What is the title of your dissertation? Make sure it’s not too good

It may be the only bit of your thesis that most people will read, but do not waste your best title on your PhD, says Zachary Foster

November 20, 2017
PhD

“What is the title of your dissertation?”

That was the subject line of an email that I received exactly three weeks before my dissertation defence date. My title would be the only words most people would ever read, and yet I had no idea how to choose one.

How could such an important decision be left so much to chance? Asking around, a few colleagues confirmed that the choice is often made haphazardly. “I can’t recall how I decided to choose a title for my dissertation. It just kind of happened,” a colleague told me. 

The only advice that I heard through the grapevine was that I’d better save the good title for the book. That way, when I go to a university press with my revised dissertation in hand, I can demonstrate all the strenuous effort invested in “turning my dissertation into a book”. After all, I even changed the title!

Although it seemed strange to purposely deter people from reading my dissertation, I was suddenly in a pickle. I needed to know what the good title was so as not to accidentally choose it for my dissertation. 

Malcolm Gladwell was offered a $1 million advance for his book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things can Make a Big Difference. I’m assuming that a publisher spending that much on a book knows how to craft a compelling title. And, indeed, the title smacks me in the face. What do you mean little things make a big difference? You just said that they were little, how big of a difference could they make?

Gladwell also managed to distil a really big idea into two simple words, “tipping point”. Meanwhile, he left us hanging off a cliff: what makes for one?! The only way to find out is to shell out $10.70. 

Yuval Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is another provocative title. The history of Homo sapiens is definitely not “brief”. How could you possibly condense so much history into a single book? And yet that is one of the great insights of the book – that big history is not about narrating a lot of facts, but rather connecting “a lot of dots”, as actor Tom Hanks recently put it in a glowing review of Sapiens.

And why call us sapiens? We are people!

And yet, by using the word “sapiens”, Harari hints at another key theme of the book: to understand our success as a species, you need to go back many tens of thousands of years to a time when most scholars indeed refer to us as Homo sapiens. Harari and his publishers clearly did something right: in addition to Hanks, the book has collected endorsements from Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Barack Obama, transforming Harari from a scholar of medieval European military history to a public intellectual par excellence. 

Nancy Etcoff’s Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty is another textbook example of a brilliant title. I thought that it was the “survival of the fittest”? What do you mean prettiest?

Also, by the way, beauty isn’t scientific, Dr Etcoff! Everyone knows that beauty is in the eye of the beholder! Or is it? No surprise that the book made it to a second paperback edition and was reviewed by the who’s who of book reviewers. 

James B. Stewart, former Wall Street Journal editor, offers some wonderful advice on how to devise great titles. Ironically, the title of the book in which he offers the advice, Follow the Story: How to Write Successful Nonfiction, doesn’t heed his own advice. Of course you should follow the story. It’s common sense to follow the story. What am I going to learn in Stewart’s book that I don’t already know? The title may be succinct, but it doesn’t bother me.

Good titles need to bother readers. Good titles should also convey a story rather than a topic. “Topics are inherently boring, because they pose no questions and incite no curiosity,” Stewart writes. And yet anyone who has spent enough time browsing through the titles of academic publications knows that topics, not stories, predominate. 

The economist Michael C. Munger offered some great advice on how to find the story in the topic. He recommended that authors conceive of their work as an answer to a puzzle. “These three things seem different, but they are all the same. Here’s why. Or: theory predicts A, even though we observe B. Here’s why.”

So, go looking for your story, just make sure to not waste it on your dissertation.

Zachary J. Foster received his PhD in Near Eastern studies from Princeton University in 2017. He entitled his dissertation The Invention of Palestine

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