4 tips for creating the perfect dissertation title
(Last updated: 12 May 2021)
Where do you start?
In this blog, we will highlight some of the ways to better develop the “best” dissertation title. Drawing on our own experience, here are four of our tried-and-tested tips for getting the best possible title, so you can focus on the other stuff that matters.
1. The Name Game
While it might not seem like the most vital issue while you're working through mountains of data, choosing a title for your dissertation still leaves many confused, whether they're working on their undergraduate project or even their PhD thesis. The “right” dissertation title isn't simply a line or two of text which crowns the printed document; it has an important role to play in signalling to readers what you're attempting to do, how you're going to do it, and why it might be important.
Like any good book, a dissertation title should “grab” your attention, convincing you to read more. Titles are difficult to conceive because, in only a handful of words, they must condense the entire scope and objectives of a project that has lasted months and includes thousands of words of subtle argument. The fear – for many - is of how to reduce 10,000 words to less than fifty.
2. Make it relevant
Say you're writing a dissertation about the role of a particular plant within an ecosystem, or attempting to use primary historical data to explain why an event may have happened in the way it did. You want to ensure that you are being crystal clear about your subject matter, the key “players”, and the overarching themes. At the same time, there are different rules for different subjects; humanities essays may be more expressive and exciting, whereas scientific dissertations may need a drier and more direct tone.
In all cases, you can be direct about this; use adverbs such as “how” or “what” to make it obvious you're asking a question of the data, rather than simply writing at length about a subject. You want to make it clear that you're asking a specific question, or interrogating a particular idea or theory. You may write, “Testing the propagation of electromagnetic waves through a vacuum”. You can specify further; “How do electromagnetic waves propagate through different mediums?”. Again, you can specify further still; “How do electromagnetic waves propagate through three different brands of jelly?”.
What this title does is;
(a) ask a question;
(b) make it clear what is being studied;
and (c) allude to the “how”, the methodology.
After reading it, we understand what the rest of the pages are about. Specifying is a key way of guiding the reader toward understanding what the rest of your project is about.
3. The Goldilocks Zone
That being said, it's important to ensure you don't over-extend the question; too short and it becomes mysterious (“On Waves”), whereas a dissertation title that is too long can become confusing and bogged down in technicalities. Many, especially in the humanities, utilize a three-part structure, often using three key words to define their field of study (e.g., the history of urbanization or the development of post-war continental philosophy). For example, “Iron, Labour, and Communism: the formation of new industrial cities in the Soviet Union”. This question uses three key terms to show that the dissertation is going to look at the interrelationship between key themes, of natural resources, work, and politics, through the lens of urbanisation in the USSR.
There's room to specify a little further, perhaps by defining a date range: “Iron, Labour, and Communism: the formation of new industrial cities in the Soviet Union, 1929 – 1937”. This creates a very clear signal to the reader about what you're looking at and also, crucially, when. But it's also not too long.
4. Anchor your writing
We have already alluded to key words; these represent a way to “anchor” your writing within particular areas of study and debates. By using key terms such as “labour”, in the context of a question about the Soviet Union and industrial politics, we automatically understand the angle of approach and its considerations. We know it's not a dissertation about the technicalities of mining engineering. We also know that it happened in the past.
Above, we talked about “propagation”; this lets us quickly identify the scientific principle being examined. It also lets us know that this is a dissertation about physics. Every word in a title should be doing something; it should be helping to ask a question, highlighting a methodology or way of “doing”, or defining the area of examination. The other parts of speech are only useful in so far as they connect these key parts of the question.
Every dissertation has a “how” component. In other words, it has a technique or methodology for gathering data, interpreting it, and producing conclusions. This might entail close-reading of a literary text; the scientific measurement of energy; or the examination of historical sources. The methodology is important because it lets the reader know what you're going to be doing before you fully say it. For example, “Using X-rays to identify broken bones". The reader can understand ahead of time whether this is a qualitative dissertation or a quantitative dissertation; of whether it is theoretical or practical. The writer may define the dissertation as theoretical by stating that they are examining a particular theory (“Revisiting Einstein's Theory of Relativity”) or by observing that they are using new, primary data (“A qualitative analysis of attitudes toward vegetarianism”).
"You should see the title not as an unnecessary piece of baggage, but as a kind of product label which informs the reader how to categorize it"
You should see the title not as an unnecessary piece of baggage, but as a kind of product label which informs the reader how to categorise it. Mention specific techniques if relevant (e.g., the propagation of photons through optical fibre). A common problem is that people are too descriptive, only stating a field (“The lives of peasants in late medieval France”) without pointing out what they're actually asking, and how. Better would be to say, “The lives of peasants in late medieval France: an archival study”, or “Understanding the lives of peasants in late medieval France through church records”. Not all projects will need to state the methodology; this is mainly a consideration for those undertaking technical, science-based projects or when using very specific frameworks and models (e.g., a particular kind of psychological test).
Simply put, you're pointing out several things:
(2) how; and ideally,
Communicating the significance of your work is perhaps the hardest part, but you can certainly allude to it. By saying you're attempting to “understand” the lives of people through unique, historical records, you're demonstrating a high level of granularity and a potentially unique approach to a particular subject of study. You can also highlight the significance of the work in the dissertation title by referring to what alternative views it has opened up. For example, “Developing a new technique for measuring long-bones”.
And so, while titles are not the “be all and end all” of a research project, they play a key role in defining what it is, and what it is not. While you may know the subject and methodology of your work, your reader does not. Ultimately, creating the perfect dissertation title is about helping that reader to understand all of the hard work and effort you have put into your project, and convincing them to read on.