The Art of the Thesis Title

Imagine you’re a journalist, and you’ve been asked to write a headline for a news story about the opening of a new park. You’re told to ensure that the headline grabs attention and encourages readers to read the article. Oh, and your headline also has to indicate where the park is, and what kind of facilities it offers. But it can’t be too long. Plus it has to distinguish this story from other stories about other park openings. Oh, and it has to make the story easy to find through a keyword search. Don’t forget to make your headline fit the standard tone of the newspaper! Are you stress-sweating yet?

Choosing the perfect title for your thesis is just as complicated – except the stakes are even higher. Your months or years of research will be read (or not) depending on how you advertise your work in your title.

Ideally, a thesis title should:

  • accurately represent your complex research
  • be attention-grabbing
  • be concise
  • fit the tone of your academic writing, and
  • be easy for non-experts to understand
  • feature search-friendly keywords
  • give some indication of your unique findings or perspective
  • be appealing to readers, both within and outside your field
  • adhere to your chosen style guide (i.e. it should follow the rules of capitalisation and grammar set out in APA / MLA etc.)

With so many factors involved, it’s a wonder anyone ever manages to write their title. However, there are a few ways to get started.


Identify your critical keywords

In this age of databases and keyword searches, careful titling is more important than ever. For example, Google Scholar prioritises title words over abstract words when determining the relevance of an article in its search results. If you want your work to be discoverable, you’ll need to pack your title with keywords that will elevate it in database search results.

Think about what your audience will search for, and think about the words that best represent your work. (These words should appear throughout your thesis.) Write them down, and use them to build your title.


Consider your title format

The basic structure for a thesis title is: Main Title of Thesis: Subtitle Conveying Additional Detail.

However there are many variations. Another popular option is: Attention-Grabbing Phrase: Topic Description and Indication of Findings.

Then there’s always this format: Question About Subject?: Indication of Research Leading to Answer.

Some thesis titles eschew the subtitle altogether, opting instead for one descriptive phrase.

Play around with different formats, and decide what suits your research.


Do more than just describe your subject

So you’ve researched the materials used in medical equipment in Victorian England. You might be tempted to title your thesis Materials Used in Medical Equipment in Victorian England. That title does contain a lot of keywords, but it doesn’t give any indication of your unique contribution, findings, or perspective. Here’s a good litmus test: would your title sound right for a textbook? If so, it’s probably too generic for a thesis.


Run the title by your supervisor and your mum

Finding a title that is both appealing to experts and comprehensible to laypeople is incredibly challenging. Before you settle on a title, run it by a few members of each category. Ask some experts (such as your supervisor) to give their feedback. Then ask some laypeople (such as your mum, BFF, dentist, etc) for their feedback. If both groups get a reasonable idea of what your thesis is about from the title, you’re probably on the right track.

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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