Creating a good dissertation title

Why Good Dissertation Titles are Like Making Love…

The advertising giant, David Ogilvy who was known for promoting the use of long copy in advertising, used to say that long copy was like making love, as long as you have something to offer, keep going. His philosophy was that people who are interested in a product or service crave information. Or as he put it, you can use short, clever copy to sell a candy bar but the audience for a Cessna Citation will want to know more, a lot more.

Although many people think advertising is about as far away from academia as it’s possible to get, advertisers spend billions of dollars a year coming up with the perfect headlines for their print and online advertising. That should count for something. Use these tips from the advertising world to come up with the perfect headline (I mean title) for your dissertation.

Allow for alliteration. Everybody knows what alliteration is. The most common uses of alliteration from our childhoods are
Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers” and “She sells seashells by the seashore,” although I think the second one was an example of a tongue twister not alliteration. defines alliteration as the “repetition of the same consonant sounds at the beginning of words that are in close proximity to each other. This repetition of sounds brings attention to the lines in which it is used, and creates more aural rhythm.” I’m not sure what “aural rhythm” is but points out that writers from Beowolf to Shakespeare used alliteration to create it, aural rhythm that is.

Advertising has long used alliteration in headlines. A Journal of Advertising article, “The Use of Figures of Speech in Ad Headlines” by James H. Leigh ( provided an analysis of 2183 print ad headlines and found that figures of speech, including alliteration, are used in many if not most of the ad headlines.

  • EXAMPLE: Problems With Partnerships at Work: Lessons From an Irish Case Study

Assonance assists in readership. We loved that the nuns let us use this word at St. Stanislaus Catholic School when I was growing up. What rebels!  Also from, assonance “refers to the repetition of vowel sounds in close proximity.” says that “Assonance examples are sometimes hard to find, because they work subconsciously sometimes, and are subtle. The long vowel sounds will slow down the energy and make the mood more somber, while high sounds can increase the energy level of the piece.” Hmmm…increasing the energy level of a dissertation – not gonna go there.

  • EXAMPLE: “I lie down by the side of my bride”/”Fleet feet sweep by sleeping geese”/”Hear the lark and harden to the barking of the dark fox gone to ground” by Pink Floyd. (

Oops, here’s a relevant example of assonance: The Affect of Mobile Performance Support Devices on Anxiety and
Self-Efficacy of Hospital Float Staff

Consider consonance as a literary device. Here’s a fun example from “A skunk sat on a stump. The stump thought the skunk stunk. The skunk thought the stump stunk. What stunk, the skunk or the stump?” Consonance refers to the “repetition of consonant sounds in close proximity.” It sounds like alliteration, sort of, but the difference is that consonance doesn’t have to be at the beginning of the word; it can be at the beginning, middle, or end. That makes alliteration a type of consonance except it’s only the beginning of the word or stressed syllable. (TMI? Nodding off?)

  • EXAMPLE: Consequences of the Psychological Contract for the Employment Relationship: A Large Scale Survey (the hard “c” in consequences, psychological, and contract)

Bigger is better. In advertising, the headline is often used to make big claims (new, improved, better, faster, cheaper, easier). In dissertation titles, bigger can mean a large scale survey or meta-analysis or simply a big idea.

  • Example: Eyes Open Wide: Thinking About Race and Broadening Perception to Combat Racism by Louis John Camilleri (sometimes bigger means a big concept…In this case, changing thinking about race to combat racism)

Use colorful words. In advertising, words are used to create a mood, to create an image, to initiate action. That action in dissertations translates to someone sourcing or reading your dissertation. The more colorful words you can use in your title the more citations you’ll get. Some words are more colorful than others. The example uses the words “dynamic” and “conflict” to create interest. The author could have chosen “changing” instead of dynamic which isn’t as strong or “discord” for conflict. Go to to search for more colorful words for your title. (But not too colorful; it is a dissertation after all.)

  • EXAMPLE: The dynamic nature of conflict: A longitudinal study of intragroup conflict and group performance

Use the shortest words possible. There’s something about dissertations and dissertation titles that brings out the verbosity (verboseness?) in people. Advertising headlines often use the ERF (Easy Reading Formula) to ensure concise headlines. Here’s how ERF works: You assign a point for every consonant and try to keep it to as few points as possible. Try it. It’s kind of fun to shave points. That means “utilizing” gets four points and “using” gets two points. That means you can save your points for point-suckers like “phenomenological.”

  • EXAMPLE: Analysis of Leadership Perceptions Using Multi-rater Feedback (notice “using” instead of “utilizing although the author could have substituted “leader” for “leadership” saving two more points…I’m just saying).

Play to your strengths. If you tie two things together that nobody expects to tie together, go for it. Look at your topic and using the example below, you wouldn’t expect to see “musical responses” and AIDS together.

  • Example: Musical Responses to AIDS: Meaning and Signification in Two Works for Solo Piano by Robert Savage and Kevin Oldham. (Note: The author could have used “significance” instead of “signification and saved one whole point.)

You don’t have to start with the title or headline. Sometimes the headline emerges from the scintillating body copy or a subhead works better as a head. Start with a working title and go from there. Lots of times the working title turns out to be the best title anyway. So if someone says, “What’s your dissertation about?” you tell them what it’s about and that ends up being your title.

  • EXAMPLE (from my own dissertation): Working title: Why women leaders opt out. Final title: The Combination of Five Factors That Lead to Women Leaders’ Decision to Opt Out of Their Senior Leadership Position (Note: I was able to add the “combination of five factors” after I completed my research. The “opt out of their senior leadership position” clarified that they weren’t retiring, only leaving their positions.)

Look at buzz words and trending terms. Copywriters in the advertising world are always aware of the latest buzzwords and trends. I started my career in advertising and marketing (after earning a master’s in Journalism I immediately sold out to the highest bidder!), and every year my girlfriend and I decide which buzzwords we’re not going to use that year. One year it was “leverage,” another was “traction,” and there’s the all-time favorite “24/7.”

  • EXAMPLE: Mentoring Women Faculty: An Instrumental Case Study of Strategic Collaboration (strategic collaboration is about as timely as it gets and mentoring is resurfacing as an industry trend, too).

Go global. Like real estate, dissertation titles are often about location, location, location. If your dissertation has an international component, use it in the title.

  • EXAMPLE: Barriers to Internet banking adoption: A qualitative study among corporate customers in Thailand.

Target your audience. The example dissertation title is a narrow enough title that it identifies the target audience by topic “networking” and “marketing strategy” and size “small community businesses.” You could also target your audience by geography, methodology, timing (longitudinal), gender, or myriad other target marketing options. (Notice the use of “myriad” as an adjective. It is never “a myriad of.” One dissertation chair kept changing it on a dissertation I edited and was getting increasingly salty about her comments about how the “editor” was ignoring her changes. I finally sent my client the rule on the use of the word “myriad” to pass along. Never got an apology for the salty comments.)

  • EXAMPLE: Networking as marketing strategy: A case study of small community businesses.
  • EXAMPLE: Substance and Mediation: Towards a Critical Hylomorphism of Media. (Since no one knows what “hylomorphism” means – Metaphysical theory that studies being as substance of matter and form…not sure what that means either, the use of the word in the title really, really narrows the target audience.)

Dr. Kat

Fun, fast, experienced, reasonably priced dissertation editing, coaching, and therapy.

©2016 KathleenJCannon

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