Tabitha Carvan has probably read one small part of it.

What she found is a kind of poetry in the science.

This multimedia essay was produced by the ANU College of Science Communications Team:

  • Written by Tabitha Carvan
  • Editorial assistance: Olivia Congdon
  • Illustrations and design: Amanda Cox
  • Multimedia: Nic Vevers
  • Digital production: Ilario Priori

Embarking on a PhD is a treacherous task for even the most bold and brave of this world, and yet here I sit, writing my way through the final hoops of this life-changing experience.

James Beattie

The statistics of magnetised interstellar turbulence (2024)

For a reason I can no longer remember, I started picking science theses at random from the Australian National University library catalogue and reading only the acknowledgements.

The acknowledgements are my favourite part of all my thesis.

Nian Jiang

Growth and characterisation of GaAs/AlGaAs core-shell nanowires for optoelectronic device applications (2016)

This part of the thesis is the one that I was most looking forward to write.

Jorin Diemer

A mathematical model of ion homeostasis in the malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum (2022)

Once I started, it was very hard to stop.

Sometimes I found myself reading them at home, on my own time, always thinking, 'Just one more.'

If you, the reader, are a PhD candidate, you should know that not everyone’s doctoral experience is the same, but I found mine quite challenging.

Zac Cranko

An analytic approach to the structure and composition of general learning problems (2021)

I don’t think it’s overstating events to say that at the end of my PhD I find myself a rather different person than when I began (and not only because of the ravages of time).

Elizabeth Krebs

Breeding biology and parental care of the crimson rosella (1999)

All the acknowledgements followed the same basic structure; they're formulaic. But as with many formulaic things, there's a story behind each one.

I read hundreds and hundreds of acknowledgements.

The production of a dissertation is a formidable, arduous and demoralising task.

Mahyar Bokaeeyan

Analytical and approximate methods in rogue wave theory (2020)

I came to see that the acknowledgements of a PhD thesis are their own kind of thing.

The rest of the thesis contains careful, reasoned findings and figures, but on this one page, the author-scientist can release all the pent-up emotion they couldn’t express elsewhere.

They’re like an explosion in a lab.

When looking at the acknowledgements of others, I have found it is common practice for scholars to reserve their purplest prose and most overblown sentiment for their acknowledgements. If I had the skills, I would do so myself.

Martin Worthy

A history of fire and sediment transport in the Cotter River catchment, southeastern Australia (2013)

I have to laugh as I recall certain fatigue-driven moments of internal melodrama, usually after long and unbroken spells of intense laboratory work, wondering how on earth I was going to singlehandedly manage this project to completion.

Jenna Roberts

A multi-disciplinary assessment of endocrine disrupting chemicals, pharmaceuticals and personal care products in Australia's largest inland sewage treatment plant and the Molonglo/Murrumbidgee effluent-receiving environment (2015)

This thesis is of you, and it belongs to you, as do I.

Zain Mehdi

Superfluid dissipation and feedback cooling in ultracold atomic gases (2024)

Acknowledgements have a quality which is hard to describe.

They feel like they’ve been drafted a hundred times in the head of the author, but then put down on the page in a hurry, the clock ticking on their deadline.

Like, they’re trying to tell you the most important thing they’ve ever said - at the very moment the ship is pulling away from the dock.

Tibor and Jena, Elisa and James, how can I express how much all your love and support has meant to me?

Allie Mokany

Resilience and resistance of ephemeral aquatic ecosystems to environmental change (2006)

Finally I thank you Kat, for being the only thing that really matters.

Jevon Longdell

Quantum information processing in rare Earth ion doped insulators (2003)

The urgency of the task, combined with its enormity, makes it seem almost impossible to complete.

Truly, I could never find the words to thank you for your support. There are so many of them and they catch in my throat even just thinking of them, and make it ache.

Inez Harker-Schuch

Using 3D serious gaming interventions to promote climate science literacy in the 12-13-year age group (2021)

At this point, to describe the thankfulness I want to express only seems to make it seem smaller than it really is, because words can only do so much.

Matthew Crabb

Nonlinear wave patterns in the complex KdV and nonlinear Schrodinger equations (2022)

Many people find themselves lost for words at this critical moment.

It’s frustrating for scientists to not be able to accurately represent their data.

For all that Tim has done to shape me into the person and the scientist that I am today, ‘thank you’ seems so embarrassingly simple and utterly inadequate to convey the depth of my gratitude to him. I truly hope I have done him proud.

Ponlawat Tayati

Molecular wet adhesion (2015)

I cannot begin to describe their level of kindness and generosity for which they – being the good souls they are – have expected nothing in return.

Ryan Kirk

Synthesis and coordination chemistry of the arsacyclopentadiene ligand (2023)

In some ways, this section of my thesis is the hardest to write, and also the most important.

Sandra Ann Binning

The effects of biotic and abiotic factors on fish swimming performance (2014)

But even an English literature student would surely struggle with this writing project.

Within this generic format, you need to deliver an outpouring of love and gratitude on the scale of a wedding vow.

And then throw in the inside jokes of a 21st birthday speech, the teary-eyed reflections of a eulogy, and the celebration of a birth announcement.

It takes a village to raise a child and this PhD is as close to bearing a child as I’ll likely ever come.

Rachael Gross

At a crossroads: African elephant conservation, climate change and community-based management (2023)

He has had to live with me and the emotions that go with a PhD and has stood steadfastly by me encouraging me to the bitter end, though I’m sure he would like to know just when the demonic banshee moved in and I checked out.

Trudi Wharton

Biology and ecology of Essigella californica (Essig) on Pinus radiata D.Don. in Australia (2005)

There are many people who come in and out of your life and who make a difference. There are deaths and births; there is despair and joy.

Jennifer Metcalfe

Rethinking science communication models in practice (2019)

Thanks also to Moira, Zoë and Brad for tolerating my existence.

Michael Duglosch

Cross-coupling chemistry as a tool for the synthesis of diverse heterocyclic systems and natural products (2019)

Tom, few supervisors can say that their students have nearly killed them and mean it literally. Thanks for everything.

Iain McConnell

Substrate interactions in the Photosystem II water oxidising complex (2008)

Select the flasks to reveal more quotes

But in this, the most unscientific part of a PhD submission, you also see how the science is done.

No matter how impenetrable the thesis title, the project’s success always seems to come down to the same simple thing: other people.

Thank you to those individuals who donated their own teeth to my study, and to the late great Professor Colin Groves, who eagerly donated a dugong tooth for a laser ablation Sr standard, and then eagerly donated a second one when the first one went missing.

Hannah James

Adventures in archaeological science: an exploration of oxygen and strontium isotopic variability on a micro- to macro-scale (2021)

To Banak Gamui, I thank him for purchasing a roll of fishing line and a pair of gloves for the parrot project, and for which I never paid his money back.

Paul Igag

The conservation of large rainforest parrots: a study of the breeding biology of palm cockatoos, eclectus parrots and vulturina parrots (2002)

These are advanced research projects, using high-tech equipment and sophisticated analysis, and yet the thing which is acknowledged, again and again, as if it’s of equal, if not greater, importance is conversation.

Just, you know, talking.

I would like to thank Dick Henley for his unrelenting enthusiasm for volcanoes and magmatic gases.

Dominique Tanner

In situ mineral geochemistry as a guide to ore-forming processes (2014)

I am thankful for Jim’s patience (especially with my typos), his discussions, his time, and his open-mindedness to my sometimes unusual ideas.

Larissa Huston

The high pressure phase transformations of silicon and germanium at the nanoscale (2019)

Laurence was very supportive about my interest in thrips even before I had a thrips project, and I will never forget some of the conversations we had in his office.

Brian Garms

Native insects as a framework for understanding potential impacts of exotic species (2014)

Thanks for letting me barge into your office whenever I came across problems with the micro-PL system and simply answering ‘I’ll be right there.’

Nian Jiang

Growth and characterisation of GaAs/AlGaAs core-shell nanowires for optoelectronic device dpplications (2016)

Thank you for patiently listening to my long conversations on Sonogashira reactions and sharing my frustrations when I couldn’t grow crystals.

Chriso Maria Thomas

Construction of porous supramolecular frameworks assembled from covalent cage compounds (2021)

Sometimes just having someone to listen to me when my research was at a stumbling block was all that was needed to find a solution, and I thank David for his patience and time in this regard.

Janet Pritchard

Linking fish growth and climate across modern space and through evolutionary time: otolith chronologies of the Australian freshwater fish, golden perch (Macquaria, ambigua, Percichthyidae) (2004)

Thank you to the friends who simply knew not to ask.

Sarah Tynan

Interpreting environmental change using bivalve shell geochemistry (2017)

After a while, I stopped dipping into the theses from before the 1980s.

Back then, acknowledgements were a business-like thank you to supervisors, collaborators, funding bodies, and typists.

Still, I’m sure there are stories in there too.

I wish to thank Professor J .C. Eccles for acting as supervisor of this research.

Rosamond Eccles

Physiological and pharmacological investigations on synaptic transmission in sympathetic ganglia (1955)

Finally, I thank Mrs Barbara Geary, both for her excellent typing and also for her willingness to accept, and ability to decipher, the manuscript drafts of the thesis.

John Groves

Varieties of soluble groups (1971)

Mrs Barbara Geary for her work in typing this thesis.

Yu Kiang Leong

The CREAM Conjecture and certain abelian-by-nilpotent varieties (1972)

For her excellent typing I thank Barbara Geary.

Langdon Harris

Varieties and section closed classes of groups (1973)

I particularly want to thank Mrs Barbara Geary for her excellent typing of this thesis. She has endured many awkward changes and revisions without complaint, and has transformed my messy drafts and redrafts into a beautifully typed manuscript.

Abul Kasem Muhammad Masood-ul-Alam

The topology of asymptotically Euclidean static perfect fluid space-time (1985)

Now, there are no limits to who, or what, you can thank.

Finally I wish to acknowledge the work of Dave Grohl who provided a fine soundtrack for much of this PhD study.

Andrew Sullivan

Competitive thermokinetics and non-linear bushfire behaviour (2007)

I would also like to thank the various astronomers who forgot to collect their desserts from the fridge over the years (they were not wasted).

Roberto Soria

Accretion processes in black-hole binaries (1999)

Thanks to my dog Tonks for the joy and cuddles.

Catherine Ross

Bringing back the bettong: reintroducing ecosystem engineers for restoration in Box-Gum grassy woodland (2020)

Shout out to my friends on and off Stromlo, for their patrician taste in hot pot and KFC.

Jane Lin

Galactic Archaeology: the Milky Way in the context of large scale surveys (2022)

One of the most-repeated phrases in the acknowledgements is:

“I could not have done it without you”.

Every time I read it, I believed it to be 100 percent true.

Finally, thank you so much to my amazing family for their love, especially my wife, Maansi Joshi. You are my shining light, my daily inspiration and I could not have done this without you.

Geoffrey Kay

Scaling the benefits of agri-environment schemes for biodiversity conservation in agricultural landscapes (2016)

Finally, to Mum, your courage is inspiring. You may think I am the rock in the family, but I could not have finished my PhD without you.

Samuel Drew

Explorations in polyene chemistry (2015)

And finally to my beautiful wife, Jing, I could not have done this without you and I cannot wait to spend the rest of my life with you.

Roger Coulston

Cyclodextrin nanomachines at work (2009)

A PhD takes at least three years, and often many more, during which life necessarily goes on around you, or without you.

The cost is very real.

If you are in the lab, then you are not at home with your family. If you have relocated for your studies, you won’t be having home-cooked meals.

Six years is a long time.

Philip Palma

Laser-induced fluorescence imaging in free-piston shock tunnels (1999)

As their only child, my parents never stopped me from pursuing my dream. They unconditionally supported me to continue my study in Australia. Even if it means that I have to be thousands of miles away from them.

Kun Peng

III-V compound semiconductor nanowire terahertz detectors (2016)

And thank you for picking up the slack with house chores whenever I was bogged down with lab work – I know I was the reason you bought that Roomba.

Lauren Harrison

Sex and conflict: How competition shapes reproduction, behaviour and life-histories in various animals (2022)

And sometimes, life will simply come at you, whether you want it to or not.

First, I want to acknowledge that the last year of my PhD, 2020, has been exceptionally hard for everyone. I am incredibly grateful for being safe and healthy.

Raktima Dey

Understanding historical and future changes in mean and extreme rainfall in Australia (2020)

I am grateful to all the persons who have helped me recover from the fire that devastated the observatory and destroyed my house at Mount Stromlo (at a very delicate moment of my thesis too...). I will remember everyone who shared those days with me, so full of tragedy but also of hope and all the best human feelings.

Marilena Salvo

How good are type Ia supernovae as distance indicators? (2020)

Finally, to our baby, ‘Bubbles’, whose gentle kicks have reminded me I haven't been alone in the final months of this thesis. But, Bubbles, if you can just sit tight for a few more weeks so that Mum and Dad can have a rest we'd be very grateful.

Kelli Gowland

Investigations into the phorophyte and fungal relationships of three epiphytic Aeridinae orchid species in southeastern Australia (2008)

I’m sure there are detractors behind many a thesis, but in the acknowledgements, they only exist by omission.

And if the whole experience was an ordeal? Thankfully that’s now in the past.

Here, on this page, it’s a perfect world.

There’s no-one to blame and everyone to thank – including baristas.

Mum, you once told me I could do whatever I set my mind to, I told you that was a cliché, and you said, ‘Yeah but for you it’s actually true.’ Well here you go, look at the trouble that attitude has led to.

Thomas Loan

Cell lysate as a platform technology for biocatalytic synthesis and nucleic acid amplification (2020)

And of course to my parents, Andrew and Margaret; my foundation, my teachers, my wings.

David Blair

Comparisons of vegetation recovery post-fire, logging and salvage logging in the Victorian Central Highlands (2019)

Finally, to my parents: this may have all started when we visited the Sydney Observatory one birthday and saw the marks of Shoemaker-Levy 9 just spinning into view on the disk of Jupiter, but it was your love and support all these years since that made it possible.

Michele Bannister

Bright trans-Neptunian objects in the southern sky (2014)

This thesis happened because my family and good friends believe in me.

Jo Leen Lim

Protein engineering of Escherichia coli β-glucuronidase (2017)

Doing this thesis required considerable amounts of coffee. I want to recognise Luke, our Barista in the Little Pickle Café, for the excellent coffee and the funny attempts to learn Spanish.

Claudia Munera Roldan

Narratives of adaptation for future-oriented conservation (2017)

I thank my mother, Dr K. Lalitha for being the person I aspire to be. I wish I could be half person you were. Words can’t express how much I miss you…

Mayuri Sathyanarayana Rao

On the detection of spectral distortions in the CMB: recombination to reionisation (2017)

Select the coffee cups to reveal more quotes

Why wouldn’t you want to read ‘just one more’?

You are all precious like stardust.

Dominik Koll

A 10-million year time profile of interstellar influx to Earth mapped through supernova Fe-60 and r-process Pu-244 (2023)

Who wouldn’t want to extend their time in such a world just a little bit longer?

This small family, including our cats, Molly and Jesse, is my true treasure.

Xilin Lu

Light-matter interaction models: symmetry and non-hermiticity (2023)

And to Louise, thank you for everything. I don't know how you do it.

James Hennessy

Modifying enzyme catalytic pathways (2009)

I wondered how many of these acknowledged loves endured, not to mention how many scientific or academic careers.

But for now, on that page, the author knows nothing of what the future will hold.

So long and thanks for all the coffee!

Samantha Burgess

Geochemical ecology of temperate corals (2007)

They are frozen in this moment in time between an ending and a beginning.

YES!! After a looooooong journey, I've finally done it! YES!!

Yi-chi (Candace) Tsai

Oxidative behaviour of O-methyltyrosine and p-methoxyphenylglycine derivatives (2007)

It is the best moment.

It seemed as though the day that I would type these acknowledgements would never come.

Amy Constable

The emergence, formalisation and evolution of biodiversity offset use in Australia (2022)

But at this point, looking back over the mountains you climbed and the valleys you crossed, you realise your motivation came from the people around you. That is why we have an acknowledgements section.

Liam D Bailey

Between the devil and the deep blue sea: consequences of extreme climatic events in the Eurasian oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus) (2016)

It’s the moment when it’s done.

I am overwhelmed. I have finally completed this milestone, three and a half years of my life culminating in this body of work.

Andrew Shafik

5-methylcytidine has a complex, context-dependent role in RNA (2017)

It will take me the rest of my life to repay you for your patience, support, encouragement, dedication, and sacrifice.

Richard Turner

Avian life histories in a changing world: combining remote sensing with long-term monitoring of the superb fairy-wren Malurus cyaneus in Australia (2023)

Thank you, again and again.

Yi-Yang Chen

The nature and significance of 'macroalgae-epifauna-invertivorous fish' trophic links within a macroalgal-dominated reef ecosystem (2022)

I’m done.

John Dawson

Satellite radar interferometry with application to the observation of surface deformation in Australia (2008)

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Doctor of Philosophy
Degree program

During the PhD program you will work with increased independence, under the direction of a supervisory panel of experts in the field. Your research will make an original and important contribution to human knowledge, research and development.

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The unexpected poetry of PhD acknowledgements
News video

We asked scientists to revisit their PhD acknowledgements. Watch the video as they reflect on that momentous time in their lives.

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Hands throwing papers into a firepit

The tradition of burning their PhD thesis has been handed down from student to student at Mount Stromlo ever since the 2003 bushfires.

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