Creating a Perfect Thesis or Dissertation Title

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.
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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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