Of all the things you’ll do while writing your Master’s dissertation or PhD thesis, picking a title might not seem that important. On some levels you’d be right: nobody has ever earned a degree on the strength of a good title alone!
Nevertheless, it’s worth putting thought into what you’re going to call your final piece. You only get one chance to make a good first impression, after all, and the title will be doing the impressing.
As such, a good title should be clear and informative, providing your reader with what they need to know the moment they look at your work. Here are a few things to keep in mind.
1. Topic and Focus
The most important thing the title of your dissertation should communicate is what you’re actually writing about. This can be broken down into a topic and a focus.
The topic of your research is the general area you’re researching. The focus is the specific thing you are investigating within that field.
In an essay titled ‘International Business Expansion: Innovative Strategies for Smaller Enterprises’, for example, the topic of the research is international expansion, while the focus is on how new strategies can help smaller companies to achieve this.
2. Research Approach
Since the research approach you adopt will have a major impact on the design and results of your study, it can be helpful to include this in the title.
For example, if the essay above relied on an in-depth case study, the title could be amended to ‘International Business Expansion: A Qualitative Analysis of Innovative Strategies for Smaller Enterprises’.
3. Research Outcomes
Including a reference to the outcomes of your research can give your reader a better idea of what to expect. Unlike a good murder mystery, you don’t have to keep your reader guessing until the end!
For instance, rather than calling an essay ‘International Business Expansion in Smaller Enterprises’, you could use the title, ‘Success Factors for International Business Expansion in Smaller Enterprises’.
This immediately communicates the aim of your research: i.e. to discover the factors which influence the success of business expansion.
4. Clarity, Focus and Format
Long or obscure titles can leave your reader confused from the outset. This should be avoided by trying to make your dissertation title clear and focused.
One way to do this is to ask someone else – your supervisor, course convenor or fellow students – to check your title. It is also best to avoid acronyms and abbreviations unless they’re in common usage.
5. A Bit of a Laugh?
There aren’t many times you can fit jokes into serious academic research, but a humorous title can make your work stand out. However, remember that clarity is most important. If you want to add a joke to a title, it should not detract from communicating what your work is about.
Every PhD dissertation requires a title, and a good title can have a profound effect. The title is the very first part of your dissertation to be read by your committee members and examiners, and it also serves as one of the primary ways in which readers interested in your topic will be able to find your dissertation in a library catalogue or online search, so your title should be as informative, engaging and elegant as possible. According to the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA), ‘a title should summarize the main idea of the manuscript simply and, if possible, with style’ (2010, p.23). It should inform your readers about the main topic and nature of your dissertation; it might mention the methodology, location and subjects of your research; it could specify the variables or theoretical issues you investigated and the relationship between them; and it will often indicate what you have discovered. An effective title is worded in an interesting and eloquent way that provides the necessary details with precision, and the vocabulary you choose may also bear relevant nuances and allusions.
However, titles are usually best if they are as short as possible, so it is essential to be concise as well as informative. Some style guides, universities and departments set strict word or character limits on titles – the Publication Manual of the APA (2010, p.23), for instance, recommends limiting a title to 12 words or less – and since titles are used by search engines, words that do not specifically relate to your research tend to be extra baggage that does no real work in gaining you an audience. There are, then, good reasons to avoid all unnecessary words in your title: adverbs and adjectives are rarely needed and should be used sparingly and to maximum effect, while words such as ‘study,’ ‘methods’ and ‘results’ are often extraneous. In some cases, however, a title that identifies the type of study or the specific methodology used in a dissertation may be required, usually as a subtitle along the lines of ‘A Qualitative Study’ or ‘A Randomised Trial,’ so it is important to check university and department guidelines and discuss your title with your supervisor and committee members if you have any doubt about what is appropriate for your dissertation.
Notes (whether footnotes or endnotes) should normally not be attached to titles, and it is wise to avoid abbreviations, although standard abbreviations or those better known than the full versions they represent are usually acceptable: few dissertation committees, for example, would expect you to use ‘intelligence quotient’ instead of ‘IQ’ in your title. If you find that you absolutely must use abbreviations in your title, consider carefully whether they will be familiar to the readers you anticipate. Indeed, all the terminology you use in your title should be appropriate to your expected audience, and highly specialised terminology should only be included if it is the most precise way in which to communicate the necessary concepts and will likely be used by potential readers when they search for material on your topic. Be sure to punctuate your title correctly and effectively, and to use capitalisation consistently. If a running header (or footer) using a shortened form of the title is needed in your dissertation, the words for the shorter form should be chosen carefully so that they retain and emphasise the key elements of your complete title.
Your title may contain only a very few of the many words in your dissertation, but it ultimately needs to represent that dissertation perfectly, professionally and attractively, so consider seriously all suggestions on the part of your supervisor and other committee members, and be prepared to revise and refine your title as your dissertation progresses.
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